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Making the presidency his own

George W. Bush has a higher job approval rating than Bill Clinton did at a similar juncture in his presidency.  

After shaky start, Bush gains public approval

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- George W. Bush had to fight to become president. After he took office, thanks to lingering questions over the election and his predecessor's slow withdrawal from the spotlight, he had to fight to be considered presidential.

But at the 100-day mark of his tenure, that issue seems to be fading. Bush enjoys high job approval ratings -- higher than Bill Clinton at a similar juncture in his presidency -- and even the question of vision that plagued Bush's father does not appear to be an issue.

"People said that the president did not have a mandate -- that he won't be able to govern," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday. "Because of the manner in which the president has toned it down in Washington ... a tremendous amount of progress has been made within these 100 days, and the progress that is laid out now is going to lead to more progress later."

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken April 20-22, Americans gave Bush a 62 percent approval rating. That figure compares with 55 percent for Clinton in 1993 and 58 percent for Bush's father, former President George Bush, in 1989. And 74 percent of Amercans say Bush has a vision for his presidency -- an important number, given his father's problem with the "vision thing."

But at first, the mere assumption of the presidency looked to be a struggle for Bush. On Inauguration Day, one of the most lasting images was of Clinton at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, holding one final campaign-style appearance in an airplane hangar, hugging and talking to friends and taking a rather relaxed approach to climbing on a military jet and leaving Washington.

News networks gave the extended departure significant airtime -- in part because Bush was at a congressional luncheon at the time. But the cameras came back to the new president just in time to see him climb into his limousine for a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue -- where his car was hit by a thrown egg while tens of thousands of protesters made their feelings quite clear.

Focus on Clinton and pardons

Over the next few days, as a fresh controversy broke out over Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, the former president seemed to be a more popular focus of attention than the new president.

"There was an obsession with following what Clinton was doing," Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton White House press secretary, said earlier this month. That attention continued for weeks as U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, a longtime Clinton critic, convened hearings in a House panel to look at the pardons.

That was enough for the Bush administration. Officials quietly -- and not so quietly -- let it be known that enough attention had been paid to the ex-president -- and that even if there was a need for an investigation, the tone needed to come down.

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"I think it's time to move on," Bush told reporters in mid-February while returning on Air Force One from a visit to Norfolk, Virginia. But he acknowledged that "Congress is going to do what it's going to do."

Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, told Reuters in an interview the same day that although Congress might investigate Clinton's moves, the White House would continue to defend the authority of the president -- no matter who he is.

"I happen to think that the job we have working in the White House is not to erode the power of the president, and I won't be party to any erosion of constitutional responsibility the president has," Card said.

Bush began putting his stamp on the presidency in other ways. Clinton was notoriously late on his schedule; Bush prides himself on timeliness and has, on occasion, gently scolded those who arrive to his meetings after they begin. He has ordered his staff to dress in business attire in the White House, even on weekends.

And he has traveled -- visiting more places in his early presidency than even Clinton. Those stops almost always include at least one event with a crowd of cheering supporters, providing daily footage for cable television networks and evening broadcast newscasts.

He has also been self-deprecating, poking fun at his occasionally knotted syntax. "I've expanded the definition of words themselves, using 'vulcanized' when I meant 'polarized,' 'Grecians' when I meant 'Greeks,' 'inebriating' when I meant 'exhilarating,'" Bush told the Radio-Television Correspondents Association annual dinner last month. "And you know what? Life goes on."

The standoff with China

But not all attempts at being presidential can be scripted. Bush also faced a tough test this month when a U.S. reconnaissance plane was forced to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island after striking or being struck by a Chinese fighter jet.

The subsequent tense standoff was the kind of event that has haunted some past presidents. But a carrot-and-stick approach -- a carefully worded statement of regret for the Chinese fighter jet's pilot, who died, followed by tougher talk once the U.S. crew was released -- appeared to resonate with the public. The crew was released by China 11 days after the April 1 incident, and Bush's handling of the event got a 72 percent approval rating in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in late April.

The standoff with China was Bush's first international crisis. The U.S. plane crew returned home 11 days after making a landing in China.  

Bush's style has its critics. William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard and a well-known Republican pundit, criticized Bush for showing weakness in the China controversy. And Democrats have made noise about the president, saying he hadn't met a promise to reach out to the opposition.

"I'm not sure that nicknames are appropriate, but you could call him 'Wedge' for the way he has been driving Democrats and Republicans apart on an issue as important as the budget," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said in late April. Democrats grumble that Bush doesn't compromise until every other option is exhausted, even if the outcome looked likely weeks earlier.

But while Bush might have faced initial criticism that he was still in Clinton's shadow, his 100-day report card might show that he has avoided Clinton's early problems. There has been little of the distracting side issues in Bush's administration that marked Clinton's early days -- nothing on the scale of the gays-in-the-military controversy that seemed to sidetrack the previous president. And avoiding those early traps, Bush's supporters said, is exactly what the president wanted.

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