Mr. Bush's Debut

Wednesday, February 11, 2009; 12:00 AM

Editor's note: We bring you this editorial as part of our RePosted feature, where we dig through The Post archives to find opinion pieces that shed light on current events. In a column today about assessing Barack Obama's presidency, Ruth Marcus notes that George W. Bush was being commended for his bipartisanship at this point in his presidency. Case in point is this editorial, originally published on Feb. 4, 2001.

AS GOVERNOR of Texas, George W. Bush wooed Democrats as well as Republicans; the second time he was elected, it was with the endorsement of several Democratic leaders and nearly 70 percent of the popular vote. Now, as president, Mr. Bush is again reaching out to his opponents. He has gestured toward blacks, who voted against him overwhelmingly, by inviting the Congressional Black Caucus over to the White House, by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and by talking about slavery and civil rights. He has addressed a private meeting of Senate Democrats and is due to speak to the House Democrats at their retreat in Pennsylvania today. He has even teamed up with Sen. Edward Kennedy on a plan to help disabled people. His spokesman cheekily reminds people that he "also has friends who aren't Democrats."

This effort to reach across party lines is admirable, even if it is also a calculated method to advance Mr. Bush's not-always-moderate agenda. The president's first substantive initiatives have included some moderate moves on education; some conservative causes such as the promotion of faith-based social work have been advanced with centrist tact. But Mr. Bush has also nominated a divisive attorney general, muzzled international family-planning groups, talked of drilling up Alaska's wildlife refuge and promoted an immoderate tax cut. Opponents of those policies, including us, may sometimes resist the goals of Mr. Bush's charm offensive. But charm is certainly preferable to the venomous sniping that too often mars government.

It is too early to say whether the charm will be successful. In these honeymoon weeks, Mr. Bush's more open-minded opponents have seemed willing to work with him, and those who have spurned his overtures have been left looking churlish. As time goes on, it may be harder to sustain optimism. Mr. Bush wins points now by declaring that he aims to "rid the system of rancor." At a certain time, however, his promises will begin to sound hollow unless he has helped foster real change in the political culture.

That will be difficult for the same reason it is desirable. The separation of powers drives the president and members of Congress to fight each other; checking one another's initiatives is what the system is about. The Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the House nearly so; the stakes in the next election are therefore especially high; the players are frenetically raising money already. In this environment, charm tends to get drowned out by adversarial soundbites.

Yet precisely because power is separated, the system desperately needs charm to lubricate it. That is why "bipartisan" sometimes seems to be the highest compliment in Washington, and why the tone of President Bush's first fortnight deserves a warm welcome.

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