How Bush Plans to Roll Back Clinton

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Sharing coffee and small talk in the White House before the swearing-in ceremony

One morning at the nub end of Bill Clinton's presidency, Clinton chief of staff John Podesta walked into a senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room waving a copy of USA Today. Holding the paper aloft, Podesta read the headline out loud: "Clinton actions annoy Bush." The article detailed the new rules and executive orders the outgoing President was issuing in his final days, actions aimed in equal measure at locking in Clinton's legacy (in areas like environmental protection) and bedeviling his successor. "What's Bush so annoyed about?" Podesta asked with a devilish smile. "He's got four years to try to undo all the stuff we've done."

As he stood on the Capitol steps on Saturday, George W. Bush was already at work doing just that. Simply by taking the oath of office, he believes, he performed his first symbolic act in the rollback of Clintonism. At nearly every campaign stop for 18 months, Bush promised that when he raised his hand and swore on the Bible, he would be restoring "honor and dignity" to a sullied White House. The tune in Washington will now come from the B side of the baby boom — the kids who never dreamed of turning on, tuning in or dropping out. Clinton and his staff were hardly hippies, but the Bushies regard them as such. "There will be no blue jeans in the Oval Office," sniffs a Bush aide, referring to the relaxed dress code that sometimes gave Clinton's West Wing a dorm-room feel.

It's easy to require neckties, harder to roll back policies. Clinton's high approval rating and Bush's loss of the popular vote make drastic ideological shifts nearly impossible. And so Bush started small on Saturday, using his executive power for the first time to establish a national day of prayer and tinker with ethics rules governing the behavior of White House employees. His first 180 days of policymaking will feature a plan to roll back some Clinton tax increases, but Bush wants to spend more time and energy defining his own agenda — reforming schools, reorganizing the military and funding faith-based charities — than undoing the recent past.

He will be under constant pressure to do more. The Bush suggestion box is bursting with helpful hints from supporters who want W. to hack away at Clinton initiatives on everything from restricting diesel-truck emissions to costly ergonomic workplace rules. Miners have asked Bush to halt Clinton's aggressive use of an 1872 mining law that the industry says makes it too easy to block development. Business groups want to overturn a rule that bars companies from federal contracts if they have been accused of violating a federal law. Microsoft hopes that Bush's body language from the campaign means his Justice Department will drop, or at least tone down, the government's case against the software giant. Tobacco companies are counting on Bush to give up the 1999 federal racketeering suit against them. And in his final month as president, Clinton provided a raft of additional targets, including measures announced just last week to protect more than 1 million acres of federal land, such as the Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana and a portion of Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Property-rights advocates and western Republican governors howl that these vast protected spaces — what one Bush adviser calls "land grabs" — hurt local logging companies and property owners.

On Saturday, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card sent a memo to all agencies ordering them to halt the actual printing of new regulations, enacting the same ad hoc moratorium that Presidents Reagan and Clinton used to prevent their predecessors' last-minute work from taking effect. Among Bush's targets: new environmental restrictions on runoff from animal-feeding operations and guidelines for managed-care programs under Medicare.

Social conservatives hope Bush will act as quickly as Clinton did when he came to office, but with the opposite intent. Clinton signed five quick orders to expand abortion rights by, among other things, reversing a rule limiting abortion counseling at federally funded clinics and lifting a ban on abortions at military facilities. As early as next week, aides say, Bush may delight conservatives by signing an order that would withhold funding from overseas agencies that even discuss abortion with patients. Sources tell TIME that the so-called Mexico City provision, named for the city where Ronald Reagan first discussed the prohibition, was the topic of a memo last week from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the White House, outlining the options for carrying out this order. Powell, who is pro-choice, recommended no specific course of action. Bush is evaluating a Clinton order that prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in federal jobs, but conservatives doubt he will have the stomach to reverse it. He doesn't want to bring on a full-throated cultural war by taking on pro-choicers, gay-rights advocates and affirmative-action supporters all at once.

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