Dubya's First 100 Days

The early months of George W. Bush's Administration will dish up some critical tests, and America will be watching closely

By Richard S. Dunham

The strangest Presidential election year in more than a century is over, and the Bush family is preparing to return to the big white mansion from which it was evicted eight years ago. This time, the Big Bush is not "Poppy" but the son he has mischievously dubbed "Quincy" (after the last father-son Presidential tandem, John Adams and John Quincy Adams).

What kind of White House odyssey will 2001 bring? Here are 10 things to watch for early in the new Administration that will foreshadow how calm or bumpy the ride ahead will be for President George W. Bush:


  When it comes to delivering a speech, George W. Bush isn't in the same league as his predecessor -- or a man he reveres, Ronald Reagan. His "victory" speech at the Texas Capitol was delivered haltingly, and it was very obvious the President-elect was reading from a teleprompter. Two early tests: his Jan. 20 inaugural speech and his first address to a joint session of Congress, probably in the next two months. It's important for Bush to improve his communication skills. In case of an economic slide or a foreign policy crisis, the 43rd President will need to reassure Americans and persuade them to follow him.


  Forget about those pesky lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The most important Beltway power George W. Bush must win over is Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. It might take a little time. Greenspan often had a strained relationship with the first President Bush, and many a Bushie has blamed the Fed boss for Dad's defeat in 1992. If Greenspan hadn't waited so long to cut interest rates back then, Bush Senior never would have lost, the theory goes.

What's more, Greenspan and President Clinton have enjoyed more than a few White House wonk-a-thons on American and global economics -- something the second President Bush is unlikely to copy. But George W. can be charming in person. He'll try to convince Greenspan to give a wink and a nod to a big tax cut in 2001. An early test: Will Greenspan say publicly that a tax cut could spur economic growth? If Greenspan remains silent as the tax battle rages on Capitol Hill, it's bad news for Bush.


  The 2000 election may be over, but Bush's defeated primary rival, Arizona Senator John McCain, isn't going away. Indeed, he's vowing to make campaign-finance reform the first showdown in the new Senate. It'll be a major test of Bush's political skill. Not only does the next President oppose McCain-style campaign reform but he desperately wants to start his Administration with some early, bipartisan victories. If Bush can't slow the McCain juggernaut on Capitol Hill -- or reach a quick compromise -- it'll be a sure sign of weakness that both Democrats and right-wing Republicans will seize upon. And McCain is still lurking as a possible challenger in 2004, should Bush falter.


  Watch for congressional Democrats to try to kill Bush with kindness. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and House Minority leader Dick Gephardt will keep telling the new President how they want to work with him on a bipartisan basis and how they're happy to meet him "halfway" on every important issue. Problem is, they'll say, those nasty right-wing Republicans are standing in the way. Democrats will want to split the difference with Bush. Hill Republicans will want to give the Democrats crumbs and call it "bipartisan." If Bush can't manage to close the deals with Daschle and Gephardt -- or if he fails to crush them in early legislative clashes -- he could look ineffective and ineffectual.


  Since Bush's father broke his no-new-taxes campaign promise, Dubya can't afford to back away from his own tax pledge. That means he'll be obliged to propose a 10-year tax cut in the range of $1.6 trillion. Even the most loyal Republican on Capitol Hill knows it won't become law. But Bush needs to fight the good fight, then compromise on a smaller tax package eventually. His challenge: to choreograph this tax-cut ballet in a way that doesn't get panned both by Republican tax-cut zealots and middle-class voters.


  Early in the Bush Administration, it's quite possible TV news crews will be staking out a federal courthouse to catch a glimpse of Monica Lewinsky. Yep. That woman! Ken Starr is gone, but his successor is still deciding whether to pursue criminal charges against Bill Clinton for his testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit. President Bush could end the tawdry spectacle with a pardon of his predecessor. It would win him immense good will among Democratic loyalists -- and probably royally tick off some conservatives. But it's the kind of tough decision that Presidents are paid to make.


  There's something else President Bush could do with his predecessor. He could name him a special envoy to the Middle East. Unlike former President Jimmy Carter, who has sometimes freelanced on global missions, Clinton would likely follow instructions from the White House. He's trusted by Palestinians, Israelis, and other Middle East players. And it would give the ex-President something to do other than attending meetings of the Senate Wives Club.


  An early triumph in the Middle East would help burnish Bush's credentials on the world stage. Another possibility: an historic accord with North Korea. The Clinton Administration is close to concluding a breakthrough agreement with the insular, Communist dictatorship. Colin Powell & Co. should be able to conclude it. With an early international triumph or two, Bush's stature should increase -- and that would help him in the eyes of cynical Europeans, many of whom now view him as Bush Lite.


  Corporate America is eagerly awaiting the new President. But Bush must balance his own probusiness inclinations with America's increasing demand for consumer protection. That means Bush could pursue a path of regulatory relief and softer antitrust enforcement -- but not at the risk of consumer health, safety, and privacy.


  James Watt may be gone, but he's not forgotten. Ronald Reagan's controversial Interior Secretary gave Republicans a reputation as anti-green that hasn't yet been shaken. Bush wants to reverse the Clinton Administration's wilderness-preservation and go-slow-on-energy-exploration policies. But he and his designated Interior Secretary, Gale Norton of Colorado, can't afford to be seen as Watt clones. By the same token, incoming Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman, New Jersey's current governor, must play an important role as a pro-enviro counterweight. It'll be a delicate balancing act.

Bush will face dozens of other big challenges in the years to come. But as Bill Clinton learned when he started his Administration with the gays-in-the-military fiasco, first impressions can be very important. So, here's to the first 100 days of 2001.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for Business Week's Washington bureau. Follow his views twice a month in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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