War, recession transform Bush presidency
Sunday, January 20, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Friends notice more gray in his hair and more confidence in his voice. Few people call him an isolationist anymore. Fewer still question whether he's up to the job.
War and recession transformed the Bush presidency -- and some say George W. Bush himself -- since he swore the oath of office Jan. 20, 2001.
On that cold, raw day, Bush quoted Thomas Jefferson to assure a divided nation that an American president -- even one whose election was disputed -- has help from above in troubled times.
"We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong," Bush said in his inaugural address. "Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?"
Soon after, storms struck his own presidency.
The political landscape forever changed by war and recession, Bush's plans for health care, energy policy and other agenda items were scuttled or delayed, but his tax cuts gained currency. Budget surpluses became deficits. Bipartisanship made a brief comeback. The war alone forced him to improve relations with Russia and European allies and it dramatically changed the public's perception of the new president.
Not a joke
"He went from an accidental president who was a 'Saturday Night Live' joke to the commander in chief," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles.
The recession began in March, but Bush's entire first year was marked by rising unemployment rates. The economy became his greatest political worry.
The war began Sept. 11 when suicide hijackers slammed commercial planes into Washington, New York and a Pennsylvania field. A U.S.-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan in October, targeting the terrorist-hiding Taliban regime and mastermind Osama bin Laden.
"The war helped him get beyond the controversy of a disputed election and let people accept him emotionally as president," said the Democrat Carrick. "It changed everything about this presidency."
Starting, perhaps, with the president himself.
"Determining who lives and dies, putting soldiers at risk, has an impact," said Brad Freeman, a California fund-raiser and Bush pal. "He looks a little older. I don't know what it is, his hair a little grayer or what."
Picking at a salad in her West Wing office, Bush adviser Karen Hughes said it's been a tough 12 months at the White House.
"One for the history books," she said. "I'm ready to turn the last page on it."
Even first lady Laura Bush says her jokester husband has become more serious since Sept. 11.
And yet with each new gray hair, Bush seemed to grow more self-confident.
Friends and associates say the president's Texas-sized swagger belied some initial anxiety about the demands of the job. He was particularly concerned about his ability to communicate with voters.
"He's growing in confidence every day," Freeman said. "You can tell in the way he responds to questions. He's not afraid about what he's going to say next or, 'Oh, my God, don't make a gaffe."'
On domestic policy, Bush tried to take advantage of events.
His 10-year tax-cut plans, proposed in 1999 while the economy was still booming, passed Congress after Bush portrayed them as a prescription for the ailing economy. He pushed for more tax cuts after the attacks, saying the economy needed another boost, but Democrats shelved the proposal and plan to make the economy an election-year issue.
Bush's trade bill passed the House after aides portrayed the vote as a measure of patriotism. It would let Bush negotiate global trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, no amendments allowed.
But the attacks forced him to table a series of proposals urging Americans to become more involved in their communities. The initiatives will be part of his State of the Union address later this month as he tries to tap America's patriotic spirit.
Energy policy, tort reform and HMO reform also were tabled as the attacks dominated center stage.
An education bill, the biggest overhaul in nearly four decades, passed Congress late in the year -- but only after several delays.
War and recession eliminated government surpluses, leaving no money to tackle Social Security and Medicare reform.
While the crises forced Bush to alter his legislative and political strategies, he has not changed his agenda. The Bush presidency is as conservative as ever.
"The crisis, and the increased political authority given to the president, have been used as leverage to further his original agenda," said Stephen Skowroneck, a professor of political science at Yale.
On foreign affairs, Bush's first months in office rankled allies who accused him of defying world opinion on global warming, missile defense, a germ warfare treaty and other international accords.
Some analysts say Bush's fragile anti-war coalition is proof that he has learned to work closer with allies. Others say Bush's success has served only to reinforce his belief that American is powerful enough to go it alone.
"The war reinforces his 'might-makes-right' beliefs," said Antony Blinken, a senior foreign policy adviser to President Clinton.
Helen Ventrillo doesn't care whether America leads the world. A bakery owner in Woodbridge, N.J., she doesn't want the war to overshadow the nation's other needs.
"With all that's happened, Bush really hasn't done much this year other than fight the war, has he?" said Ventrillo, who was interviewed frequently by The Associated Press during the 2000 campaign as she wavered between supporting Bush and Gore.
She finally backed Bush, and now says: "He done a good job on the war, but one year doesn't make a president."