Tipton, Iowa — Stuart Clark runs the oldest weekly newspaper in Iowa from a storefront office just off the square of this small Midwestern town. Attuned to the political currents in a county that evenly split its vote in last year's election, he sees a question mark hanging over George W. Bush's presidency.
"There's a feeling that people aren't sure what to make of him," Clark said. "A friend of mine said Bush is more of an ambassador, traveling around meeting people rather than getting a lot done. People are still trying to see how strong a leader he is. They think he's surrounded by strong people, but they're waiting to see what he can do."
Bush ended the week with a flurry of successes in the House on energy and patients' rights legislation, giving him a successful send-off for his August vacation and what his advisers believe will be a boost in the eyes of the American people. But these measures have yet to make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate in the form he wants. As Congress recessed for the summer, the only major initiative Bush had signed into law was his tax cut bill.
Over the past two weeks, Post reporters interviewed dozens of voters and some non-voters in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Iowa. The sampling was not scientific, but the conversations were conducted in suburban neighborhoods and small towns that were representative of the close outcome of last year's presidential race. Supplemented with the results of a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll taken July 26 through July 30, these interviews underscored the distance Bush still needs to go to put himself on more solid footing.
What emerged is a president with a political profile that is the mirror image of his predecessor's. Voters did not trust Bill Clinton but backed his policy agenda and believed he shared their concerns. Bush enjoys the respect and admiration of the public, but far less support for his political agenda while facing doubts that he understands their concerns. That profile was enough to win the election last year by one of the narrowest margins in U.S. history. Whether it can sustain his presidency is questionable.
His first six months in office have been defined as much as anything by the big tax cut he brought from his campaign and promoted in the face of Democratic opposition and minimal public enthusiasm. Now that it has been enacted, voters remain skeptical that it will pep up the economy and fear that it will crowd out other priorities.
In this Iowa community, as in others around the country, Bush's presidency is far from troubled. He has set a tone that many Americans appreciate as a sharp contrast to the Clinton years, and even some of his harshest critics say he has an appealing personality.
At the same time, however, Bush's presidency is far from secure. His priorities, from his energy proposal to his plan for a missile defense system, have raised concerns even among voters who backed him in the presidential race. They also sense that the low-key style they find admirable has hampered his ability to offer the country clear leadership.
"I think he's still trying to fit into the role," said Jacqueline Raclaw, an elementary school teacher from Libertyville, Ill. "To me, he's still trying to feel comfortable. There's nothing really to rally around. There isn't that focus right now."
To those who did not support him in November, Bush is a vivid politician who governs in primary colors. These critics can cite with specificity what he has done and why they don't like it.
"This is the first time I've really been scared about the future and my son's future," said Pam Rezek of Wilmette, Ill., citing concerns about the environment, women's rights, civil rights and the future of Social Security. "I'm really worried about things going backward."
To those who voted for him, Bush remains popular, but to many of these supporters, he appears a more pastel president, a sometimes-invisible figure who has not fully defined himself. Although praising his handling of the presidency in general terms, they wonder why he has not been more assertive in leading the country.
"All of a sudden you don't hear from him," said John Schinkle, a house painter from Waukegan, Ill. "We definitely need a president who knows how to use the bully pulpit."
Bush's challenges include shoring up his support among suburban women, who generally approve of his presidency but are sharply at odds with him over his priorities. He also must demonstrate to those who saw him as a refreshing contrast to Clinton that there is substance to his presidency. Voters are looking for reassurance that he cares about the problems that worry them most and can demonstrate the leadership to get things done in Washington.
One bright spot for Bush is that the voters see no strong leadership coming from the Democrats. Although the Post-ABC poll showed that the Democratic Party is rated higher than the GOP, there is no visible leader to compete with Bush. With former vice president Al Gore on the sidelines, only Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has developed much of a profile with voters.
Many Bush voters passionately approve of the way he is doing his job. "I love him," said Anne O'Brien of Stoddard, N.H. "He doesn't change with the wind. He stands on principle. He deals respectfully with the heads of state in Europe, but he doesn't give in to them."
Gore voters find little to admire in Bush. "Even though he says he wants to bring people together, I don't think he's sincere," said Pat McMahon, a Gore voter from Stoddard. "He's stood up for his constituents but not the rest of us."
Bush voters cite the sharp contrast with the scandals and personal behavior of the Clinton years as one of the president's best qualities.
"People in the heartland viewed Bill Clinton as a buffoon," said Dick Schrad, the city manager of Tipton. "I think George Bush has done a great deal to restore prestige, viability and credibility to the office."
The other clear positive for Bush is the administration he has assembled. He gets high marks for selecting advisers such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Suburban America remains a principal battleground between the two parties and, thus, is crucial to Bush's presidency. Bush narrowly carried the suburbs against Gore last year, after Clinton won them in 1996, but those results mask a sharp gender gap. Suburban men voted Republican in both elections, while suburban women voted Democratic both years.
At this point, according to the Post-ABC News poll, white suburban men and white suburban women give Bush high marks overall 62 percent of men and 58 percent of women say they approve of his handling of the presidency. After that, men and women part company, with women far more critical of Bush on specific issues.