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Bush's First 100 Days

THE traditional 100-day benchmark for judging new presidents has always been an artificial one, and that's especially so for George Bush. He's conducting, as he says, a ``friendly takeover'' of the federal government. There have not been domestic or foreign crises to respond to. Mr. Bush has always been more thoughtful and deliberate than an impulsive visionary or tinkerer. And this seems to be just fine with Americans, who think just as highly of him now as they did when he first took office.

But like the seventh-grader we know who brought his report card home the other day, presidents need to be regularly rated, and this seems as good a time as any to do it. So here's our reading of Bush's performance thus far:

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Domestically, the administration has made some good first moves on controlling drugs and the horrendous firepower that attends drug dealing. There are questions about its approach to the savings-and-loan mess, but it does include needed regulatory reform and spreads the cost around. The President was slow to respond to the Alaskan oil spill, but he and his EPA chief moved quickly and directly on acid rain.

On the federal budget, Bush has given some ($15 billion worth) on the ``flexible freeze'' he promised for domestic programs. But this - in combination with minimal cuts in defense and limited new revenues - means he (and Congress) have put off the hardest decisions on how to reduce the deficit. In a New York Times interview this week, Comptroller General Charles Bowsher warned that the budget deficit ``is growing exactly the same way the S&L crisis grew.''

On foreign affairs, it's been pretty much steady-as-she-goes, which is as it should be. Pressure is being kept on Israel to deal with Palestinians. The moves toward helping Poland economically and relieving third-world debt are good ones. And the markedly different approach to Central America - diplomacy over military force - is certainly welcome.

Bush is waiting for a complete strategic review before making any moves on arms control and relations with the Soviet Union. Given the breathtaking changes and relative instability over which Mikhail Gorbachev presides, this is not a bad idea. For all the appearance of initiative by the Soviet leader (and agitation over ``Gorby fever''), it's still up to Moscow to prove there is more substance than image in those things that relate to US security.

Politically, it's been a time of compromise and cooperation rather than confrontation - except for raising the minimum wage, where we think Bush is wrong on his veto pledge. The President stuck with John Tower to the end, but then quickly put the fight behind him with the nomination of Richard Cheney as Pentagon chief. On the whole, his Cabinet is lining up as a solid group of experienced pragmatists who represent reasonable positions and want to make government work.

That, no doubt, is frustrating to partisans on the left and right, as is accommodating congressional concerns on such things as mobile strategic missiles and government ethics the way Bush has.

But again, it seems obvious that this is what Americans want as they look forward to the 1,361 days left in George Bush's term.

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