Bush Fights Perception of a Floundering Start : Asserts ‘a Lot Is Happening’ Despite Criticism That Administration Is Adrift Without Agenda

Times Staff Writers

Decrying a widespread perception that his presidency is off to a slow and stumbling start, President Bush insisted Tuesday that his Administration is not adrift and “a lot is happening--not all of it good, but a lot is happening.”

At the same time, however, a host of sources--in the White House, in the departments, in Congress and outside the government--maintain that the Administration is floundering because Bush has yet to focus on a specific agenda.

More than that, they say, Bush has been ill-served by a politically inexperienced White House staff and he has been unusually slow in filling major positions throughout his Administration. And the continuing battle over the confirmation of John Tower, Bush’s choice as defense secretary, is sapping the Administration of political capital.

Bush, reacting defensively at a press conference Tuesday to persistent questioning about his Administration’s bumpy beginning, dismissed the criticism as unwarranted. If he could just get his message out based on the facts, he insisted, “I think we’ll do fine.”


Implying that perceptions in Washington are erroneous, the President said that he had talked to a man from Lubbock, Tex., who told him: “All the people in Lubbock think things are going just great.”

Several sources compared Bush’s first six weeks in office to the beginning of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, which never fully recovered from a rocky start.

“The parallel is eerie,” said a senior adviser to former President Ronald Reagan. “And I am surprised and disappointed because once a President loses the edge, it’s like losing the edge on a ski slope, it’s very, very hard to recover control.”

In particular, according to sources inside and outside the government:


--The Administration’s anti-drug crusade remains in the rhetoric stage. At his confirmation hearings last week, William J. Bennett, Bush’s choice as chief of drug control policy, told senators that he could provide no specific details about the Administration’s plans because no decisions had yet been made.

--The White House and Justice Department have yet to agree on a process for selecting federal judges and U.S. attorneys. At last count in January, there were 43 vacant judgeships, 12 on the appellate courts and 31 on the district courts. “You want to talk malaise?” said one Justice Department official. “Now that’s malaise.”

--Despite Bush’s promise to be the “education President,” Education Department employees detect an absence of direction from above. “Things are very quiet,” one said. “People I’ve talked with agree that things are just too slow.”

--Both Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have declared as obsolete the Reagan Administration’s plan for coping with the Third World debt problem. But they have not yet advanced an alternative, even after rioting in Venezuela last week over austerity measures imposed because of that nation’s foreign debt.

Some Accomplishments

Even the new Administration’s harshest critics concede that it has scored some impressive accomplishments, notably its plan to bail out depositors at bankrupt savings and loan associations and its policy on coping with the depletion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

And among his strong supporters, Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said that Bush has put to rest the criticism, common at the end of last year’s particularly vicious election campaign, that his Administration would be divisive and negative. “I think things have been remarkably turned around,” Leach said.

Some students of the presidency, such as Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution and Samuel Kernell of UC San Diego, say that the criticism is premature. Hess pointed out that Bush had indicated that he would start more slowly than most presidents because of the “friendly takeover” from Reagan, whom he served as vice president.


Potential Danger

Nevertheless, key Republicans here who have advised both Bush and Reagan expressed serious concern that the Administration is drifting aimlessly and that the President appears to be unaware of the potential danger the situation poses for his presidency.

A veteran Republican lobbyist, who has served Bush and other Republican presidents, said: “There is a perception of a drift, of a Carter-like confusion, and that is not healthy.” He cited Bush’s politically costly fight to win Senate confirmation of Tower.

While Bush on Tuesday expressed “total confidence” in White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, some Bush advisers place part of the blame for Bush’s problems on the former New Hampshire governor and his young staff, all of whom are inexperienced in Washington politics.

“There’s a parallel in terms of Jimmy Carter, who had a strong Cabinet but a weak White House staff,” said a longtime Bush adviser. “Sununu is bright, but he doesn’t know Washington and doesn’t have a heavyweight staff.”

No ‘Vote Counters’

One problem, said a former Reagan aide who has kept close ties to senior Bush Administration officials, is that the new White House staff has no “vote counters” who can spot potential problems in Congress. “They’re just not plugged in,” he said.

Bush’s failure to establish an agenda of a limited number of goals has posed a major problem from the outset, several Republican sources said. They attribute Reagan’s early successes to his focusing on three specific goals--cutting taxes, slashing domestic spending and boosting defense spending--to the exclusion of all distractions.


One source said that Bush, in his Inaugural Address and Feb. 9 speech to Congress, “talked about 15 or 16 different items, including such mundane things as statehood for Puerto Rico, just put everything on the platter. He learned nothing from Carter’s experience. He offered an unfocused agenda when timing is of the essence.

“The first 30 or 60 days a President has to have a clear vision of where he’s taking the country and has to get people in place to implement changes,” the source added.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was Carter’s domestic policy adviser, pointed to “a genuine slowness in naming people” to staff the new Administration.

Not All Sent to Senate

Bush, defending the pace of his appointments, said that he has announced 67 top appointees, compared to Reagan’s 55 at this stage of his presidency. By this time, however, Reagan had sent the names of all 55 of his appointees to the Senate for confirmation, while the White House said that Bush has submitted the names of only about 33 and has merely announced his intention to nominate the rest.

The Administration blames newly beefed-up FBI background checks for the delay. Regardless, it has left major parts of the government operating under the guidance of holdovers from the Reagan Administration.

“Those who will be there long-term and have the authority are not in place in most of the top offices at the State Department,” said an official of another agency, “so it makes it cumbersome when we deal with them. We don’t know what the policy is going to be on Nicaragua, Panama or a number of things.”

Although Bush said that he is “relaxed” about the pace of appointments, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said there is “a sense of urgency” about “putting pressure where we need to to get people in positions as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, instances of delayed reaction or failure to act are legion in many corners of the government.

In the arena of foreign policy, Bush ordered a review of the Administration’s options, a step that supporters describe as reasonable caution but critics say has led to stagnation. Bush, acknowledging that the absence of a defense secretary was “an inhibiting factor,” promised at his press conference that the review would be completed by April 20.

In its absence, two recent initiatives in Central America caught the Administration by surprise. The presidents of five nations proposed a new regional peace plan that included free elections in Nicaragua and the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador offered to recognize the results of the next presidential election.

“I would not necessarily say they were caught with their pants down,” said Reuben Zamora, coordinator of the Democratic Convergence, a leftist political movement in El Salvador. “But they were putting their pants on.”

In the Middle East, Bush appears to have conceded the initiative to the Soviet Union. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze recently conducted a dramatic tour of the region, but Baker ruled out a similar tour because, a State Department spokesman said, “the whole aspect of our approach to the peace process is under review.”

William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, warned: “They will be left behind if they don’t get out in front.”

At the Defense Department, the absence of a secretary during the Tower confirmation fight has delayed some of the Administration’s key decisions.

In mid-February, the Pentagon missed a congressionally mandated deadline to report on the relative merits of the 10-warhead MX missile and the proposed single-warhead Midgetman missile. And just last week, the Pentagon asked Congress for a delay in delivering a report on options to build a more limited ground-based missile defense system.

On the other hand, said Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood, the Defense Department is still signing 61,000 contracts on an average day.