The second George W. Bush presidency—the one that began Sept. 11—has been strikingly more successful than the first. Since the attacks, President Bush has demonstrated impressive leadership skills and political instincts, garnering widespread public admiration for his judgment and strength.
But there are worrisome signs on the home front that he is beginning to revert to pre-Sept. 11 form, with renewed hypersensitivity to his conservative political base. And that could undermine the public support he needs to win the war on terrorism.
During his first eight months in office, Mr. Bush followed a conventional political strategy, in spite of having ascended to the White House after the closest and most controversial presidential election in American history. He made no adjustments in his agenda in response to that election or to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.
He stuck with the tax cut designed at a time of high growth and large budget surpluses, and embraced a sharply partisan strategy in moving it through Congress. He won the tax cut but lost the Senate, and found the public either indifferent about the tax cut or worried about its impact on such valued federal programs as Social Security. The president had pleased conservative activists, but weakened his appeal among moderates.
Then came the horrors of Sept. 11. Bush recognized early that a war president needs broad bipartisan support, in the country and in Congress, if he is to lead the nation through a difficult campaign against terrorism. After having virtually no meaningful contact with Democratic congressional leaders during his first eight months in office, he initiated a series of weekly leadership breakfasts at the White House and developed good working relations with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt. Moreover, he let it be known that he would insist on substantial support from both parties before agreeing to any legislation passed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.
Rather than symbolic gestures, these steps were genuine. They reflected the new seriousness of purpose that gripped public officials and the citizenry. And they paid dividends in timely cooperation between the president and Congress.
Restlessness among conservative Republicans in the House and threats of GOP defections on the president’s high-priority request for trade promotion authority, however, led Bush to back away from this bipartisan posture and champion partisan Republican positions—on airline security, an economic stimulus, and resistance to new spending for homeland security.
The federalization of the airline security workforce seemed a fait accompli when the Senate, by a vote of 100 to 0 (and with Bush’s implicit support), passed a bill authorizing just that. But House Republican leaders took ideological affront to this expansion of federal authority and launched a full-court press to hold off an increase in government jobs. They enlisted Bush in their time-consuming, public, and ultimately futile campaign. The bill signed into law provides just a fig leaf to House Republicans and their champion in the White House.
A similar story is playing out on the economic stimulus, where the president has supported a series of costly tax cuts with very little stimulative potential and resisted efforts to increase spending for terrorism prevention and response. On airline security, an economic stimulus, and spending levels and priorities, Bush has sided with his party’s ideological base and sanctioned the increasingly heated partisan battles the public finds so distasteful. In doing so, he finds himself espousing positions that have no basis in his war on terrorism and that depart significantly from the public’s preferences.
This is a defining moment for the Bush presidency. Sept. 11 created a raison d’etre for his administration, one that calls for wise leadership and deftness in building broad public support. If he is to succeed, he must abandon his practice of always playing first to his political base.
The times call for a less partisan, more encompassing leadership strategy. He still has time. A one-month payroll-tax holiday for all employees and employers, suggested by Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, offers an attractive bipartisan alternative to the economic stimulus proposals Bush has supported in the House and Senate.
And the bioterrorism spending initiative of Sens. Bill Frist and Ted Kennedy, combined with a package of related spending proposed by David Obey, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, gives the president a way out of the unnecessarily stingy position he has embraced on funding to strengthen domestic security.
Bush’s steps on the home front over the next few weeks will be as consequential as decisions he makes on the war abroad.