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Year-End Views of the President

PRESIDENT BUSH'S first year can best be viewed from several settings: First, there is the ceremonial president, greeting guests at a White House Christmas party with a zest we hadn't seen there for years. Ronald Reagan was amiably detached as he shook hands - always warm, but formal. Nancy Reagan was gracious, but never too unbending. They both usually exited quickly after the required greeting.

But George and Barbara Bush made us all feel that we were at home with them in their family living room. No airs from them, no projection of self-importance.

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It was no different from chatting with George Bush in his home in Houston before he became interested in running for Congress. He and Mrs. Bush are easy to be with; they make guests feel comfortable.

But it was the sunny self-confidence of this president at year's end - despite problems like Panama - that was so often commented on by the guests, most of them members of the Bush administration.

As he and Mrs. Bush walked around the East Room it was apparent that they both were feeling good about themselves. Not cocky. But very good.

Never mind that Mr. Bush was getting a pounding from critics who faulted his sending envoys to Beijing and how he was dealing with Panama. Never mind that still immense budget deficit. Mr. Bush knew his public approval rating stood at 70 percent, the highest any president had enjoyed at this stage in his administration since John Kennedy scored 77 percent back in 1961. He knew, too, that most of the media had decided he was off to a good start after a year in office.

He wasn't bouncy as he talked with one guest and then with another - nothing that could be called preppy bumptiousness. But he definitely had a spring in his step. So did Barbara Bush, who is becoming one of the capitol's best-liked First Ladies.

Second, the president whose administration faces huge problems. The morning after the White House party, drug czar William Bennett met with journalists at a Monitor breakfast. He arrived before the reporters, and, while courteous, appeared troubled. He soon let it be known that the US District Judge in New York who favored the legalization of drugs made his work more difficult. He said he was making progress. But he admitted to many frustrations.

The president promised in his inaugural address that one of his top priorities would be to wage and win a war against drugs. He moved quickly to put a program into place, and named Mr. Bennett its chief.

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But at year's end Bennett could not claim he was winning the war. He could say he was off to a good start. And he is giving his all. But as newsmen observed, Bill Bennett's usual exuberance was toned down.

Third, the president the public perceives - a chief executive who smiles a lot and joshes, but who, as shown by his Panama move, also carries a big stick.

Yet the record may show Mr. Bush was patient in dealing with Noriega. It was only after he had exhausted other ways of removing the dictator that US troops were sent in.

But even a president who has been cautious in his use of force is stirring up considerable criticism, particularly from doves who abhor any military intervention by the US - particularly, in Latin America.

However, most of the public has rallied behind Bush in his Panama decision. Americans like a strong president.

Overall, it was on the global stage that the president made his biggest dent last year. Cautiously (and caution is his mark) Bush is encouraging the reform movement in Eastern Europe and giving support to Mikhail Gorbachev. Thus, as he heads into the new year, Bush is trying to be part of an epic transformation of the world.

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