The initial days of the presidency of George W. Bush bear the unmistakable marks of both his inaugural speech and the truncated transition that preceded it: graceful appeals to unity and bipartisanship combined with deliberate steps that seem designed to ensure that just the opposite occurs. The new president held well-publicized meetings with Democrats and Republicans in Congress and submitted a package of education reforms with the potential of attracting broad support across party lines.
Yet at the same time, he reversed a Clinton administration executive order permitting federal aid to overseas groups that provide abortion counseling and ordered an immediate halt to the printing in the Federal Register of all administrative actions taken by the outgoing government that did not already have the force of law.
Neither of these latter steps is out of the ordinary when the White House changes party control. But these are far from ordinary times. President Bush lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, and his electoral-vote victory rests on a hotly disputed outcome in Florida, one that will be challenged by media recounts in the weeks ahead.
The thousands of protesters who lined Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday chanting “hail to the thief” represented millions of Americans who feel cheated by the outcome and resentful that Bush made no public acknowledgement in his inaugural speech of the extraordinary circumstances of his election. Like earlier moves during the transition to appoint members of the Cabinet, craft legislative priorities and develop a public image, his initial actions in office underscore the signature feature of the emerging Bush presidency: a jarring disjunction between a rhetoric of unity and behavior of discord.
Take Bush’s initial appointments. With the exception of Clinton Cabinet carry-over Norman Mineta, the designee for secretary of Transportation, all are comfortably within the president’s ideological orbit. Most come to their new posts with acknowledged experience, competence and savvy.
Had he consistently followed this pattern, the new president would have passed his initial transition test with flying colors. Instead, he chose to make three provocative appointments—John Ashcroft to Justice, Gale Norton to Interior, and Linda Chavez to Labor—all certain to engender substantial controversy and Senate opposition.
The selection as attorney general of Ashcroft, whose politically expedient ambush of Judge Ronnie White on the Senate floor is legendary in civil-rights circles, suggests Bush welcomed a fight with those most aggrieved by the Florida vote count. It was the equivalent of rubbing salt in their open wounds.
Then there are the initial signals about his legislative and administrative agenda. Nothing announced or suggested by the Bush team since his election in mid-December signals any deviation from the Republican platform and his campaign priorities.
Indeed, Bush reiterated in his inaugural speech and during the initial days of his presidency his determination to pass a large tax cut, promote school vouchers, partially privatize Social Security and move rapidly to build a national missile defense. Under normal circumstances, this might be viewed as admirable fealty to one’s campaign promises.
But these are not normal times.
Finally, there is the matter of the new president’s public posture. He has chosen to assert the full authority of the office and to make no concessions to the reality that the election ended in a dead heat and was ultimately resolved after a long, hotly disputed political and legal struggle. This is not a surprising position for a new president who won by a whisker, but the fragility of Bush’s victory goes well beyond a close election.
In each respect, President Bush has chosen a political and governing strategy consistent with the winner-take-all nature of presidential elections: Shore up your partisan base; stick with the issues that you carried through the campaign; don’t make any premature policy concessions; show no signs of weakness that might be exploited by political foes and allies alike.
He is moving aggressively to claim a mandate, despite the objective evidence to the contrary, while coating the divisiveness of his proposals with a rhetorical plea for unity and bipartisanship.
Will it work?
Maybe yes, maybe no. President Bush exudes self-confidence bordering on arrogance. He proclaims that what is in his heart is best for the country. He believes he can seduce enough Democrats in Congress on each of his legislative proposals to ensure passage with overwhelming Republican support. He assumes the country will get over the disputed 2000 election and learn to live with a unified Republican government, without any public apologies on his part.
With civility, courage, compassion and character as the four horsemen of his inaugural speech, who needs concession or compromise?
We shall see.