Misoverestimating him: Media graded Bush's first 100 days on a curve
Research ››› ››› MORGAN WEILAND
Assessing President Bush's first 100 days, media figures and outlets repeatedly set a low bar -- which in some cases they explicitly acknowledged -- and then judged him as having cleared it.
Media assessments of the first 100 days of the presidency of George W. Bush were often characterized by (1) setting a low bar, which the media in some cases acknowledged and in many cases determined that he had cleared -- pronouncements based almost entirely on assessments of style and success in advancing his political agenda, rather than on the merits of his initiatives; and (2) favorable comparisons to President Clinton. In pronouncing Bush's presidency a refreshing change from the Clinton years, the media generally avoided comparisons of the substantive merits or abilities of the two men or of the effects of the policies they supported.
An April 29, 2001, New York Times editorial represented something of an exception to the media's Bush Day 100 coverage in that it undertook a substantive analysis of Bush's agenda. Still, the Times asserted in the editorial that "Mr. Bush has kept his promise to bring 'honor and dignity' back to the White House" -- an apparent dig at the prior administration -- and reflected the low bar in reporting what it claimed was the public's take on the Bush presidency, with no acknowledgment of the media's role in shaping Bush's image with the public:
In his unscripted public performances, Mr. Bush has seemed clumsy and amateurish by the standards of the four presidents mentioned above. But his sunny self-confidence, even his penchant for bankers' hours and long weekends, seems to sit well with many Americans. It is a relief, they seem to be saying, to have a president who is not so tiring and omnipresent as Mr. Clinton.
In January it was a cliché to say that expectations were low for Mr. Bush, who lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore. Today the general public appears to have moved past the ballot-counting disputes and grown comfortable with Mr. Bush's legitimacy as president. That represents a considerable political accomplishment in only three months.
At the level of manners, Mr. Bush has kept his promise to bring 'honor and dignity' back to the White House.
In an April 29, 2001, article headlined, "President Has Overcome Low Expectations; Goofs Aside, Bush Marks Are High," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette national bureau chief Ann McFeatters also made the Clinton comparison, writing that "Bush ... benefits in comparisons to former President Bill Clinton." But McFeatters cited no substantive policy issues on which Bush "benefit[ted] in comparison" to Clinton, instead writing:
The Bush White House runs on time; Clinton was usually late. The Bush White House rarely gets sidetracked from the agenda it earmarks for the day; Clinton wrestled with near-constant distractions.
Bush also delegates authority rather than weighing details of nearly every decision, as Clinton tended to do. The former president made a point of attending memorial services and rushing to disaster areas. Bush stays put.
Some presidential historians speculate that while Clinton was more intellectually curious, Bush may be shrewder in getting results.
Favorable media assessments of Bush's performance during his first 100 days include the following*:
- Morton Kondracke, Roll Call executive editor and columnist: "In 100 days, President Bush has, as promised, changed the tone in Washington. It's businesslike now, not boisterous. We're doing policy, not soap opera. And the public seems to like it. Instead of Bill Clinton's bifurcated poll ratings -- high job approval, low personal favorability -- Bush's are in sync. More than 60 percent of the public both approves of his performance and likes him personally. This is pretty remarkable, given that he lost the popular vote last November, he became president after a bitter recount fight and the economy is soft. ... Bush may be the beneficiary of low expectations." [Roll Call, "Bush Deserves Good Grades For 100 Days," April 26, 2001**]
- Joseph Curl, Washington Times reporter: "[T]he presidential candidate who pundits said lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to run the country has deftly handled an international crisis, increased his approval rating to 63 percent -- eight points higher than former President Bill Clinton enjoyed after his first 100 days -- and returned dignity to a White House stained by his predecessor." [The Washington Times, "Charming Bush lauded after 100 days; President focuses on taxes, education," April 30, 2001]
- Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, and Kate O'Beirne, National Review Washington editor: After host Mark Shields asked panelists on CNN's Capitol Gang to provide a "letter grade" for Bush's performance during his first 100 days in office, Novak responded, in part: "I would give him an A minus. And the only reason I give him the minus is the environment where I think he didn't sell the program and then he retreated on it. But everything else he's been much better than I thought he would be. I doesn't [sic] see any blunders. I think he has done a pretty good job in selling the tax program. Don't forget he came in as a disputed president, as a minority president, so I think he has done a very good job." Additionally, O'Beirne replied in part: "I think in the first 100 days George Bush should feel pretty darn good. I grade him higher than the gentlemen 'C' that some of his critics probably thought he was shooting for. I would give him a 'B' plus, and that's an average. High marks, I think, on policy. He benefits from contrasts with the previous administration. He is keeping promises. I think his low-key style is attractive. I would give him low marks on salesmanship." [CNN's Capitol Gang, April 28, 2001]
- William Safire, New York Times columnist: "A review of Bush's record in the first 16th of his term is better directed to what the gathering Bush administration is and is not. It is low-key, lower-voiced, deliberate, right of center but not confrontational. It is surely not Clintonesque, makes a big point of not being star-struck, and is no hotbed of hostility. The 'tone,' most agree, is changed. Then to what Bush has done and not done: He has resolutely pressed his tax cut, which would reduce the rate of growth of government, as he promised. He has restrained the last-days rush to set new environmental rules, at some cost to his reputation as ameliorator. He delayed new defense spending until his administration comes up with a coherent new national-security strategy. He made the partisanship less personal." [The New York Times, "Les Cents Jours," April 26, 2001] After Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, asked, "Give me the report card. How did [Bush] do, hundred days?" Safire said, in part: "Bush succeeded in his 100 days in not being Clinton. Not being Clinton is a big step forward." [NBC's Meet the Press, April 29, 2001]
- Bill Sammon, Washington Times White House correspondent: "The president has received generally positive reviews for his first months in office, partly because expectations were low after the Florida debacle. Mr. Bush's legitimacy has not been widely challenged by the public, contrary to predictions by liberal Democrats when Vice President Al Gore conceded the election on Dec. 13 after 36 days of contentious recounts in Florida. Polls show most Americans have closed ranks behind the new president, a trend that has heartened Mr. Bush. ... Many observers believe Mr. Clinton's last-minute flurry of pardons to felons has made Mr. Bush appear more honorable by comparison. The new president seems eager to capitalize on that perception." [The Washington Times, "Bush calls his 100-day accomplishments 'only a start,' " April 29, 2001]
- Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief: "When George W. Bush entered the White House 100 days ago, he faced a daunting challenge. The 43rd president won his office with just 48% of the popular vote, his election secured only by a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Demonstrators jeered his inaugural parade; comedians lampooned him as a lightweight. ... The doubts about Bush's legitimacy are gone now; even his most zealous Democratic critics in Congress acknowledge that. ... There have been missteps along the way ('Part of the newness of governing,' aide Karen Hughes concedes) but no blunders big enough to derail Bush from his main priorities: the tax cut, restrained federal spending, education reform and conservative policy shifts on the environment and energy." [Los Angeles Times, "Bush: The First 100 Days; At 100 Days and Counting, Bush's Star on the Rise," April 29, 2001]
- Fred Barnes, co-host of Fox News' The Beltway Boys: "Bush's 100 days, what have we learned about him that is the best so far? His style. Now, I think he's a perfect man of the times. His laid-back style fits the mood of the country. People are just tired of a president spoiled child, Bill Clinton, you know, who like a spoiled child has to be a center of attention all the time. ... I've got one more analogy. You know that comic Tom Green whose shtick is to go and stick his face in other people's face? That's Bill Clinton. People do not want an in-your-face presidency. They want something like a Jimmy Stewart presidency, you know, where he's kind of low-keyed and reticent but dignified. That's what they have. And it has helped create a new tone in Washington. And thank Bush for that." Kondracke, also a co-host of the program, said: "Well, look, there is a new tone in Washington, and it's good, it's much better." [Fox News' The Beltway Boys, April 28, 2001]
