New President Bush makes a promising first impression


What’s in a name? Plenty if it’s a sobriquet bestowed by President George W. Bush.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been wooed by the Texan’s down home folksiness, from backslapping and shoulder clutching to nicknaming and plain talking.

If everyone gets only one chance to make a first impression, Bush appears to have made an encouraging start with his all-out charm offensive.

“He is doing a good job,” Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said on Sunday, commending Bush for “reaching out so often.”

“I found him feisty, I found him engaged,” Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said last week after he and colleagues met Bush to discuss the president’s multibillion dollar education agenda that includes a voucher program opposed by the Massachusetts Democrat.

Rep. George Miller, the tall and burly California Democrat whom Bush has dubbed “Big George,” described the new president as likable and a good listener.

“I think the good feelings are going to last quite a while because he’s very genuine, and he reaches out,” Republican Sen. Trent Lott said on Sunday.

“He’s one of those guys that, you know, he comes over to you and puts his hand on your shoulder …” the Senate majority leader told “Fox News.”

Bush, in what Lott described as “a southern thing,” has begun to refer to many of members of Congress by their last names as in “Hey, Lott.”

“Actually, he says, ‘Hey leader’ most of the time,” the Mississippi senator said.

During the presidential campaign Bush, running as a Washington outsider who vowed to change the acrimonious tone of politics in the nation’s capital, kept the congressional leadership at a respectful arms length.

But since the disputed Nov. 7 election was settled in mid-December, the former Texas governor has worked hard on a bipartisan embrace, inviting Democrats and Republicans to Austin for brainstorming sessions on education, defense and faith-based initiatives.

Bush also had expressed an interest in attending a retreat for Democratic senators next week and perhaps the caucus of House Democrats this week.

“We hear that he might want to do that,” Gephardt said. “We would be happy to have him. If he wants to come and talk with our members, we are always happy and ready to do that.”

In the week since his Jan. 20 swearing-in as the 43rd U.S. president, Bush has hosted 90 members of Congress at the White House, one-third of them Democrats and held an informal discussion with Democratic elders from past administrations.

Most of them came away impressed with the new president’s personal skills but some were still wary of his policies, unsure of his motives and uncertain about his abilities.

“I think he’s gotten off to a good start,” Sen. Evan Bayh said on Sunday. But the Indiana Democrat gave Bush poor marks for the nomination of the conservative former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general, calling it “unfortunately divisive.”

“But other than that, I think he’s doing well,” Bayh said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

So far Bush’s honeymoon has gone fairly smoothly, although Republicans concede the bliss is unlikely to be permanent.

“Well, you know, you can’t have it this way forever and everybody knows that,” Sen. Fred Thompson said on the same CNN program. “Circumstances will take over. We’ll get closer to elections and things of that nature.”

The Tennessee Republican predicted that so long as Bush continued “to reach out” and keep his campaign promises he would have “the respect of the American people.”

Bayh cautioned that the biggest risk to Bush’s pledge to unite rather than divide would come from the far right of the Republican Party.

“If he can resist their siren song and stick to the center, work with moderates in both parties, I think he’ll get education, a reasonable tax cut, and other things,” said Bayh.

Other Democrats, including Maryland’s governor Parris Glendening, were more cautious and less complimentary.

“As a college professor of a number of venues, I think it’s far too early in the semester to give him a grade,” Glendening said after he and other governors spent more than an hour at the White House discussing education with the new president.

“But he’s attending class and participating fully, so ask me in about three or four months and we’ll have a much better feel,” Glendening said.