Panel: Bush needs to extend strong leadership to domestic issues

President Bush has grown more confident as a leader, especially in the patriotic environment after Sept. 11, 2001, while overcoming many of the early hurdles of his presidency, panelists in a two-day conference examining the Bush administration agreed Friday.

The five panelists on a roundtable of Washington correspondents during "The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment" agreed that Bush has been strengthened by the current anti-terrorism, pro-America sentiment and the success of the recent war in Iraq. They emphasized that his challenge now is making the style that has worked for him in foreign policy equally effective in today's pressing domestic issues such as the economy and his proposed tax cut.

Bush is finding out that pushing his domestic agenda, particularly his proposed tax cuts, requires different skills than those needed to build support for a war, The Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Jeanne Cummings told the overflow crowd packed into the auditorium of the University's Computer Science Building. The roundtable was moderated by Fred Greenstein, presidential scholar and an emeritus professor of politics at Princeton.

A key story of the Bush presidency thus far, however, is that he has "overcome very low expectations," said panelist Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Clinton and a member of Princeton's class of 1976.

Cummings added that Bush also has reaped some benefits from unexpected sources, such as the often-public disputes between his key cabinet members, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"It puts him in the position of being the manager, the man in charge," who resolves high-level disagreements, Cummings argued.

There remain, however, "two Bushes," said Carl Cannon, White House correspondent for the National Journal. Bush can be eloquent in formal speeches but often fumbles when called on to speak extemporaneously, Cannon noted while reading several now-familiar Bush malapropisms.

Cummings added that the country has a president who is able to connect with the basic thread of American patriotism, yet has almost "no interaction with the people."

The panelists described a Bush White House where information is tightly controlled and where it can be maddening to get questions answered. The president and those around him stick to their "script" with an almost "theological consistency," according to New York Times Washington correspondent Todd Purdum, a 1982 Princeton graduate. Purdum said that this White House is willing to "threaten reporters with reprisals" in a way that never occurred during the Clinton years.

McCurry added that the role of press secretary as a "piñata" for the press corps, to be whacked at until something interesting shakes loose, doesn't exist in this White House. "Nothing interesting ever spills out of their press team," McCurry said. He added that, despite the perception of a liberal bias in the media, "the press, in their heart of hearts, likes George Bush. The press, in their heart of hearts, never really liked Bill and Hillary Clinton."

The conference, which continues Saturday with sessions analyzing the policies and politics of the Bush administration, is sponsored by the Program in Leadership Studies, the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics and the Center of International Studies of the Woodrow Wilson School. This roundtable also was included in the schedule for the Princeton Colloquium on "A World of 'Good and Evil'?" , which continues on Saturday as well.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601