A presidency shaken finds 'higher calling'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - It looked as though George W. Bush would be a domestic president. He lacked seasoning in foreign affairs. The nation was at peace. Bush's plan: bring to the White House a recipe of reforms that he felt had made him a successful governor.

"It can be done," his pledge went. "I've done it in Texas."

But on Sept. 11, Bush's record in Texas suddenly lost much of its relevance to his presidency. His calling, his job and the public's expectations, in a single day, were redefined, the stakes abruptly ratcheted up. Never before in modern American history had a presidency been transformed so abruptly - literally overnight - to face an uncharted new mission.

In the past year, Bush has become a foreign policy president - the very role almost no one thought he would fill. He has led a war against terrorism. And he has sought to refashion the government to focus, above all, on threats to national security.

It has been a striking shift for a man who banked his presidency on his record as a governor most concerned about education and tax cuts, a man who, as a presidential candidate, could not name the leader of Pakistan. Before and after his election, Bush endured ridicule for his perceived ignorance of international affairs.

White House advisers insist that Bush himself has changed little since Sept. 11. Yet his public image has undergone a profound transformation.

Among skeptics and supporters, Bush has gained credibility and stature. Those who favor his policies seem to admire him more. They see a leader who has shown decisiveness and unflagging energy in confronting America's new enemy.

At the same time, his critics seem anxious about the power he wields as a wartime president at home and as the leader of a global effort to stop terrorism. Even some U.S. allies have been alarmed by Bush's willingness to take bold actions without international support - such as his determination to force the ouster of President Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"Presidents can either be cursed or blessed with historical events that happen during their term," said Dan Bartlett, Bush's top communications adviser. "Some will serve one or two terms without a national altering event, with relative peace and tranquillity. But then some presidencies become defined by moments you may not have been able to predict going in."

New determination

The president, Bartlett said, is convinced that he "will be judged" years from now on how he responded to the Sept. 11 attacks, the deadliest act of terrorism in American history.

Bush had no choice but to shuffle his priorities after Sept. 11 because America had fallen into a state of profound horror and grief. The crisis demanded an urgent response.

Yet presidential scholars and analysts say that as time has passed, Bush has reached points where the course of action was no longer self-evident - where, for example, he chose to expand the war on terrorism rather than limit it.

The president, they say, has appeared gripped by the notion of ridding the world of terrorists and by a determination to give the government a new focus - homeland security - even at the cost of most of his other priorities.

Shifting priorities

The notable exception is the economy. Bush, like many of his predecessors, has learned that a president must be attuned to the economic hardships of ordinary Americans. Bush lists ensuring a healthy economy as one of his top three priorities now. The others: the war on terror and protecting the nation.

Gone from his A-list are unfinished items, such as reforming Medicare, ensuring that the Social Security system is financially secure and making federal funding available to religious charities that provide social services. Bush did score victories last year on two of his original priorities when Congress approved his $1.35 trillion tax cut and a package of education reforms.

Yet no one questions that Sept. 11 will largely shape Bush's legacy. Scholars and analysts say it is too early, though, to know exactly how.

They contemplate numerous eventualities. Should another catastrophic terrorist attack occur, for example, Americans could rally around Bush again. Or they could blame him if they believe such an attack showed that the war on terrorism had failed.

If there are no more attacks on Bush's watch, he could be credited for a successful anti-terrorism drive. Or Americans could ultimately judge him more on his handling of the economy.

Shaping a war

Richard Neustadt, a presidential scholar at Harvard University, suggested that Bush has put himself at risk by defining the war as expansively as he has, essentially entering the United States into an open-ended conflict against terrorists and those who harbor or aid them.

Bush need not have created such a broad mandate, Neustadt said, and did not, for example, have to talk about removing Hussein from power as part of the campaign. Other presidents, the scholar said, might have sketched out a plan more narrowly focused on eradicating the al-Qaida network that attacked the United States.

"Bush has declared a war which, by definition, is not going to be won in any clear way or in any reasonable amount of time - and it will prove costly for him," said Neustadt, who was an adviser to President Harry S. Truman. "Americans mostly dislike long wars and become very critical."

A 'clarified' role

Still, Neustadt said, the more Bush has immersed himself in the cause of battling terrorists, the more he has grown into a focused, engaged leader.

"For him, personally, his presidency was dramatized and clarified," Neustadt said. "I don't think he'll give up this mission. He'll interpret it broadly and pursue it as far as he can."

It is hard to think of another event that so instantaneously transformed an American presidency. Even in the case of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, scholars say, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the nation had been bracing for America's possible entry into World War II. On Sept. 10, by contrast, Bush was presiding over a nation that took peace for granted.

Before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt "was already thinking about war and doing what preparation he could," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University. The Sept. 11 attacks, Edwards said, "virtually came out of the blue."

Before Sept. 11, "foreign policy was not at the forefront" of the Bush presidency, Edwards said. "Now, it is."

'This will define us'

Three days after the attacks, Bush walked into a solemn Cabinet meeting and said, "This will define us."

