Texas Gov. George W. Bush was sworn as the 43rd president of the United States at noon on Saturday in Washington. Mr. Bush leads a nation that is more politically divided than at any time in its history. He must bring the country together. The U.S. must be united if it is to assume its role as a leader among nations. If Mr. Bush is to fulfill his campaign promises and achieve his vision for the U.S., he must rally the nation behind him.
Mr. Bush has a reputation for being a conciliator, a man who is more interested in accomplishments than ideology. He promised to bring a new approach to Washington politics. After the long fight over the Florida vote count, he pledged to heal the nation and protect the interests of all Americans, even those who did not vote for him, In his inauguration speech, he said “Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”
Last weekend, bipartisanship was the favorite word of politicians on both sides of the aisle and on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The air was thick with promises of cooperation. The Senate quickly confirmed seven of the new Cabinet members, including the most important posts, the secretaries of state, Treasury and defense. Mr. Bush pledged to do his part, and proclaimed that the values of his administration would be “civility, courage, compassion and character.”
The new president got a taste of what lies ahead before he even got into his new home. Tens of thousands of protesters also took part in the inaugural festivities; security in the capital was the tightest ever for a swearing-in ceremony. It will take far more than talk of compassion and compromise to heal the country’s wounds.
Mr. Bush will waste no time. The first act of the new administration was the suspension of regulations passed in the last minutes of the outgoing Clinton government. The president has said he will go methodically through his campaign agenda. Given his limited mandate, he needs momentum. Mr. Bush plans to push immediately for broad legislative victories instead of incremental ones.
The first item is education, which has been a focus for Mr. Bush when he was governor and was a cornerstone of his campaign. His first week in office will be “Education week.” He will send Congress his package of education reforms Tuesday. Although virtually all Americans agree on the importance of reform, they do not agree on what should be done. Mr. Bush wants to give parents more control over their choice of schools for their children, and to give local officials more control over the classroom. Both are opposed by teachers’ unions, a powerful Democratic constituency. Mr. Bush’s honeymoon may not last long.
But while the president needs victories to create momentum, he has to avoid overreach. His predecessor, Mr. Bill Clinton, did just that in his first term by pressing for too much, too quickly. His most notable legislative successes — NAFTA, welfare reform — came later in his administration, when he worked to create bipartisan coalitions. Mr. Bush must balance the need to move forward with the need to build consensus, which is invariably a time-consuming process.
At the same time, the new administration is sure to face foreign policy challenges. China has a penchant for testing new presidents and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has already begun to stir the pot. The situation in the Middle East is dangerously volatile, as is Congo after the death of strongman Laurent Kabila. Following last week’s visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to China, many observers suspect an announcement from that secretive country that could change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. India’s recent missile test could set off another round of military escalations in South Asia.
And then there is the economy. More economists now say the U.S. is flirting with recession; even those who do not like the “R-word” concede a significant slowdown is in the works. That poses a threat to the global economy; one investment house argues that a global recession is just over the horizon. A stumbling U.S. economy will have an impact on Japan; the two governments are going to have to work together to see that the effects of the slowdown are contained. The new administration will have no time to lose.
Mr. Bush has little experience in such matters. In fact, he has little experience in many of the issues that consume the presidency. That does not have to be a fatal flaw, however. If Mr. Bush can, as he pledged, unify the nation and draw on the rich pool of talent that surrounds him, his administration will be ready for the many challenges of the next four years.
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