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New administration stays on message with tight control

President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush wave to supporters as they board Air Force One. Bush has used the jet to bring his proposals directly to the public.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has reached its 100-day performance benchmark slightly bruised but unbowed, thanks in large part to the way this White House has managed its relations with the public.

President George W. Bush's close team of advisers has presented the appearance of a steadily steered ship by limiting the president's contacts with the media. Bush has held only two formal press conferences since taking office.

Rather, this president has flown -- quite literally -- over the heads of the Washington press corps and legislators by choosing to fuel up Air Force One frequently and take his arguments directly to the people who supported him Election Day. Bush has spent 21 days traveling domestically since being sworn in and has visited 26 states.

For the most part, it seems to be working -- so far, according to public opinion polls.

Bush got a quick start following his January 20 inauguration, surprising many by following the 36-day Florida ballot recount mess by aggressively advancing his election agenda almost in its entirety.

He started with his education overhaul package, followed quickly by his faith-based services initiative; his $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax relief package; and his $1.96 trillion federal budget outline for the 2002 fiscal year.

"He could have split the difference and become a caretaker president," said the Heritage Foundation's Al Selvenberg. "That's what other presidents who have lost the popular vote have done."

Bush's rival for the presidency, former Vice President and current four-university journalism lecturer Al Gore, beat Bush in the popular arena by a half-million votes. Bush's labored victory in Florida gave him a majority of votes in the Electoral College and thus the presidency.

Selvenberg, director of Heritage's Mandate for Leadership Program, said Bush and his advisers were then faced with two choices -- play the Rutherford B. Hayes role and ride out the term, or go the "John Kennedy route," and implement his election platform, despite a razor-thin victory margin.

"I think he chose to go with the Kennedy model, ... and I think it's a good choice," Selvenberg said. "He is saying, 'I'm going to push for the things I ran on,' and when you're saying that, you're saying you have a sense of integrity. He's saying, 'People voted for these things, and I owe it to them and to myself.'

"The presidents who stick to what they ran on tend to get more respect from the opposition than if they come across as mealymouthed," Selvenberg added.

There have been some bumps. A coalition of Democrats and a select few moderate Republicans in the Senate whittled the tax cut down to just more than $1.2 trillion as that chamber debated its version of the budget resolution. And Bush has taken a pounding from Democrats and environmental groups, who have accused him of leveraging public safety and threatening wildlands to pay back some of his most active campaign contributors from the energy sector.

"He has clearly moved to pursue his agenda in a more vigorous fashion than anyone anticipated, and in doing so he has generated strong support among core conservatives in the Republican Party," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Bush spoke briefly at a Senate Democratic retreat in February. His visit was thought to be the first time in modern history that a president attended a retreat run by the opposition party.  

"But it has been at a cost. He has passed on some opportunities to compromise with Democrats, and he has not lived up to opportunities that would have allowed him to leave a great impression as someone who gets something done," Squire said.

Squire cites Bush's education initiatives as topping the list of missed opportunities. He said he thinks they could have sailed through Congress if the president had held back on the tax package.

Still, Bush's poll numbers are high (a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken April 20-22 gave him a 62 percent approval rating), and the president routinely gains a majority favorable rating on issues like education reform.

Learning from predecessors' mistakes

Consider the first 100 days of the Clinton administration. Just days after Bill Clinton's January 1993 inauguration, deep cracks began to show in the working structure Clinton was attempting to build inside the White House. Some outside the new administration sought to lob some significant challenges Clinton's way, including placing the issue of gays in the military front and center in the public's consciousness.

Clinton hadn't wanted to address that thorny problem so early in his tenure, but once discussions were initiated, the subject of gays serving in the armed forces took on a monstrous life of its own. Clinton's early agenda was wrested away from him, and he spent his first months in office struggling mightily to get it back.

The public was keenly aware of his dilemmas. Television cameras focused tightly on Clinton's anguished face as he entered and then departed public events. The Oval Office seemed to become the main set of a daily soap opera, and the saga only thickened as 1993 progressed.

Bush, by all accounts, has in his six-year career as an elected official been politically studious, alert and attentive, and has been bent on not repeating any of his predecessors' mistakes, including a few that may have been made by his own father, former President George Bush, whom Clinton ousted in 1992.

Thus, Bush hasn't shown too much of the personal, preferring to play the part of a chief executive who delegates much of his work, listens to recommendations, makes final decisions and speaks publicly when it's time to announce the substance of most of those decisions.

When Bush would like to make some final decisions, such as sign a tax-cut bill that meets his requirements -- but Congress gets in his way -- he goes right to voters.

The president has taken many campaign-style day trips to various states -- most often to those he won Election Day but whose congressional delegation may include a vulnerable Democratic lawmaker or two. Pushing his tax cut in North Dakota in March, Bush exhorted the crowd to "maybe e-mail some of the good folks in the U.S. Senate from your state."

Bush deftly plays these crowds. His staff often lands advance teams in a locality two or three days before his visit, and some remain for a day or two afterward. Members of the national media accompany the president on his trips, but Bush's speeches are a boon for local radio and television stations.

"He has a good rapport with the American people," Selvenberg said.

Coverage of one Bush speech may play for days in some places, resulting in some unpleasantness for the lawmaker that Bush would like to sway.

"It seems to be a sound presidential strategy in this age," said Robert Johnstone, political professor at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. "Increasingly, presidents are using the media and going over the heads of Congress. But it is hard to say whether it will result in any votes for things such as his tax cut."

Johnstone describes himself as a "slightly left-of-center" liberal Democrat, but some observers who rank themselves as independents, or even conservatives, say the president should be cautious with this line of politicking.

"I suspect he's going to find that's not terribly productive," Squire said. "It is hard for presidents to generate grass-roots production on the level he is seeking unless he seizes on some issue with tremendous public appeal. But that isn't going to be tax cuts."

Bush works the crowd after outlining his tax-cut plan to supporters in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in March.  

Selvenberg said he likes the way Bush handles himself, and if things stay rosy -- if for example, the president's work to return the U.S. surveillance plane crew from China's Hainan Island captures the public's attention for the "long term" -- then "he can keep it up for a long time."

"It is always risky to go over lawmakers' heads and go directly to their constituencies," Selvenberg said. "He can keep it up as long as his polls are high.

"If his polls go south," he continued, "then Congress will have the upper hand. If it continues to be perceived that he handled his first crisis (China) well, then he can get something done on his domestic agenda."

Squire said Bush shouldn't depend on the standoff with China over the surveillance aircraft to benefit him for long.

Bush, Squire said, "comes off reasonably well" in the face of his first crisis. "But I think a lot of people will have forgotten about it soon enough."

The question, then, would seem to be what does Bush do when working on the local level ceases to pay off?

Some suggested he'll have to fall back on his charm and easygoing manner. Selvenberg said the president has already put those talents to work and should have no problem doing so repeatedly.

"He gave a sparkling inaugural address -- some said it was better than Kennedy's," he said. "His first (address to a joint session of Congress) was short but busy and good-humored. He has his two good press conferences, and he has been self-deprecating at formal dinners with the press."

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