The president then told his advisers who specialize in domestic issues that he could not engage as much in their causes anymore.

"He acknowledged that his attention would have to be focused on a higher calling," said Andrew H. Card Jr., White House chief of staff.

That higher calling, White House aides and outside analysts say, has done more than consume Bush's time and draw him away from other issues that were important to him when he took office. It has also inspired in him a greater desire to fully embrace foreign policy.

For example, aides say, the president believes that the Sept. 11 attacks, by illustrating the ghastly devastation that can be caused by terrorists, bolstered his case that Hussein must be toppled. Bush has increasingly invoked an argument rarely used before Sept. 11 - that the Iraqi president, if left unchecked, could allow weapons of mass destruction to land in the hands of terrorists.

He has made a similar point in laying out a bold new policy: that the United States reserves the right of pre-emptive strikes against nations - Iraq or beyond - that are developing weapons they might one day aim at the United States.

Diplomatic efforts

Aides say the president also viewed the Sept. 11 attacks as an unexpected opportunity to improve relations with nations that are not always guaranteed U.S. allies - such as China and Russia - because he felt that many such countries were mobilized against a common enemy.

Bush, too, has become more forcefully engaged in the Middle East, aides say, in part because he believed he had a better chance after the world saw the horrors of Sept. 11 to persuade Arab nations to denounce terrorism. But although many Arab leaders were quick to denounce the Sept. 11 attacks, they have rarely joined Bush in condemning Palestinian suicide bombings as acts of terrorism.

Yet Bush's tendency after Sept. 11 to delve into foreign affairs has brought new burdens for a former governor still new to the international stage. White House aides acknowledge that the president is more comfortable speaking out on issues that carry moral clarity - such as the need to hunt down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, "dead or alive" - than about the more complex crises that confront the world.

Bush has appeared visibly less self-assured, for example, when consulting Arab leaders about the intractable Middle East violence. And this summer, there was at least a perception that the president was unsure of his thinking on Iraq, preferring to let other officials be the public voice of the White House.

Still, in shifting suddenly to become a leader absorbed in foreign policy, some analysts say, Bush has shown an agility that many Americans did not expect. At the same time, analysts point out, Bush has reaped much political mileage throughout his career by exceeding others' low expectations of him.

'The real George Bush'

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who was an aide to two Republican presidents, is among those who believe that Bush was underestimated before the attacks. He suggests that Bush owed his election, in part, to voters' belief that he was an appealing, if unseasoned, figure who could serve ably in peaceful times.

"If we had been in hard times or a war," Hess said, "I don't think he would have been elected."

In his first nine months in office, Bush was often viewed as disengaged from the details of his administration's policies and reliant on advisers to make weighty decisions. Some voters still say they wonder whether the president is driving his administration's actions or whether he is mostly following the counsel of highly trusted senior officials.

But since Sept. 11, Hess said, Bush has increasingly appeared to be acting on his own ideas and visions.

"People were always looking for someone who was pulling the wire behind him," Hess said. "Now, you increasingly get the feeling that the Wizard of Oz came out from behind the curtain, and it turned out to be the Wizard of Oz. We are getting to see the real George Bush."

Voters' concerns

With Americans expressing concern about the economy and the direction of the nation in general, Bush's high job approval rating has dipped to about 65 percent, after hovering near 90 percent immediately after the terrorist attacks.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said that although Bush seems preoccupied with terrorism and the economy, many voters say they also want their president to concentrate on Medicare, Social Security and other domestic priorities.

"People say this is a big rich country, and we can afford both," Kohut said. "Bush will be well-served to deal with many of the issues that were on his list because they have not gotten off the public's list."

Because of his handling of Sept. 11, Kohut predicted, the scrutiny Bush will face in a 2004 re-election bid will be far different from what he endured in 2000.

"There won't be questions about whether this guy has the wherewithal to be president," Kohut said. "Oh, there will be other questions. But we won't be going back to the Bush who was parodied."

Father figure

In conducting a war and facing a shaky economy, Bush is often compared to his father, whose popularity soared after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 but who was ousted after one term, in part because he was seen as unsympathetic to Americans hurt by the economy.

Some observers see the comparison as unfair. They point out that the economy weakened early in the younger Bush's term. By contrast, Americans endured a painful recession in the midst of the elder Bush's re-election race. These observers suggest that the current president has shown an ability to connect with ordinary Americans that his father lacked.

Still, a lesson from the elder Bush's tenure, many analysts say, is that an economic downturn can derail any presidency - even when a president is not wholly to blame for tough times and even when a president enjoys wartime respect.

Judged by history

As thoroughly as Sept. 11 has consumed Bush in the past year, analysts say they are reluctant to forecast his future or predict how the devastation in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania - and the man who was president when it occurred - will be remembered.

"We have no idea how this set of events will stack up against the Great Depression or World War II," said Neustadt, the Harvard scholar. "Terrorism is not going to be eliminated from the world soon. It may get much worse, and it may not.

"What we know is that Lincoln, for example, did not take office determined to be a great emancipator. Events drove him in that direction."

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°