When George W. Bush becomes president of the United States on Jan. 20, he is going to have a more than usually difficult job to do. No president in this century will have come to power under such extraordinary circumstances. Among the problems he faces are these:
-- A significant percentage of the population is going to believe Bush stole the election by using his Republican pals on the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the counting of votes that would have made Al Gore president instead of him. This is going to deprive him of the stature and legitimacy that most voters automatically give a new president, even when he is not of their party.
-- Bush is going to have to cope with a rapidly slowing economy that could very well turn into a recession early next year. Although such a downturn is likely to be brief, it could still have important political implications for the 2002 elections. The out-party normally does well in such elections anyway, and a recession will make the odds of Democrats recapturing control of both the House and Senate very high indeed.
-- The narrow Republican majorities in Congress and the good prospects for Democrats in 2002, plus the election fallout, are going to make Bush's dealings with Congress extremely trying. He is likely to have a very hard time just getting his cabinet confirmed, and this undoubtedly will take up much of his time throughout 2001. Not only are Democrats going to be looking for ways to embarrass Bush by rejecting some of his appointees, but the pressures of time and loss of most of the transition will probably lead to mistakes. Inevitably, Bush is going to end up appointing some people to cabinet posts that he wouldn't have appointed if he had more time and a more favorable political climate.
-- Lastly, Bush will, of necessity, be forced to start planning for re-election in 2004 almost immediately. He will not have the luxury of putting this off until he has had a chance to become settled and get a few political victories under his belt. That is because the Democrats are going to view him as vulnerable right out of the box. They are not going to wait until 2003 to begin their presidential campaigning. And with several possible Democratic presidential candidates in Congress -- not the least of which is Hillary Clinton, newly minted junior senator from New York -- Bush is going to have to adopt a more political mode of operation starting on Day 1.
This is not an exhaustive list of challenges facing Bush. Presidents always have unforeseen problems to deal with -- foreign policy crises, scandals and the like. But to also have those mentioned above would test the political and leadership skills of even our greatest presidents. Just about the only bright spot is that in adversity there is opportunity. Bush will have a very early chance to show whether he has the makings of greatness or whether all the awful things Democrats believe about him are true.
Bush is going to be under a lot of pressure to water down and abandon his campaign promises, and run a de facto coalition government with the Democrats. Nothing would erode his support among Republicans faster, and he should resist the temptation, even though it will inevitably bring the liberal Washington press corps down on him for it. It will also confirm that he views himself as an illegitimate president, which will only cause his enemies to redouble their efforts against him.
Bush's best bet is to be bold and act presidential. He should govern as if he won an overwhelming majority, not by the skin of his teeth. Political reality may well dictate that much of his agenda will die in Congress. But he should not abandon things such as his tax cut simply because the odds are long. It is important that Bush keep his word to those who voted for him by moving forward on the issues they supported him for. They will understand if some fail to become law on the first try, but they will not forgive him for doing nothing.
Another reason for Bush to press his agenda is that the debate is worthwhile, and circumstances can change. If he makes a convincing case for a tax cut in order to head off a recession and Democrats block it, Bush will be in far better shape politically than if he pulled back the tax cut for fear of suffering a loss in Congress.
One of the most important things Bush needs to do after Jan. 20 is lay the foundation for what undoubtedly will be a very tough re-election fight in four years. Some of the things he should do are these:
-- Fix the military voting system so that our fighting men and women are not disenfranchised, as many were in Florida. Not only is this the right and proper thing to do, but realistically Bush must know that he may need the military's votes again in 2004.
-- Make the Supreme Court's Beck decision operational. That is the court case that said union workers could not be forced to pay dues for political activities. With union leadership being totally committed to the Democratic Party, despite the Republican leaning of many union rank-and-file, it is essential that Bush do whatever he can to prevent vast union resources from being entirely dedicated to his defeat.
-- Bush must put a hold on all pending government regulations and revoke as many of Bill Clinton's executive orders as possible. It is important for him to establish the principle that presidents cannot usurp legislative prerogatives with the mere stroke of a pen, as Clinton has done so often. Revoking a good number of Clinton's executive orders will restrain future presidents from following his lead.
-- To get some early legislative victories, Bush should have Congress quickly pass some measures that have attracted majority support in the past, only to be vetoed by Clinton. These would include estate tax and marriage penalty relief. For this reason, it would pay Bush to break up his own tax proposal and pass as much as he can piecemeal, in order to make it more difficult for Democrats to vote against it.
There are many other things Bush will be able to do to help himself politically once he takes office. The important thing is for him not to be intimidated by the peculiar circumstances of the 2000 election, and to move with dispatch on his agenda with an eye on 2004.