A presidency shaken finds `higher calling'

Shift: A leader mostly untested on the world stage becomes consumed with foreign policy and a war on terror.

2001 9/11 2002 One Year

September 09, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It looked as though George W. Bush would be a domestic president. He lacked seasoning in foreign affairs. The nation was at peace. Bush's plan: bring to the White House a recipe of reforms that he felt had made him a successful governor.

"It can be done," his pledge went. "I've done it in Texas."

But on Sept. 11, Bush's record in Texas suddenly lost much of its relevance to his presidency. His calling, his job and the public's expectations, in a single day, were redefined, the stakes abruptly ratcheted up. Never before in modern American history had a presidency been transformed so abruptly - literally overnight - to face an uncharted new mission.

In the past year, Bush has become a foreign policy president - the very role almost no one thought he would fill. He has led a war against terrorism. And he has sought to refashion the government to focus, above all, on threats to national security.

It has been a striking shift for a man who banked his presidency on his record as a governor most concerned about education and tax cuts, a man who, as a presidential candidate, could not name the leader of Pakistan. Before and after his election, Bush endured ridicule for his perceived ignorance of international affairs.

White House advisers insist that Bush himself has changed little since Sept. 11. Yet his public image has undergone a profound transformation.

Among skeptics and supporters, Bush has gained credibility and stature. Those who favor his policies seem to admire him more. They see a leader who has shown decisiveness and unflagging energy in confronting America's new enemy.

At the same time, his critics seem anxious about the power he wields as a wartime president at home and as the leader of a global effort to stop terrorism. Even some U.S. allies have been alarmed by Bush's willingness to take bold actions without international support - such as his determination to force the ouster of President Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"Presidents can either be cursed or blessed with historical events that happen during their term," said Dan Bartlett, Bush's top communications adviser. "Some will serve one or two terms without a national altering event, with relative peace and tranquillity. But then some presidencies become defined by moments you may not have been able to predict going in."

New determination

The president, Bartlett said, is convinced that he "will be judged" years from now on how he responded to the Sept. 11 attacks, the deadliest act of terrorism in American history.

Bush had no choice but to shuffle his priorities after Sept. 11 because America had fallen into a state of profound horror and grief. The crisis demanded an urgent response.

Yet presidential scholars and analysts say that as time has passed, Bush has reached points where the course of action was no longer self-evident - where, for example, he chose to expand the war on terrorism rather than limit it.

The president, they say, has appeared gripped by the notion of ridding the world of terrorists and by a determination to give the government a new focus - homeland security - even at the cost of most of his other priorities.

Shifting priorities

The notable exception is the economy. Bush, like many of his predecessors, has learned that a president must be attuned to the economic hardships of ordinary Americans. Bush lists ensuring a healthy economy as one of his top three priorities now. The others: the war on terror and protecting the nation.

Gone from his A-list are unfinished items, such as reforming Medicare, ensuring that the Social Security system is financially secure and making federal funding available to religious charities that provide social services. Bush did score victories last year on two of his original priorities when Congress approved his $1.35 trillion tax cut and a package of education reforms.

Yet no one questions that Sept. 11 will largely shape Bush's legacy. Scholars and analysts say it is too early, though, to know exactly how.

They contemplate numerous eventualities. Should another catastrophic terrorist attack occur, for example, Americans could rally around Bush again. Or they could blame him if they believe such an attack showed that the war on terrorism had failed.

If there are no more attacks on Bush's watch, he could be credited for a successful anti-terrorism drive. Or Americans could ultimately judge him more on his handling of the economy.

Shaping a war

Richard Neustadt, a presidential scholar at Harvard University, suggested that Bush has put himself at risk by defining the war as expansively as he has, essentially entering the United States into an open-ended conflict against terrorists and those who harbor or aid them.

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