Even president not immune from having to weather learning curve

Bush hits proverbial bump road

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A senator's defection. Public relations missteps. Foreign policy surprises. Five months in office, President Bush has suffered a series of setbacks knocking him off his confident stride.

He came into office with an experienced team and the pugnacious pluck of a man determined to seize a mandate. He planned to avoid the early term jitters that plague many presidents and to pour political capital into his conservative agenda.

He was the nation's first MBA president, running the government like a business.

And then reality struck.

''They've hit a few bumps in the road,'' said presidential analyst Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. ''Suddenly, we see they're not as smart as they thought they were.''

Bush loses control of the Senate this week when GOP Sen. James Jeffords officially leaves the party, accusing the president and other Republican leaders of being too conservative.

The defection revealed flaws in Bush's political network -- the White House missed warnings of the Vermont lawmaker's intentions -- and raised questions about Bush's ability to keep moderates in the fold.

It was the biggest miscue in a series of setbacks that suggest Bush is experiencing presidential growing pains. Among them:

Secretary of State Colin Powell failed last week to persuade NATO allies to take a step toward endorsing the administration's plan for a national missile defense, despite weeks of intensive diplomacy.

With no warning, the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in a secret vote.

The administration had to abandon a U.S.-British plan to restructure sanctions against Iraq by today, bowing instead to Russian and Chinese demands for further delay.

Vice President Dick Cheney, the architect of so many White House initiatives, undermined public relations plans for his energy report by seemingly dismissing conservation programs as ''a sign of personal virtue.''

Cheney opened himself and the White House to criticism by using his formal residence to entertain top GOP donors.

Bush traveled to Los Angeles last week to meet with Gov. Gray Davis after the Democrat, emboldened by the president's own remarks and actions, accused Bush of having little sympathy for California voters stung by soaring electricity bills.

A senior Republican who works with the Bush team said the president lost some political stature by flying across the country for an audience with a governor. Bush's staff knew the risks, the official said, but he had no choice.

He is not the first president thrown off by a learning curve.

Bill Clinton stumbled in the first days of his presidency, moving awkwardly to end the gays-in-the-military ban and withdrawing top nominees under fire.

The first President Bush bragged about not having a 100-day plan, creating the impression that he had no vision or fresh ideas.

Jimmy Carter appointed a staff with precious little Washington experience. Ronald Reagan didn't know his own housing secretary, and misidentified the top House Republican.

''Every White House team goes through a rough patch. The secret is getting back on the offensive with our agenda,'' said Republican consultant Scott Reed.

Though Bush's missteps are no worse than those of his predecessors, it's worth watching to see how he responds.

Can he navigate the Democratic Senate? Will he build a coalition to pass his energy package? How will his European trips in June and July effect anti-American sentiments abroad?

The presidential campaign may offer a clue to his ability to rebound: An overly confident Bush lost the New Hampshire primary, then he regrouped -- chastened by defeat -- to drive Arizona Sen. John McCain from the race.

Erwin Hargrove, political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Bush created his own trouble by stubbornly pushing an agenda that is slightly more conservative than the mainstream.

''Is it inexperience? Is it growing pains? Or is it a more serious ineptness? That's the question,'' Hargrove said. ''I think it's simply arrogance. I think it's straight-down arrogant to think they could impose their programs on such an evenly divided Congress without a little more give.''

Dismissing such talk, Republican consultants Alex Castellanos and Rich Bond said voters don't pay attention to the minutia of U.N. votes and public relations missteps. Americans watch for bigger cues from their president.

And they may soon see some from Bush.

Tax cuts and refunds are on the way. A landmark education bill is moving through Congress. Bush helped free 21 airmen from China, passing his first foreign policy test, and polls show a majority approve of his job performance.

''He has gotten nicked and cut along the way,'' Bond said. ''But I think you have to give great weight to those big three or four things he's done well -- not the minor 10 things that went wrong.''

Ron Fournier has covered national politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 1993.



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