- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001


A new presidential administration, much as a baby's face, is unblemished and lacks well-defined features. And, just as a blunt elderly uncle may note an incipient weak chin in the infant, or a set of eyes curiously reminiscent of the gardener who was hastily let go last Christmas so we Washington hands look for evidence of a presidency's pedigree and eventually defining features.
The Bush presidency is one month old this week, and the hunt is already on. Before its birth, the presence of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Jim Baker loitering in the hospital waiting room led people to assume that this was to be a replay of the first Bush presidency. But after a few Cabinet appointments were announced, the consensus shifted to a Ford presidency restoration. In the last fortnight President Bush's breezy, straightforward style and conservative policy announcements have suggested to some that this begins to look more like a Reagan presidency.
But it is reductionist and vaguely insulting to see George W. Bush's presidency as a copy; this is shaping up to be an original production defined by his unique personality and instincts.
Mr. Bush's first and most obvious feature is that he has grabbed the reigns of power with both fists. No president since Harry Truman was thrown into the cauldron of World War II has acted so quickly and decisively on foreign policy as Mr. Bush did in Iraq last week. And no president since FDR, or perhaps Mr. Reagan, has so promptly laid out so bold a domestic legislative agenda.
His second striking feature is his disinclination to flinch. Indeed, he is downright insouciant. When he introduced low-and-middle-income beneficiaries of his tax cuts to the White House press corps, he was asked by a particularly churlish reporter, "Who represents the rich?" With only the briefest pause he cheerfully responded: "I do." What a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
But there is one early cause for concern: Mr. Bush seems to want to constipate information. In his campaign, only Mr. Bush and three or four top aides knew anything worth knowing. This extremely tight information control worked wonderfully in the campaign context. There were almost no leaks, and rigorous message control. But the U.S. government is so huge an enterprise to strategically manage, that a half-dozen able senior aides working 14-hours a day seven days a week can't possibly know enough, in time, to provide adequate analysis and counsel to the president.
An early example of this problem occurred two weeks ago when Mr. Bush's decision to initially stick with Bill Clinton's defense budget (a decision heartily endorsed in this space last week) was so closely held that the violent Republican congressional reaction to the decision was not accounted for.
As a result, the president had to spend two days amending that announcement with assurances of prompt increases in military pay and other personnel support costs. Had the circle of knowledge reached those members of his staff with the best knowledge of Hill attitudes, he could have avoided the negative reaction. This was a small and quickly fixed problem, but it is suggestive of bigger problems in the future.
There is, of course, a tradeoff between more broadly disseminated information (and the inevitable alerting of opponents) and tighter message control. But over time, a wise president will trade some secrecy for better feedback. The siren songs of secrecy tend to draw ships of state onto the rocks.
The handmaiden of secrecy is microanalyses. And, while Mr. Bush appears to be a wise delegator, his White House staff is keeping a very tight reign on agency hiring. A number of Cabinet secretaries have already been heard to privately grumble about a White House bottleneck on approval of sub-Cabinet appointments.
Finally, almost all new presidencies automatically are inclined to do the opposite of the previous one. Depending on who they are following, and what features they are reacting to, this can be a mistake. The Bush White House is no exception. Because the Clinton White House had a large staff with hundreds of detailees from the agencies, Mr. Bush has announced his determination to keep his staff lean. This is silly and counterproductive.
Notwithstanding popular campaign rhetoric, every president eventually finds that he needs more staff. Rather than go through contortions for years trying to live by this ill-considered policy, Mr. Bush should promptly reverse it and hire as many people as he needs to run the country and lead the world. The bad news is a one day story; adequate staff will be a help for 8 years.
Ultimately, along with judgment, it is the disposition of a president that tends to shape not only his government, but the national politics. We have reason to be hopeful. At the end of Mr. Bush's presidency, it may well be said of him as it was once said of President Eisenhower that: "It was [his] gift to draw others into the circle of his good will and to modify their attitudes."
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