By all accounts, there was no grand political plan to embrace government activism suddenly — events forced the administration’s hand. Ephedra’s fate has seemed clear since a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles died after taking it early this year, though this is the first time the Food and Drug Administration has banned such an herbal supplement. And with mad cow disease suddenly dominating every cable channel and front page, Mr. Bush and a small clutch of his aides staring out at the cattle grazing his ranch knew they had to appear to be taking action.
In this case, the action included some protective steps they rejected as unnecessary just months ago.
In fact, quietly, in ways few would notice, Mr. Bush’s aides have been doing everything they could think of in recent months to inoculate Mr. Bush against accusations that the war in Iraq has led him to ignore risks and annoyances of everyday life.
The man who drew cheers in 2000 by promising to roll back government interference with the private markets has, in recent months, gladly signed legislation to restrict telemarketing and e-mail spam, and boasts at fund-raisers that he will lock up executives who abuse the public trust in their companies. It is a line that always draws big cheers, a reflection of how the political atmospherics about big government have changed in the three years Mr. Bush has been in office.
“As far as I can tell, he has not uttered the word `deregulation’ since 2001,” said James L. Gattuso, a research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, who recently completed a study of regulation in the Bush era. “This stuff about the antiregulation president is a Howard Dean myth,” he argued.
That is certainly the way Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist, would like to position Mr. Bush in the coming year. An so, in the last week of 2003, the Bush administration has suddenly reached back to the politics of Theodore Roosevelt, who instantly rode the political winds after Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” sending his own agents to the Chicago stockyards and pressing for the first Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1907.
Mr. Bush, who used to keep a volume of T.R.’s speeches on his coffee table here, has so far said little about the efforts to contain mad cow disease. But he is expected to address the issue on Wednesday, when the residents of this small farming town expect him to show up — as he traditionally does on Dec. 31 — at the local diner for his favorite cheeseburger special.
The actions on Tuesday enable him to answer his Democratic challengers, who since Sunday have been issuing broadsides against the administration for waiting too long to act. “The new policy is too little and much of it is too late,” Representative Richard A. Gephardt said on Tuesday. “Many of the measures should have been taken immediately when we knew that the deadly disease was a threat to our food supply.” Both Mr. Gephardt and Senator John Kerry issued plans this week to deal with the issue; many of those steps were taken by the Agriculture Department on Tuesday.
“It’s a time to be cautious,” one of Mr. Bush’s aides in Washington said late on Tuesday, when asked about the seeming rush to enact rules that have been debated, to little effect, for many months. “You want to make judgments based on good science, but also on maintaining confidence.”