January 25, 2002 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
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
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
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
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
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.
Edwards, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the
author of several books, including The Conservative Revolution: The
Movement that Remade America.
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