There's something strange about the transition of power from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. The country has had a change of Presidents and a change of parties. But Americans are not looking for a change of direction. As a result, the new President's "mandate" is elusive.
Compare Americans' satisfaction with the country's direction now with the way they felt when Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, and when Bush's father was inaugurated in 1989.
When the elder Bush took office in January 1989, 45 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going, according to the Gallup Poll. People were on the line between change and continuity. They wanted some changes from the Reagan Administration, but not the kind of radical change of direction they saw in Michael Dukakis. Bush captured the nation's mood then by talking about a "kinder, gentler" America. When Clinton took office, only 29 percent of Americans said they were happy with the way things were going. The economy was in bad shape, and people wanted a big change of direction.
And now? 56 percent of Americans say they're satisfied with the way things are going. That percentage is almost twice as high as when Clinton took office. It's even higher than when George W.'s father took office. Indeed, the public mood now is a lot more like 1989 when Bush's father came in than 1993 when Clinton came in. Except for one thing: We're changing parties now. We were not changing parties in 1989. To change parties without changing direction is an unusual challenge for a new President.
And it's all about Bill Clinton. Americans were happy with the departing President's job performance. He left office with a 66 percent job-approval rating. That was 3 points higher than President Reagan's job rating at the end of his two terms. In fact, Clinton left office with the highest job rating of any American chief executive on record.
That's why a lot of people expected Al Gore to win the presidency by a landslide. But the result on Election Day was virtually a tie. Why did so many people vote for Bush? Because many Americans felt the country's moral condition was seriously off track. Right now, solid majorities say they believe President Bush will create more respect for the presidency and improve the nation's moral values. What Americans want from Bush is better moral leadership, not radically different policies.
That's why "character" was the theme of Bush's inaugural address: It was the issue that got him elected. As the new President put it, the country needs "responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."
"Character" also enabled Bush to sound a mildly Republican theme. "Our public interest depends on private character," Bush said, adding later: "What you do is as important as anything government does." That's about as partisan as the speech ever got. Bush also drew a contrast with his predecessor. "America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected." As in the case of a President who, on his last day in office, concluded an immunity deal in which he acknowledged lying under oath.
Character is an old-fashioned word. It's rarely part of the language of baby boomers and yuppies—Bush and Clinton's generation. But Bush and Clinton come from opposite sides of that generation. Clinton was the first President to come out of the culture of the '60s—a culture that conservatives say corrupted American life with an ethic of self-indulgence. Bush stood apart from that culture (drinking was not a part of it), and as an adult, he renounced it.
In his inaugural address, he repudiated this culture using the language of religion: "[God's] purpose is achieved in our duty." Bush's religious language was inclusive: "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." Any Democrat could have said that.
There was a lot more compassion than conservatism in Bush's remarks. The compassion was in the language. The conservatism was in Bush's hard-line positions. It's a tricky balancing act. Bush says to conservatives: "I endorse your positions, but I embrace your adversaries. I oppose abortion, but I respect the views of those who disagree. I oppose hate-crimes legislation, but I welcome gay supporters. I oppose affirmative action, but I do not use the issue as a litmus test for my Secretary of State."
It's the Reagan approach: the hard line and the smiling face. But Ronald Reagan went one step further. He made deals and compromised even while he continued to take a hard line, thereby convincing conservatives that he was not abandoning his principles. Can Bush pull that off? He reassured conservatives by selecting John Ashcroft for his Cabinet. At the same time, experienced Washington deal-makers such as Dick Cheney, Andrew Card, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul O'Neill surround Bush.
Jimmy Carter, Clinton, and Reagan came to Washington as conquerors, determined to take on the forces of the status quo. Bush says he wants only to change the tone of Washington to one of greater civility. There's less arrogance to the Bush team, more willingness to reach out, particularly to Congress. A hard line, a smiling face, and a willingness to deal. Could be a formula for success.