- David Westphal, Modesto Bee Washington bureau chief: "Given the rancor that accompanied his narrow victory over [Al] Gore -- and his lack of government experience -- Bush gets high marks from many quarters for getting off to a solid start. 'There's a general recognition among not only Republicans but also moderate Democrats that Bush has done quite well,' said David Schaefer, a political science professor at the College of the Holy Cross. 'Remember, it wasn't that long ago that we had movie actors promising to move abroad because Bush would ruin the country,' Schaefer quipped. ... Pollster John Zogby said Bush's performance has been better than expected, yielding a 'surprisingly long honeymoon.' " [Modesto Bee, "Bush Off to a Flying Start; Many Pleased with President's Work," April 29, 2001]
- George Stephanopoulos, ABC News correspondent: Stephanopoulos asserted in response to co-host Sam Donaldson's question about Bush's performance during his first 100 days, in part, "Listen, look what he's done politically. He's secured his conservative base. They are locked down in the first three months. And he's done it while maintaining an overall high approval rating. And at the same time, moving forward on his two biggest policy initiatives, the tax cut and the education bill, without making a big mistake. It's hard to fault him in his 100 days." [ABC's This Week, April 29, 2001]
- Steve Roberts, U.S. News and World Report contributing editor, and David Brooks, Weekly Standard senior editor: On CNN's Late Edition, host Wolf Blitzer asked of Bush: "What about an overall leadership during these first 100 days?" Roberts replied in part, "Well, I'd give him a B. I think that he has his strong points. I think he has, to some extent, not as much as he would like us to believe, changed the tone in Washington. I think he is very comfortable in the job. He has radiated a sense of confidence. I do think he has reached out to Democrats in a good way." Additionally, Brooks responded in part: "I give him an A overall. You know, he's a normal president. After Florida that was not inevitable." [CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, April 29, 2001]
- New York Daily News editorial: "Today, Bush enjoys the approval of 62% of Americans. That is partly because his sense of propriety stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton's behavior problems and disgraceful exit from the White House. As one man in the street explained, 'We've gone 100 days without a new scandal. That alone is an achievement.' ... Overall and on balance, the President has kept mistakes to a minimum. Which, in itself, means not such a bad start for a new administration." [Daily News, "Bush Strikes a Happy Medium," April 29, 2001]
- Robert George, New York Post associate editorial page editor: "I think he's done a very good job and in the sense of actually setting a tone. When you think that Bush campaigned on changing the tone in Washington and so forth, I think he's done -- I think he's done quite well. In a sense, we've gone -- we've gotten a to like a return to normalcy from the 'Perils of Pauline' presidency of Bill Clinton's. So I think in that sense, in that sense I think he's done very, very well." [CNN's Talkback Live, April 30, 2001]
- Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball: After playing a clip of Bush "reflecting on his first hundred days," Matthews asked guest Donald Trump: "When you look at a young guy in there, a young president, by relative terms, doing a pretty good job, passing some of the tests people have laid out for him, keeping things together, do you wish you were there?" [MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, April 25, 2001]
- Brit Hume, Fox News Washington managing editor: Hume stated that Bush "has been helped immeasurably by the performance of Bill Clinton when leaving office and by the fact, I think, that he stuck to his guns on his signature issue of a tax cut, and it looks like he's going to get it." In response, Mara Liasson, National Public Radio national political correspondent, stated: "Yes, and I also think the other thing that has helped him is low expectations. That's been a theme of his entire career." [Fox News Sunday, April 29, 2001]
- Ventura County Star editorial: "Mr. Clinton did not risk the slightest tussle with popularity to do what was so obviously required. The Bush White House, on the other hand, has so far seemed dedicated to a methodical, principled, professional approach to governance. Ultimately, of course, Mr. Bush's success or failure as president will depend on whether his ideas prevail legislatively and whether they then work well as law. It is too early to know. Measuring a president by his first 100 days is a convention that has not had much meaning since FDR mounted his assault on the Depression, but this much can now be said about Mr. Bush and those around him: So far, so good." [Ventura County Star, "Bush's First 100 Days," April 28, 2001]
* The titles provided in the bulleted list for media figures were those held at the time the quoted statements were made in 2001.
**Media Matters for America retrieved all transcripts and articles for which a link is not provided from the Nexis database.