WASHINGTON - There is a moment when a president who has just taken the oath of office sits for the first time at the grand desk in the Oval Office, looks at the new notepaper with his name on it, takes a deep breath, and, according to many memoirs, thinks, “Now what?”
There is a body of thought (OK, three people so far) who have suggested that expectations for George W. Bush are so low that anything he accomplishes in the first 100 days will make him seem like a political genius, a statesman, and a truly cool guy.
About that 100 days. It is always pooh-poohed as artificial, and it is, of course. But ever since Franklin Roosevelt's burst of activism as he fought to get the nation out of the Depression, 100 days has become a marker for a president.
So here's what Mr. Bush should do before May 1 to assure a smooth start. Keep recession at bay. The snarling, fang-toothed monster is trying to get out of the closet; Mr. Bush has to keep the door shut. He either has to figure out a way to make Alan Greenspan embrace his $1.6 trillion tax cut or push through some kind of tax cut with Democratic help that won't make him look like a 90-pound weakling. He also has to be smart enough not to muck about and make the downturn worse. Get the lights back on in California. Mr. Bush rightly realizes the rolling blackouts are a result of really stupid public policy by state officials. But now that electricity lovers around the globe are watching open-mouthed at the Golden State's fiasco, people will expect the new President to weigh in.
So far he's said, “We have an energy problem. Although we need to promote conservation, the best way to make sure we have independence is to encourage exploration in places where there is a lot of oil and gas.” Clearly, get some new cliches. Do something significant about education. A pitched battle right away over school vouchers will not reassure people that Mr. Bush is “a uniter, not a divider.” Parents are angry that presidents always pledge that education will have top priority and then can't figure out what to do because essentially it's a local responsibility. But Mr. Bush has to light a fire soon on this one. Convince Americans he's going to be fair on the issue of race after the divisive confirmation hearing on John Ashcroft over questions of how vigorous civil rights laws will be enforced. When Jesse Jackson had to bow out of public life, at least temporarily, as a result of having fathered a child recently with a woman who is not his wife, Mr. Bush got an unexpected gift. He will be able to have the bully pulpit on race to himself for a short time without being poked in the ribs by the more eloquent Reverend Jackson. And setting up a “diversity office” is not enough. Do something soon to show he will be reasonable on the environment. Americans are convinced they can have economic growth and environmental protection. If Mr. Bush rolls back everything the Clinton administration tried to do on the environment, they will despairingly assume the next four years will be devoted to slugfests. Environmental protection is not and should not be a partisan issue. Incoming Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman need to make that clear. Put missile defense on the back burner while scientists make more progress on the key question: Will it work? Launching Donald Rumsfeld into an all-out fight for billions of dollars for it without trying to find a middle ground will roil the waters needlessly, at home and abroad where Russia and China have mounted furious opposition to it. Their argument is that without strategic deterrence, the United States would be too powerful. Tone down the homage to Texas and the country-and-western clothing, music, boots, and decor. A little goes a long way.
The themes picked for Mr. Bush's inaugural, aside from Wayne Newton, Ricky Martin, the Rockettes, Muhammad Ali, country music, and big corporate donations, were America's spirit, unity, education, the military, and a “fresh start.”
A key element of America's spirit is eagerness every four or eight years for the new president to do well.
Despite the bad taste of the election mess, Mr. Bush now has that good will. The rest is up to him.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at email@example.com.