WASHINGTON — "I'm incredibly optimistic about this country's future," George W. Bush often said during the presidential campaign. "I'm looking for that chance to lift the country's spirits."
As president, Bush often has struck quite a different tone. Last week, he made several references to an energy "crisis" facing the country. He has seized on the economy's weaknesses to promote his big tax cut. A week earlier, Bush offered a more pessimistic view of North Korea's intentions than his predecessor had, producing a furious response in Pyongyang.
What accounts for the change? Bush and his allies say the president's remarks are an honest assessment of altered circumstances; they say it's one thing to be optimistic and another to be a Pollyanna. Bush's opponents charge that the president is exaggerating — and perhaps even causing — problems in a bid to sell his policies. Both sides agree that the president has used pessimistic outlooks to justify his tax
cut and to explain his decision to abandon a pledge to curb carbon dioxide emissions. He also renewed a call for his missile defense plan at the same time he voiced doubts about missile talks with North Korea.
Bush saw firsthand the consequences that followed when his father tried to sound upbeat about a struggling economy in 1992, a time when Democrats didn't hesitate to bash the economy for their own purposes. More important, said Stuart Stevens, a Bush campaign adviser, "he's being realistic here. . . . If he were not taking the tone he's taking, writers would be saying he's out of touch, floating above everything in a feel-good, cotton-candy cocoon."
Stevens said Bush's mixture of hard truths and underlying optimism is from "the Kennedy mold" of leadership. "When Bobby Kennedy said we have a civil-rights crisis in America, people didn't say, 'What are you bad-mouthing America for?' " Stevens said. "When John Kennedy talked about the threats of the Soviet Union, people didn't say, 'Why are you trying to scare us?' "
Bush's opponents take a less charitable view. They argue that the gloomy economic talk has been exaggerated to pass, or even increase, Bush's $1.6 trillion 10-year tax cut. "This all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said this past week. Other critics say that Bush is overstating the energy crisis to back down on his pledge to curb carbon dioxide emissions and to open up new parts of the country for oil drilling. Some even suspect he is antagonizing North Korea to build his case for a missile defense system.
Bush's shift from campaign optimism to governing pessimism has fueled charges that he is acting in a more combative and doctrinaire manner than he promised. Many of the president's early actions — dropping ergonomic regulations, making bankruptcy more difficult, tightening abortion law and seeking to limit the power of unions — were not part of the six core themes on which Bush campaigned.
"You could call this 'second-thought week' for the Bush administration, apparently," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., said Friday. "There is a lot of second-thought articulation this week. And the more second thoughts they have, the more second thoughts I've got about their real desire to work with us to accomplish what we need to, on campaign reform, on taxes, on the environment, on trade, on an array of issues."
Bush strategists point out that none of the issues contradicts Bush's positions from the campaign, with the exception of carbon dioxide curbs, which the White House said was a mistake made during the campaign. "No one should be surprised that there's a conservative in the presidency," said Mark McKinnon, a Bush political adviser. "He's a compassionate conservative, but he's a conservative." Bush may not have talked much about ergonomics or abortion or labor policy during the campaign, but "they're issues he has to deal with," McKinnon said.
Bush aides point out that the president remains fully devoted to original priorities but realizes he cannot prevent changing circumstances and other issues from demanding earlier action. "Every week presents new challenges," said one. "You're constantly reacting."
Nor has Bush lost his optimism entirely. Closing a speech to small business owners Friday, the president said once more that "it is the role of the president to lift the spirit of the country."