Bush's Growth Spurt: George W. Has Found His Presidential Authority and Voice since September 11th

Article excerpt

Seven months into the new administration in Washington, D.C., George W. Bush was still an enigma. Everyone wanted to know: Was he a conservative ideologue or the compromiser-in-chief? One minute he was eager to drill in the fragile Alaskan wilderness, the next he was cutting deals with Ted Kennedy to spend more money on education. Europeans didn't like him much and Americans were split. Nobody knew what to make of the United States' new president.

Then tragedy struck. The September 11th attacks gave Bush, indeed his entire Baby Boom generation, its mission and, as Bush told us, its "moment." It is said that great presidents can emerge only at times of great struggle. Well, Bush now faces such a crisis. The question is: Is he up to the task? As this issue went to press, he clearly seemed to be. He was moving methodically, effectively, and, yes, impressively against an intractable foe. He had assembled an expansive coalition of nations willing to help militarily and otherwise to defeat the terrorism of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden. Coordinated police actions throughout the world had rounded up hundreds of suspected terrorists. Millions of dollars in assets tied to the plotters had been frozen. Military strikes were underway and hitting their targets in Afghanistan.

By all accounts, Bush, with his astronomically high job-approval ratings in the polls, had gone from goat to hero in Americans' minds, and in the minds of civilized people around the world. But as any student of management will attest, that's a superficial and probably fleeting assessment. The war won't last forever, at least not at its initial, fevered pitch. So qualities beyond that extraordinary circumstance will be the ultimate measure of the man. This article takes that broader view.

Bush's ability to command under pressure and to stir the American people with his words were two traits not apparent prior to the attacks on New York and Washington. But clearly he possesses both. We also now know that he is willing, actually, eager, to delegate as long as he has competent appointees. And his appointees have turned out to be first rate.

Bush all-but turned over centralized control of the emergency on September 11th to his chief lieutenant, Vice President Dick Cheney. It was Cheney who ordered the evacuation of congressional leaders as well as the hopscotch trek across the country of the President himself aboard Air Force One on that fateful day. In addition, the able team of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pieced together the international coalition.

Bush has taken this delegation of authority so far that we can now say that for the first time in decades, true Cabinet government has been restored. For years, the White House staff had been preeminent in policy matters, and the cabinet was mostly a mouthpiece. No longer. Cabinet members are true players, not public relations purveyors, in Washington. At the same time, Bush makes the final decisions on strategic matters. He isn't a figurehead CEO.

Bush is also as determined as any president in memory to get what he wants on the domestic front, even when facing war abroad. His behavior on domestic issues, in fact, can shed some insight into his overall presidential style. To wit: Bush swaggers and promises a lot, never expecting to get everything. And in that way he accomplishes more of what he wishes than anyone might have anticipated.

This cowboy demeanor is partly a Texas tendency, one that annoys many Europeans. But it is also a calculated strategy. Bush likes to promise the moon, as he did when he pledged to eradicate global terrorism. But that is mostly an expression of resolve, meant both to inspire and provoke. He will always accept less, when he has to.

There are many examples of this. When Nick Calio, the President's top congressional lobbyist, first visited the then-President-elect in Texas in January, Bush told him, "We're not going to negotiate with ourselves. …