President Bush, countering criticism that he has yet to define specific goals or introduce legislative initiatives, asked a hometown audience here Thursday to be patient with the public pace of his Administration’s progress.
“In this kind of work, more is going on than meets the eye--or makes the headlines,” he said. “This is an American agenda for the long term. We aren’t going to clean up the environment, turn our education system around or create a more responsive business climate in one single day. But if we begin today to make steady progress, we will succeed.”
But even as the President sought to draw attention to the long term, he returned to what so far has been the most immediate item on his agenda: the long effort to fill the vacant post of defense secretary.
Complains Again About Tower
On the day when the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nomination of Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) to head the Pentagon, Bush once again complained about the treatment given to his initial choice for the post, former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.). Tower’s nomination was rejected by the Senate last Thursday after a drawn-out battle over his drinking, relations with women and potential conflicts of interest.
Speaking quietly but emphatically during a question-and-answer session at the end of a luncheon speech, Bush said: “I think there are intrusions into people’s private lives that go beyond the public trust or go beyond one’s ability to serve and I don’t like the excesses.
“People say to me: ‘Didn’t it drag your Administration down, to stand with Sen. Tower?’ The answer is, no . . . . The answer is, I wasn’t able to move away from Sen. Tower,” Bush said. “People are entitled to fair play. They are entitled to have the rumor laid aside and people to make up decisions based on fact not perception, and so whether it damages me five percentage points or 10 doesn’t matter.”
In fact, the Bush White House has yet to determine by public opinion poll whether the fight over Tower has damaged the President’s popularity. Robert Teeter, who supervised polling for Bush during the presidential campaign, said Wednesday that no opinion survey has been conducted for the White House since Bush took office on Jan. 20--a gap that would have been unheard of in the Ronald Reagan White House.
As he approaches the end of his second month in office, Bush, who pledged to “hit the ground running,” has taken increasingly to defending the relatively slow pace of his Administration.
Responding to criticism from Republicans, among others, the President and his aides have argued that the presidential term runs four years and that, in a time of budgetary constraints, they must weigh options carefully and restrict themselves to top priority items before moving forward publicly.
And, indeed, the President argued Thursday at the start of his speech: “I’ve come to Texas to tell you we’re hard at work in Washington--and we’re making progress.”
Risks to Strategy
But in defending himself at length--as he did in Texas and as he did during a nationally televised news conference two weeks ago--Bush risks crossing a narrow line: He draws attention to the criticism and thus risks cementing it in the public consciousness, without necessarily convincing his audiences that his Administration is moving forward.
In foreign policy, he has put off any major steps pending a “global” review. And he introduced his first major domestic initiative--a child care tax credit for low-income parents--Wednesday.
However, he has kept up a busy travel schedule to make contact with audiences around the country and lay out the broad themes on what he referred to Thursday as an agenda “to get ready for a new century.” As of Thursday, the 55th day of his presidency, he had spent all or part of 15 days on the road--maintaining the peripatetic pace of his vice presidency.
Addressing the Forum Club, an independent, nonpartisan group established 11 years ago to present speakers to Houston audiences, Bush defended his reluctance to date to tackle foreign policy issues.
In the four months since Bush was elected President, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has captured worldwide attention with a plan, made public at the United Nations, to make sharp reductions in Soviet military forces and to trim the number of Soviet troops stationed in Eastern Europe--and Bush has yet to illuminate the path he will follow in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Cites ‘Prudent Review’
“Some are saying: ‘You’d better hurry up. You don’t want Mr. Gorbachev to capture the high ground with his speech at the United Nations. Don’t want him to mold public opinion further in Europe,’ ” he said. But, Bush declared, “far more important is that we do a prudent review of our foreign policy, national security requirements and then in concert with our allies move forward.”
“We are prepared to lead the (North Atlantic Treaty) alliance. The United States has in the past. But I am not going to be pushed into speedy action because Mr. Gorbachev gives a compelling speech at the United Nations and I hope the Soviets understand that,” the President said, echoing an approach he enunciated at the news conference two weeks ago.
After the speech, Bush flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he delivered a dinner speech on education.