Meeting the Challenge - George W. Bush's First Year Has Been the Tale of Two Presidencies

By Edwards, Lee | The World and I, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Meeting the Challenge - George W. Bush's First Year Has Been the Tale of Two Presidencies


Edwards, Lee, The World and I


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

Bush's beginning was overshadowed by the controversial nature of his presidential victory--losing the popular vote to Al Gore but winning the electoral college by 1 vote more than the needed 270. Widely described--and not just by partisan Democrats--as the man who "stole" the 2000 election, a cautious Bush began his presidency by focusing on domestic issues like taxes and education. He expressed little interest in the nation-building foreign policy that had characterized the previous administration.

Early on, the president seemed detached and even uncomfortable in the job. He held only three news conferences in the first six months and delivered few nationally televised addresses. Bush was obviously happiest at his ranch in Midland, Texas, spending all of August on vacation there. White House staffers explained that the president did not need to be in Washington, D.C., to conduct the nation's business, but very little of consequence--except Bush's long-delayed decision on stem cell research--occurred in Midland.

Bush's political clout on Capitol Hill was significantly reduced when Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected and voted with the Democrats to give them a narrow 51--49 majority. The House remained Republican but often seemed to have its own agenda, which inclined to the libertarian rather than the compassionate conservatism of the president.

Still, Bush persevered, and by mid-July, he was receiving modestly favorable approval ratings. According to a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans approved of the president's performance in office, particularly his handling of education and taxes.

Bush had won his battle for a sizable tax cut of $1.6 trillion, although most of the reductions were scheduled for later in the decade. Education was still being debated in Congress, but Bush had given up on school vouchers, upsetting conservatives who had long argued that parents needed more choice in order to improve public education.

By early fall, there were clear signs--unemployment up, sales down, stagnant growth--that the country was close to if not already in a recession. But there were few signs of protest, either at the grass roots or in the nation's capital. No politician wanted to be the first to use the "r" word. And after all, America was the strongest, most prosperous nation in the world and probably in human history, with an annual gross domestic product of $10 trillion. If the current occupant of the White House was not especially smart, charismatic, or articulate, how much difference did it make? The nation had survived mediocrity--and worse--in the past.

The day that changed America--and Bush

And then came September 11. That morning, President Bush was reading to Florida schoolchildren, trying to drum up support for his education bill, when an aide approached him and whispered in his ear. A hijacked plane had deliberately rammed into New York City's World Trade Center, killing thousands, and everything--the president, the nation, and the world--changed immediately and permanently.

No longer a remote chief executive, President Bush moved quickly, as the Wall Street Journal wrote, to rally three key constituencies to meet the crisis: (1) he called for bipartisanship and asked Congress to approve a multibillion-dollar campaign against "acts of war"; (2) he worked with Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and other key democracies to coordinate the response to terrorism; and (3) he reassured a stunned American public, from the Oval Office, that "we will win" despite the terrorist attacks against preeminent symbols of U.S. financial and political power. The president signaled the global nature of the crisis by pledging, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them. …

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