- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Successful leaders need to be armed with optimism and self-confidence. No merely realistic person could face the inevitable burdens of high office without them. So, as the new year starts, I take my hat off to the president-elect. There may be storm clouds gathering, but George W. Bush seems genuinely cheerful and confident as he prepares to take on the responsibilities of president. He will need every bit of those positive thoughts, because 2001 is shaping up to be a formidable year.

By any measure, this has not been a particularly exuberant Christmas and New Years. Christmas sales were down, consumer confidence has been dropping since May, only 12 percent of the public still thinks the economy is excellent, the NASDAQ is down about 50 percent, and, logically, by 5-4 the public thinks the economy is getting worse. Executives, employees and consumers all seem to be bracing for a recession.

In the political realm, Al Gore's postelection, 36-day vote challenge has left a deep scar on Mr. Bush's public standing. Only 68 percent of the public thinks he will be legitimately president. That is a shockingly low number. While I don't find any record of that question even being asked before prior presidencies, one usually sees approval ratings for the president-elect soar into the 70s or 80s prior to the swearing-in. Presumably the perceived legitimacy rates in the past would have been near 100 percent.

It took seven years and the collective weight of all Bill Clinton's scandals and crimes to bring a third of the country to support his impeachment and conviction (and presumably to see his survival in office as illegitimate). But before even taking the oath of office, George Bush has the same illegitimacy rating as the much-soiled Mr. Clinton. Al Gore has dug George Bush a deep hole from which to start his ascent.

And of course the same Democratic Party leaders who cheered on Al Gore's wounding, postelection efforts are impatiently waiting to maul Mr. Bush's Cabinet nominees. The race card will be played hard and early against former Sen. John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, while Colorado Lt. Gov. Norton's nomination as interior secretary will force Mr. Bush into a politically damaging environmental fight before the new president has had a chance to develop in detail his environmental program. At a recent Washington Christmas party, a senior Democratic operative cheerfully told me that dirt and possible conflicts of interests are being dug up on even the less controversial Cabinet nominees. The Democrats want to draw maximum blood from Mr. Bush before he gets his sea legs.

Meanwhile on the Republican side of the aisle, Mr. Bush's dear friend Sen. John McCain is spoiling for an early fight over campaign-finance legislation. That fight will inevitably create angry divisions amongst Republican senators whose teamwork Mr. Bush will need desperately if he is to get anything done in the Senate.

It is a truism of American politics that new presidents get tested early by both their friends and their enemies. President Reagan faced an early air traffic controllers strike. Mr. Reagan passed the test by firing the lot of them. Bill Clinton got tested on his gays in the military initiative, which he failed by first lurching too far forward and then falling too far back. Both friends and enemies judged him to be too malleable. By Valentine's Day, both President Bush's spine and judgment will have been tested. If he doesn't pass those early tests, it will be a long year indeed.

But the biggest test may come in the realm of foreign and military policy. Mr. Bush has put together a powerful foreign and defense policy team perhaps too powerful. The triumvirate of Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld (plus Mr. Bush's formidable father on occasion) are all men of exceptional judgment, experience and self-confidence. The problem for Mr. Bush comes, as it does to all presidents, when his top advisers disagree with each other. That situation is called a Presidential Decision. It was arguably easier for President Richard Nixon to have just one Henry Kissinger to listen to, rather than three or four.

For example, Mr. Rumsfeld is known to have a penetrating understanding of the danger to the United States from rogue states and terrorist weapons of mass destruction. He is also a man of action who may counsel prompt dealings with Iraq's nuclear program. Colin Powell, on the other hand, places great value on caution and prudence, and might well advise against quick and bold actions. How President Bush decides the issue, and how he contains and channels the rejected adviser's passions, may be an early indicator of the effectiveness of the Bush foreign policy.

Mr. Bush has established an enviable record as a superb team leader both as governor and in his presidential campaign. But the presidency is a singularly lonely job. If Mr. Bush's obvious self-confidence extends to those lonely presidential decisions (and his Cabinet decisions suggest it may,) we can expect good things from the Bush presidency.

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