WASHINGTON — Few presidents have faced such a radical shift in circumstances so soon after taking office as George W. Bush.
Elected while the nation was still luxuriating in peace and prosperity, Bush has been forced to grapple with recession and a devastating foreign attack on the American mainland.
As a candidate, Bush focused on domestic issues--cutting taxes, reforming education, bolstering religious charities. Now he spends most of his time prosecuting a distant war and trying to fortify the nation's internal security. Even in foreign policy, he has pivoted from emphasizing reductions in American obligations abroad to assembling a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.
In all these respects, Bush is presiding over what amounts to an inverted presidency. His first year ends with him in a very strong political position--far stronger than seemed possible when he won his bitterly disputed victory after losing the popular vote just over a year ago, but arriving at it by a route utterly different from the one he set out upon.
Much like Bill Clinton before him, Bush came to Washington promising to reshape the debate on domestic issues and provide his party a more centrist image. But, as the stalemate over economic stimulus legislation last month underscored, his presidency has tended to reinforce, rather than realign, the traditional domestic divisions between the two political parties, particularly over the role of government.
Since the attacks, though, Bush has soared in public esteem for his performance in the arena where his experience was thinnest: the management of national security and foreign affairs. Surrounded by an unusually seasoned team, he has become a steadying and reassuring figure, powerfully expressing the nation's outrage over Sept. 11 and channeling it into a fiercely efficient military campaign in Afghanistan. As much as his domestic agenda had divided the country and Congress before the attacks, his wartime leadership has unified them.
"The circumstances make the person, and there's a general sense that the president has stepped up, with an incredibly good team, in this situation after Sept. 11," says former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, the campaign chairman for Al Gore, Bush's rival in the 2000 presidential election. "I think you have to give him a solid A . . . at handling what is the defining piece of his presidency."
The tension between the unifying effect of the war and the centrifugal pull of domestic disputes will shape the coming months, and perhaps the remainder, of Bush's term. Terrorism's challenge will provide Bush continuing opportunities to transcend traditional politics and unite the country in his role as commander in chief.
But domestic issues, submerged since Sept. 11, also seem certain to resurface this year, and disputes over health care, energy, the environment and, above all, the return of federal budget deficits could reopen the divisions that surrounded Bush during his presidency's first months.
"The bipartisanship and consensus in Washington that occurred after Sept. 11 never really took hold very firmly," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. "It's really like the Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I. The two sides came out of their trenches and sang carols, then went back and shot at each other. That's probably what we can expect for [this] year."
Until Sept. 11, the defining political characteristic of Bush's term had been polarization. Polls showed the country sharply divided along partisan and ideological lines over Bush's agenda, his performance and even his qualifications for the job. Burdened by the sagging economy, Bush's overall approval rating by late summer had dipped to about 50%, the danger zone for any incumbent.
The Sept. 11 attacks, and Bush's response, blew all that away. In the latest Gallup Poll, his job approval rating stood at 86%, the highest for a president concluding his first year. On questions surrounding the war, he's inspiring confidence even among most who doubted him.
"His relationship to the country has changed," says John Podesta, a White House chief of staff for President Clinton. "People accept Bush as a guy who can lead the country and a person who has the stuff to actually sit in the Oval Office. People questioned that; not just Democrats but a wide swath of independent voters. I don't think they really question that anymore."
In many ways, the challenge of the war has highlighted Bush's personal strengths. The war has played to Bush's preference for focusing on a few priorities rather than grappling simultaneously with a swarm of nuanced issues. And it has shown him again to be calm and confident in his own judgments during moments of crisis.