Huge challenges await Bush

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2000

WASHINGTON -- It is a herculean to-do list.

George W. Bush, as he prepares to claim the title of president-elect, immediately faces extraordinary challenges stretching well beyond the heavy demands typically involved in organizing a government.

From the first words of his long-delayed ''victory'' speech through Inauguration Day and beyond, Bush will need to work to establish the very legitimacy of his presidency, unite a divided nation and bridge a partisan breach in Congress.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo speaks of the crying need for a ''graceful entrance'' by the next president, not just a graceful exit by the loser.

''The situation facing the president-elect is almost unprecedented,'' said William Galston, a University of Maryland professor of public affairs who has offered informal advice to the Gore team. ''Not only will there be a legacy of bitterness and quite possibly a taint of illegality hanging over the presidency itself, but also there will be a narrow partisan division in both houses of the Congress and a great deal of mutual mistrust.''

Bush will need to strike the right tone from his first address as president-elect -- offering a generous, healing balm to cool partisan passions.

His plans were to start with a unifying speech Wednesday night and meet with congressional leaders, including Democrats, and with President Clinton before making public his transition plans, aides say.

Al Gore, likewise, has spoken of trying ''to reaffirm our national unity'' in a meeting of the victor and vanquished once the winner is known. Gore planned to officially drop out of the race in a nationally televised address Wednesday night, advisers said.

Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, offers the conciliatory words and sentiments of Gerald Ford and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom took office in trying times, as models for the victor.

Ford, trying to bring the nation together after the Watergate debacle, told Americans after his swearing-in, ''Our long national nightmare is over.''

Jefferson, selected to be president by the House after there was a tie in the Electoral College, reached out to the opposition in his inaugural address, saying, ''We are all Republicans -- we are all Federalists.''

Other important first steps, in Galston's view: offering significant Cabinet and White House jobs to members of the opposition party, consulting with leaders of both parties in Congress, starting with policy initiatives that have a good chance of finding consensus.

For all the talk about America's divided electorate, some believe it will be easier for the public to come together behind the new president than for the sharply divided Congress to do likewise.

''I actually think that the people are somewhat less divided than are their representatives,'' said Galston. ''The place to begin is with a de-escalation of rhetoric and the negotiation of a truce between the two political parties.''

Further, demonstrating an ability to build coalitions in Congress will help to build the confidence of the American people, said Erwin Hargrove, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

''He has to convince the people that government in Washington is working,'' Hargrove said. ''That's what they want.''

In all likelihood, that means abandoning the most ambitious campaign proposals and starting with issues more likely to produce consensus -- education reforms for Bush, for example, rather than a giant tax cut or sweeping changes in Social Security.

''If the president comes in and says, 'I'm going to press my program that I pressed in the campaign,' that would be a tragic mistake,'' said Hargrove. ''It would simply be rebuffed.''

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said Bush may not have much of the honeymoon typically given to a new president.

''It's going to be difficult to rally a strong level of support for a new administration,'' Pomeroy said. ''I think the circumstances of this election will give Bush less initial leeway than most presidents have.''

Hargrove gives Bush credit for selecting Andrew Card as his chief of staff, describing him as ''a conciliator and a reacher-outer.''

''If the rest of the White House staff are of that quality and don't have a sharp partisan edge, he'll be very much helped,'' Hargrove said.

Still, the Texas governor also will have to surmount lingering public concerns about whether he is presidential material, particularly after ceding high-visibility roles to his running mate, Dick Cheney, and recount-team overseer, James Baker, over the past month.

''He needs to be able to convince the American people, if he's president-elect, that he's the president, not just a front man,'' said Galston.

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