Prior to the traumatic events of September 11, George Walker Bush was seemingly mired in a bog of inadequacies. He lacked eloquence, his intelligence was being questioned by a broad spectrum of partisan and neutral observers, his legislative agenda was in gridlock and his popularity ratings were among the lowest in history of any newly elected president. Then, as a direct result of the infamous attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the American people were painfully whiplashed into a new reality and suddenly found themselves engaged in a war on terrorism
President's Bush's initial steps appeared faltering; his first public meetings had a stumbling, uneasy quality to them.
Then, by virtue of two impressive speeches (at a memorial service at National Cathedral and before a joint session of Congress), delivered with a flair not previously observed, George Bush captured both the attention and the hearts of the American people. The nation rallied to his clarion call, and his popularity ratings raced into the 90th percentile. Even today, they continue to hover above the 80th percentile. His composite first-year approval ratings have subsequently approached the levels of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy -- the only modern presidents to rank among the eight greatest ever (according to the C-Span/Presidential Historians 2000 Survey). This begs the question, Is George Walker Bush another Harry S. Truman (initially, underrated, later deeply appreciated), or is he simply a newer version of George Herbert Walker Bush, his father and one-term predecessor (briefly, immensely popular, but later defeated)?
To date, the undeclared "War on Terrorism" has proceeded smoothly and effectively. The Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have, thus far, proven to be a "one-punch," third-rate fighting force. This shouldn't prove to be too shocking. They were an isolated nation with a military small in size, poorly equipped and void of allies or suppliers. This simply is not a threat on the scale of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan that challenged FDR; nor is it danger of the magnitude of Communist China and the USSR, the powers that aggressively confronted Truman and JFK.
Harold Fineman of Newsweek magazine astutely observed that Bush's decisions, so far, have been sound, but he fears that "from now on, it gets tougher for Bush, each decision becomes more complex and difficult, like an advanced-level math class." The decisions that President Bush will have to make, Fineman postulates, will have greater import and potentially graver consequences. Granted, the President's war record, at this juncture, has been a good one. The problems, however, of insuring both a Palestinian state and Israeli security, of defusing escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, of drumming up support for any Allied attack on Iraq and of responding to the growing Islamic opposition to an expanding American military presence in the Middle East have to be addressed. The complexity and volatility of these issues illustrates Fineman's fears.
As a direct result of the Patriot Act, and by his issuance of expansive executive orders, Mr. Bush has assumed broad powers over the civil liberties of American citizens, foreign terrorists and military prisoners. Here, unfortunately, the potential for miscalculation, transgression and abuse is ripe. The American historical record in this subject area has not been a particularly good one. Additionally, Attorney General John Ashcroft's portfolio as a champion of constitutional rights and civil liberties, especially during his tenure as a United States Senator, does not engender confidence. Observers from a variety of political perspectives, including conservatives, have criticized the President for his assumption of "dictatorial authority" -- virtually unlimited wiretapping that now "follows the suspect," invasion of attorney-client privilege by allowing eavesdropping on their private conversations and closed military tribunals. One is compelled to ask, Are we not risking seriously eroding the very rights we purport to be defending? George Walker Bush is tightroping on a path surrounded by political quicksand.
As in the case of his father, looming economic forces have the powerful potential to burst his bubble of popularity. The composite effect of a deepening recession, his insistence on further tax refunds (while revenue surpluses dissolve and social security solvency dissipates), his promotion of corporate bailouts and his relative indifference to the plight of unemployed workers could unravel this Commander in Chief's "Teflon Shield." This would make him highly vulnerable in both the Congressional elections later this year and his own re-election bid in 2004. The emerging Enron scandal, and its suspicious tentacles to key administration insiders, has the very real potential to make George Bush Sr.'s savings and loan crisis look like a walk in the park. His recent State of the Union address has sparked international concern by virtue of his veiled threats against the "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The status and treatment of U.S. military "detainees" in Cuba has escalated inquiry, even from our allies. Add to this Bush's adamant opposition to campaign finance reform and his administration's determined assault on environmental regulations, and it becomes clear the jury is still out.
Is he another Truman, or is he his father's son -- popular, but soon to be overwhelmed by economic forces and questionable decision-making? One historical lesson must be more clear than the others -- his father failed to parlay a similar scenario into a second term. George Walker Bush will have to address some very tough questions concerning a cornucopia of crucial issues: war and peace, environmental protection, civil liberties, balanced economic recovery strategies, social security, health care, etc. It's safe to say that he has his work cut out for him.