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Bush's First Year

With George W. Bush's first 365 days in office almost behind us, how has he performed? He may not be Reagan, but he isn't Clinton, either.

11:01 PM, Jan 3, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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HOW GOOD was George W. Bush's first year as president? Superb, really. And in comparison with the two most interesting first years in modern memory, Bush's was much, much better than Bill Clinton's, but not quite so brilliant as Ronald Reagan's.

Bill Clinton's first year was a mixed bag. The economy started to improve and NAFTA was passed, but Clinton's popularity barely crested over 50 percent and then only at year's end--after his approval ratings had dipped into the thirties. Pre-Dick Morris, Clinton's leadership was ponderous and embarrassment-prone. Missteps included gays in the military, a running-scared strategy in Somalia, and indecisiveness in Haiti. The year ended with Clinton announcing his doomed health-care initiative and answering a fresh round of questions concerning Whitewater.

Reagan's first year was the high-water mark of modern presidencies. On the day he took office, American hostages in Iran were released. Not much later, he fired the air traffic controllers, an important and public victory.His first-year budget included the historic tax cuts that nudged America out of recession and marked the dawn of the longest period of economic expansion in history. He also passed deep spending cuts even as he initiated a huge military buildup--and all of this while Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. Boldness inside Washington and abroad.

Coming into office, George W. Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider. With an unprecedented third straight month of 80-plus approval ratings, he has succeeded wildly. It is not Clintonian to observe that Bush would not be doing so incredibly well if the world hadn't changed on September 11. (It is, however, Clintonian to begrudge Bush the mixed political fortune of holding office when tragedy struck.) In any case, Bush has not idly benefited from the terrorist attacks.

Nevertheless, conditions have shifted to favor Bush's talents. The mushy president who teared up on Oprah and promised to set a new tone in Washington has had occasion to show manly resolve. When he raised the bullhorn at Ground Zero on September 14, it was clear he'd be a comfort to America and a scourge to her enemies. Months after apologizing twice to China for the perfectly legal actions of the American military Bush has figured out that peace is often about not saying you're sorry. He signed up dozens of countries for contributions to the war on terrorism and made great progress with Russia even as he pressed ahead with missile defense and jettisoned the 1972 ABM treaty. The cooperation he has sought and failed to win in domestic affairs he has largely achieved abroad.

An administration whose highest ambition once was to cut taxes has begun to lead the world. In turn, its prospects seem to be improving at home, but only slightly. The don't-give-an-inch opposition of Democrats appears to be ever so out of sync with the times. Along with Bush's high ratings, approval numbers are up for the whole Republican party. Bush's December strategy of facing off with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle seems to be working. The vaunted Democratic grip on media coverage has loosened during the war. But in the meantime, many of Bush's nominees are still being held up in the Senate. And while the president got his education bill passed, vouchers were killed in the process.

More important than the fate of any one piece of legislation, however, is the kind of president Bush has become. Before September 11, his signature policy was going to be his faith-based package, tearing down the legal barriers that kept good works and public works separate. Noble, but not exactly captivating. His biggest success before the war was the tax cut. The cuts had problems (too small and timed to take effect years from now), but even if they hadn't, they would only have demonstrated fiscal competence--something Republicans are supposed to have.

Since September 11, Bush has sat at the head of the table. He is formidable, he is commanding, and within one year he has established a distinct presidential style that could be the equal of any in recent times. He is not the impromptu speaker Clinton was or the visionary Reagan was, but he is first-rate at making friends and defying enemies. His skill at delegating responsibilities to worthy deputies has helped a lot. There have been stumbles. The anthrax scares could have been handled more ably. And Bush's usually praiseworthy rhetoric has not always been perfect. One precious tick has him mentioning the young whenever he talks of war. He seems to believe it takes a child to raze a village. But overall, presidential leadership doesn't get much better than this.