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BUSH OFF TO A GOOD START

One month of the 48 in a presidential term is hardly the basis for judging performance, but there are clues in the Bush administration's first four weeks that are worth noting -- whether or not they are borne out by future developments.

This has been a confident beginning by George W. Bush and his team. The self-assurance has been demonstrated in several ways. Despite the late start caused by the long Florida recount, Bush assembled his Cabinet well ahead of Inauguration Day, and it is a strong one. It is a Cabinet of CEOs, made up mainly of men and women who have run large enterprises in the public or private sector or both. It is an experienced Cabinet, with most members having served in responsible positions in Washington and the others having come out of top positions in state and local government.

It is also a politically balanced Cabinet. With two exceptions, its members were confirmed unanimously in a Senate where Democrats are as numerous as Republicans. The exceptions -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft -- were predictable.

Both Interior and Justice had been the focus of partisan warfare throughout the Clinton years. Much of the Republican West was at odds with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and Republicans in Congress repeatedly questioned the judgment and political independence of Attorney General Janet Reno. Important Republican constituencies wanted those departments back in "friendly" hands, and Bush satisfied them with his choices.

In Norton's case, he calculated correctly how far he could push the envelope without creating a huge backlash. Despite the efforts of environmental groups to derail her, 75 senators voted for confirmation. With Ashcroft, he may have miscalculated. Bush probably thought Senate Democrats would cut some slack for their former Republican colleague, especially after his graciousness in accepting his defeat in the hyper-charged emotional climate following the death of his opponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan.

But Bush underestimated the impact on Democratic senators (especially those with national ambitions) of the anger of minority groups, who felt victimized by the election and by Ashcroft's role in blocking the elevation of Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench. With 42 votes against him, Ashcroft will have less leeway as attorney general than a less controversial appointee would have enjoyed.

Nonetheless, the Cabinet appointments went well, and Bush followed up with an exceptionally eloquent inaugural address and a notably well-disciplined rollout of his major policy proposals. In its first test, the White House staff -- a mixture of seasoned veterans and newcomers to Washington -- prepared Bush well for presentation of the education reform, tax cut and military personnel proposals he had promised in the campaign.

Bush himself has spent much of his time this past month in get-acquainted sessions with members of Congress from both parties. The Democrats I have interviewed say Bush has done three things in these sessions that impress them.

First, he has been direct and firm in asserting that he is uninhibited by the closeness of the election results and will put forward the policies he promoted in his campaign. Second, he immediately adds that he understands -- and respects -- the difference between his responsibilities as president and theirs as legislators, and he expects them to put their own imprint on the measures. Finally, he communicates that he likes people in general -- and politicians in particular -- and is not going to personalize policy disagreements in ways that poison the atmosphere.

All of that goes a long way toward establishing an environment in which it is possible to get things done. But it still leaves large questions unanswered.

Bush's focus seems to be on the politics of advancing his policy, not the policy itself. Some legislators have come away with the impression that Bush wants an early congressional win, presumably on education reform, so much that he doesn't much care what's in the bill. That's dangerous to his interests, if it takes root.

There's also a question in people's minds about how much of what is being done in Bush's name is coming from Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney clearly was influential in assembling the Cabinet and managing the transition, and now he has been given responsibility for directing energy policy as well.

Notwithstanding these question marks, the start has been good.

Washington Post Writers Group

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