WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush, not by nature an eloquent speaker, delivered an inaugural address Saturday that was extraordinarily elegant and thoroughly appropriate for the political climate. But his evocation of an "unfolding American promise" is no strategy for the brutal partisan struggle ahead.
President Bush showed awareness of what he faces when, in his first act as chief executive, he froze the flood of eleventh hour federal orders left behind by Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, he has not yet mobilized his new team to confront partisan Democratic opposition that will be nothing like malleable Democrats in Austin.
The Senate's confirmation Saturday of seven Cabinet nominees did not launch an era of good feeling in Washington. A more accurate rendering of the atmosphere is the assault on John Ashcroft by his former colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee in considering his nomination. He surely will be confirmed, but only after a Democratic depiction of a Manichaean world posing their good against Republican evil. Implicit is the largely unspoken Democratic contention that Bush was not fairly elected to his office.
Properly, the president's inaugural address did not allude to the bitterly disputed election. He also avoided mistakes made by his two predecessors, who sounded inaugural themes that were foreign to their campaigns. Bush's father in 1989 followed his hard-nosed candidacy by calling for a new political harmony. Clinton in 1993 followed unlimited promises on the campaign trail by asking Americans for unspecified sacrifices. George W. Bush's address was fully consistent with his conservative campaign.
Bush did not satisfy supporters who hoped he would utilize the unparalleled Inauguration Day forum to declare that American and global prosperity cannot endure with high interest rates and high tax rates. But he received his most spontaneous applause Saturday when he pledged to "reduce taxes, to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans."
Three days earlier in his confirmation hearings, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill sent a different message. Just as the prospect of recession was building popular support for tax reduction, O'Neill said that plan is desirable "not because it is a major component to drive the economy, but because it won't hurt."
O'Neill, a former bureaucrat turned multi-millionaire industrialist, apparently fails to appreciate that he is supposed to reflect the president's views, not his own. High-ranking figures in the Bush administration contend that O'Neill's confirmation testimony was misinterpreted on the front page of the New York Times. But there is private concern in the president's inner circle that his secretary of the treasury must stop providing ammunition to the Democrats.
These same Bush sources were privately concerned that Ashcroft, under vicious assault from Democrats and left-wing interest groups, unwisely committed the president to total passivity on abortion. Actually, abortion was not a Bush campaign priority and today does not stand high on his agenda. But the Justice Department is central to controlling the federal government, and the attempted neutering of John Ashcroft undercuts that goal.
The Bush transition at Justice has not been encouraging. Republican legal activists who turned up for one transition meeting intent on housecleaning were stunned to find Jamie Gorelick, Clinton's former deputy attorney general, in attendance. Consequently, they watched their words. Gorelick spoke freely, however. She praised the Bush team for not replicating Clinton's 1993 mass sacking of U.S. attorneys and commented how dreadful that act was eight years ago.
Not only are Clinton's prosecutors in place for now but Eric Holder, Gorelick's successor as deputy attorney general, now runs the Justice Department as acting attorney general. Holder pleaded with Bush lieutenants for that status to cleanse his reputation, and it is unlikely that he will cause trouble in his temporary role. Still, Holder -- not his feckless boss, Janet Reno -- was the force in thwarting independent counsel investigations of Clinton-Gore scandals. His retention by Bush, no matter how brief, is not a good sign.
Cutting taxes and reordering Justice are far removed from the lofty idealism expressed by President Bush Saturday. His team is replete with crafty veterans of the Washington wars. His closest aides say Bush himself is tough enough for the challenge, and it will not take long to find if they are correct.