The transition and the president's first year in office is the most important period for establishing the tone and character of the White House's relationship with Congress. It is the time of closest scrutiny and the greatest vulnerability to making major mistakes. Taking the right steps early and avoiding errors can lay in the foundation for a productive working relationship. Actions taken in this period create lasting impressions. According to Max Friedersdorf, the “enemies and mistakes made in the first week will dog a President throughout his term in office.” Stuart Eizenstat adds, “I don't think Carter's image ever recovered from some of those early mistakes.”
This essay examines George Bush's relations with Congress early in his term. First I focus on the context in which the new president is operating to explore the opportunities and constraints present in his environment. Then I assess the primary components of his legislative strategy.
When George Bush took the oath of office on January 20, 1989, he was already fighting an uphill battle in his relations with Congress. He began his tenure with one of the worst strategic positions of any newly-elected president in our history. There are two dimensions of his strategic position that bear examination: his leadership resources and his leeway in taking policy initiatives.
New presidents traditionally claim a mandate from the people, because the most effective means of setting the terms of debate and overcoming opposition is the perception of an electoral mandate, an impression that the voters want to see the winner's programs implemented. Indeed, major changes in policy, as in 1933, 1965, and 1981, virtually never occur in the absence of such perceptions.