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Archive for Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Nation, world still getting to know Bush

June 20, 2001

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— After a budget battle, a tax bill, a struggle over education, a confrontation with China and, in recent days, a series of meetings with European leaders and the Russian president, the broad outlines of George W. Bush's presidential style are becoming apparent:

He seeks to convince, sometimes is convincing but rarely is convincible. He has an easy way, but doesn't take the easy way out. He seldom challenges himself, but on every front he is challenging the established order.

The president has achieved remarkable success in about 150 days in office, winning votes on the Hill while showing a winning way in the White House and on the road. But still the question remains, fortified by poll results that show remarkable vulnerability for a president whose record is so shimmery: Is it possible to keep ramming up against the old ways without giving way at all?

White House aides and some commentators have been portraying his grand tour a triumph, but in the past several days, the president has found resistance everywhere he turns.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is wary of the president's push for an Atlantic Alliance that would bump up against Russia's borders. Putin is skeptical of missile defense, reluctant to abandon the Nixon-era Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, worried that the United States will push ahead to the new military frontier alone. European leaders are angry about the president's failure to express support for the Kyoto Protocol and to join their efforts to combat global warming.

The president's loyalists (and even some of his detractors) say that Bush has faced that before. The public didn't want a tax cut, but the president went ahead and proposed one and the Congress buckled, with a dozen Democratic senators helping to buttress the Republican majority that was only hours away from disappearing. That steeled the president to maintain his opposition to global-warming measures and to press ahead with missile defense, a proposal that now is shorn of its original name ("national missile defense" had too much of a Fortress America whiff to it).

The president came to office talking of bipartisanship and compromise, but everywhere his opponents have remarked upon how pleasant he is around the table but how little his views shift. To his critics, this is the definition of inflexibility. To his supporters, this is the definition of character.

The nexus between the two is where politics gets interesting, especially in this era. From the ground in Austin and from the air during the presidential campaign, Bush and his handlers portrayed the Texas governor as a conciliator, a master in the art of compromise, a man who would get warring factions to work together for the common good. He was a conservative, but a compassionate one. He was a Republican, but he had Democratic allies. He was the Texas version of the New Hampshire birch tree; part of the beauty was the ability to bend.

Now Bush has earned points on the right for his character and has toted demerits on the left for his inflexibility. They are the two sides of the coin of the realm in the Bush years and a portrait of how he has spent his first five months.

But the mystery that shrouds all of politics in the capital is whether the multiple warheads of the early Bush offensive are indicative of a long-term strategy or are meant simply to soften up Washington for the long ground battles ahead. The same question is being asked in Europe this week.

In truth, the president is still in the getting-to-know-you phase, both in terms of the politics and of the personalities on the national and world scene. He likes doing that in person, a quality that came out especially vividly after his encounter with Putin. "I looked the man in the eye," Bush said of his Russian counterpart. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

But early impressions can sometimes be misleading and that is as much a danger for Americans and for world leaders who are still trying to evaluate the president as it is for Bush, who is only beginning to evaluate the problems and potential that surround him. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev emerged from his Vienna talks with President John F. Kennedy thinking he might be able to push around the young American president. He was wrong. A parade of British leaders emerged from their early meetings with Adolf Hitler thinking they might be able to do business with the new German chancellor. They, too, were wrong.

It may be several months, even a year, before it is clear whether Bush is establishing a hard line to set the stage for compromises later, or intends to press forward without compromise. America and the world are still looking Bush in the eye, seeking to get a sense of his soul.




David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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