Bush shows strengths on war's stage

His focus has changed, but his personality has not, analysts say

Six Months After

March 10, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a presidential debate that is now a fading memory, George W. Bush and Al Gore were asked to prove they were leaders who could handle a crisis. Coolly and confidently, Gore detailed how as vice president he worked to bring peace to war-torn Kosovo.

Bush, sounding apologetic that he had never faced an international challenge, described how he responded to a major flood in Del Rio, Texas. "But that's what governors do," he added earnestly.

Today, the president no longer sounds tentative on matters of national security. In the six months since Sept. 11, Bush has been transformed from a governor-turned-president with a passion for education and tax cuts into a formidable world leader who speaks with visible self-assurance of fighting terrorism, spreading American freedoms and making the planet safer.

Even so, Bush advisers, as well as political analysts and lawmakers, caution against viewing him as a changed man. His focus has been altered drastically, they say, but his personality and approach to the job have remained remarkably consistent.

The president lacked foreign policy experience, but characteristics he possessed predisposed him to be an effective wartime leader, analysts say. Those traits include a commitment to choosing seasoned advisers, the ability to project compassion and resolve, and a tendency to operate more effectively when devoting most of his attention to a single issue rather than many at once.

"I don't think there has been any fundamental change in him," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has studied Bush as governor and as president. "The war has simplified the world, which made it more interesting to him. It is a war of good against evil. He has never shown an attraction to the nuance of policy. He's just not drawn to it."

Even those who were skeptical before Sept. 11 about Bush's ability to lead the nation say they are not surprised by his success and his stratospheric job-approval ratings, which hover around 80 percent.

"Bush was somebody who seemed to be going nowhere but suddenly has an opportunity to be a significant president," said William Leuchtenburg, a University of North Carolina presidential scholar who wrote the book In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

"He has a very simple view of the world - it's of good and evil," Leuchtenburg said. "So Sept. 11 was something that worked for him perfectly. When he gets to matters that are more subtle, however, he doesn't do as well."

White House aides differ with assertions that Bush is not at his best with policy details. They agree, however, that his management style has changed little, and they acknowledge that the war has played to his strengths.

"It fits his style," said one senior White House official. "The types of things that make the president a good leader fit succinctly into this mission. He's disciplined, and for this type of mission, which is unconventional and difficult for people to see and touch at all times, you need someone who is results-oriented and will stay the course. This is good vs. evil. This is defined by values and universal principles."

There is no doubt Sept. 11 altered the focus and expectations for Bush's presidency. Aides say he was resolute when he told his Cabinet at its first meeting after the terrorist attacks that "we will be judged by how we respond to 9/11" and that "this presidency will be defined by it."

The past six months have seen Bush's standing fortified on the world stage and in the eyes of American voters. During his first months in office, emerging from a narrowly won and disputed election, he was viewed by many world leaders as a novice. As in his debate with Gore, he often appeared ill-informed and awkward when discussing foreign policy.

Appearing with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David shortly after taking office, Bush seemed most comfortable shifting the conversation from international affairs to locker room camaraderie. He and Blair use the same toothpaste, Bush told reporters at one point, drawing a perplexed look from the British leader.

Since Sept. 11, Bush has appeared supremely confident discussing the war, international alliances and diplomacy. Some foreign officials, once concerned about his credentials, are now, if anything, fearful that Bush, as leader of a wounded but powerful country determined to eradicate terrorists, will ignite new conflicts or stoke old ones.

Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said that "whether the president is precisely right" on a given foreign policy question hasn't always mattered, because "his leadership has overwhelmed" other countries.

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