President adapts to wartime agenda

Crisis: Bush turns from what were his signature issues to embrace role of anti-terror leader.

War On Terrorism : The World

October 15, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On Sept. 10, President Bush's schedule included a fairly routine meeting with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.

"In peaceful times like our own," Bush said, a U.S.-Australian alliance "has helped spare the world from ... wars and dangers."

Those words now resonate as the last time the president could talk about peace as if it were a given. And they would mark the final hours of the Bush presidency the way it was.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked the next morning, and in the month since, the nation has witnessed the transformation of a White House and a man.

Before Sept. 11, Bush was known for concentrating on his domestic agenda. His stated "top priority" was reforming the nation's public schools. He focused on his $1.35 trillion tax cut, his proposed budget that squeezed federal spending and his plans to partially privatize Social Security and to free up government funding for religious charities.

Many of those issues seem, for the moment, trivial. Although he urged Congress last week to pass his education package, the only legislation he is devoting serious time to deals with anti-terrorism.

"The president very much wants education reform," said Sandy Kress, Bush's senior education adviser and a friend of Bush's. "But it's perfectly clear where he has to spend all of his time now."

As a result of the terrorist attacks, Bush's views on foreign policy have fundamentally changed - out of necessity. After accusing the Clinton administration of pursuing "nation-building" abroad, Bush now says the United States should engage in it, if that's what it takes to install a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan that is free of terrorists.

The president has had to rethink global alliances in ways that could have unpredictable consequences. He has reached out to unexpected places for help in the anti-terrorism campaign, turning to nations like Syria that were never close to the United States and are believed to have sponsored terrorism.

Bush has become cozier with nations like China and Russia, appearing to overlook human rights abuses by their governments in return for their support.

And the president, whose approval ratings have leapt from about 50 percent to about 90 percent since the attacks, seems on a personal level to have embraced a role he never expected: a wartime leader who must command U.S. forces abroad and minister to an anxious nation at home.

Friends and advisers say they are not surprised that Bush seems to be performing well. After all, they say, he is a man who has always risen to the occasion when faced with a single problem or issue to focus on. Even some of those who were skeptical of Bush's ability to manage the presidency, noting that he appears to lose interest in the minutiae of policy debates, say it makes sense that an extraordinary crisis would galvanize him.

Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, called Bush "a man who some said was a late bloomer" and noted that he "almost stumbled into the governorship, and into the presidency."

"He was elected as president not with any great mission," Wittmann said. "But now he has discovered the mission not just for a presidency, but perhaps for his entire professional career."

For all the change since Sept. 11, some things have remained the same at the White House - such as Bush's determination to be, at times, unexpectedly playful.

While meeting with Howard before the attacks, Bush observed that the two leaders "get along well, because if there's any place that's like Texas, it's Australia."

After meeting last week with NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson to discuss the anti-terrorism campaign, Bush told the leader of the 52-year-old alliance that he "could have been a Texan, it seems like to me, because he is courageous, open, forthright and not afraid to take a stand and to do what's right for freedom."

"I haven't been in Texas," Robertson replied. "But I'll take it as a compliment."

The Bush administration has also, if anything, become more committed since the attacks to a long-held goal: closely guarding information. The president demonstrated as much last week when he excoriated members of Congress for leaking classified intelligence, saying it was the kind of negligence that could put U.S. troops at risk.

The president has also found that, even with his soaring approval ratings, his relationship with Congress, with the Democrat-controlled Senate, has not changed much. Although Bush has drawn supportive words from nearly every lawmaker, Congress has stopped well short of giving the president everything he wants.

His proposal to tighten airline security, for example, remains blocked because of a dispute between House Republicans and the Senate over whether to make airport security employees federal workers - an idea Bush opposes but might have to accept.

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