January 25, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Rendezvous with History

No U.S. president has been as coolly welcomed and as warmly praised by the American people as George W. Bush in his first year.

Widely described as an "accidental" president, he began his term cautiously, focusing on domestic issues and expressing little interest in the nation-building foreign policy that had characterized his predecessor's administration.

Early on, President Bush seemed detached and even uncomfortable in the job. His political clout was significantly reduced when a Republican senator defected and voted with the Democrats to give them control of the Senate. House Republicans seemed to harbor their own agenda, seldom reflecting the president's "compassionate conservatism."

Still, President Bush won a sizable tax cut of $1.6 billion and pushed hard for an education bill that would enshrine "accountability" as a national goal for the first time.

Although by early fall there were clear signs of a recession, there were few signs of protest, either at the grassroots level or in the nation's capital. After all, America was the strongest, most prosperous nation in human history. If the current occupant of the White House didn't seem especially smart or articulate, what difference did it make? The nation had survived mediocrity -- and worse -- before.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

No longer a remote chief executive, President Bush moved quickly, as The Wall Street Journal wrote, to rally three key constituencies: He called for bipartisanship and asked Congress to approve a multi-billion-dollar campaign against "acts of war"; he worked with Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and other countries to coordinate a global response to terrorism; and he reassured a stunned American public that "we will win" the war.

Aided by the historic impulse to rally around the president in time of crisis -- as well as by his impressive leadership -- the president's approval ratings skyrocketed until they reached 90 percent. Not one of more than 15 prominent Gore loyalists said publicly that their candidate could have done a better job.

Bush's remarkable popularity rests in part on the outstanding team he's assembled, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice. It's also been helped by the fact that the president has turned out to be a very effective communicator, as shown by his compelling address to Congress eight days after the terrorist attacks.

Also, the war in Afghanistan went far better than anyone, even the generals in the Pentagon, anticipated. Pessimists warned of a quagmire, but they were fighting the last Afghan war, when the mujahideen drove the Soviets out with hand-held Stinger missiles. The United States demoralized and demolished the Taliban in just three months.

Furthermore, the threat of terrorism united and inspired the American people. Far from having a nervous breakdown, Americans responded to the first major terrorist attack on our soil in a balanced and level-headed way. "The can-do pioneers who tamed a wild continent and then helped to win three world confrontations," wrote the Economist, "have not disappeared after all."

President Bush's popularity inevitably will come down, even though it still rests in the mid-80s. Bipartisanship will become increasingly difficult because of this fall's elections. Even patriotism may become a bit passe.

But America cannot return to a pre-Sept. 11 way of life. The terrorist attacks were a defining moment in American history, like the assassination of President Kennedy and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

How much has changed was reflected in a national poll that revealed President Bush would sweep to victory in a presidential rematch with Al Gore, 61 percent to 35 percent. Yet the president can't take public approval for granted.

So far, George Bush has performed superbly as a wartime president. He has been reassuring and determined, as confident in private with aides and friends as he is in public. For all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds him, the president doesn't take himself too seriously -- as he demonstrated by his self-deprecating explanation of the pretzel that wouldn't go down the right way.

His most difficult task may well be guiding America out of its economic slump, a task made more difficult by the global economic turndown. The challenge is formidable: stimulate the economy and roll back the recession without running up huge deficits and returning to an era of big government.

It's a balancing act of economics and politics that will demand great skill and care -- the very qualities that President Bush has demonstrated so ably over the last year.

 

Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of several books, including The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America.

About the Author

Lee Edwards, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

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