By Ron Fournier
WASHINGTON – Ten months after a bitterly contested election, an anxious nation looks to its president for comfort, strength and wartime leadership. The question that has dogged George W. Bush for years – Is he up to the job? – is not being asked now.
Americans are closing ranks behind the commander in chief. Even the most hardened Democrats praise Bush’s performance after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
“I think he’s doing really well,” California’s Democratic Party chairman, Art Torres, said in a telephone interview. “He’s been able to capture the mantle of leadership, when some people didn’t think he could. I certainly think circumstances make strong leaders, and this guy has risen to the occasion.”
The rave reviews are tempered, however, by fresh memories of Bush’s shaky first response to the crisis and the knowledge that his toughest tests lie ahead.
“What he’s doing now – rallying us – is the easy part. The hard part comes when we get into it,” said Thomas Edwards, a presidential historian in Walla Walla. Can he stoke America’s war fervor for months or years to come? Will casualties erode his support or lessen his resolve? “That will be the test of his leadership,” Edwards said.
The U.S. economy, wobbly before the strikes, poses another major challenge for Bush. His father, the last president who led the nation to war, lost re-election after an ailing economy wiped out the political capital he built in victory over Iraq.
“I was very impressed with the president’s speech to Congress and, in the short term, I think he’s OK politically,” said Ken Brock, a Democratic political consultant in Michigan. “The long-term question is how patient will people be with the downward shock this has put on the economy? Where, in 12 months, does it leave him?”
One reason for Bush’s newfound success is his rhetoric, an ironic twist. His oft-mangled syntax is a longtime source of jokes, fueling questions about his intellectual heft.
But the president has shown compassion – “I weep and mourn with America.” Emotion – “It … makes me angry.” And resolve – “The conflict will not be short … or easy.”
He has reached into the history books for poetic analogy: “By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
Bush came to office disdainful of what he considered a showboaty, overly theatrical Clinton presidency. Interesting, then, that he has cast aside his low-key style for a series of scene-stealing moments.
A flag in one hand, bullhorn in the other, Bush scaled the rubble in New York to vow vengeance on terrorists “who knocked these buildings down.” He nearly sobbed in the Oval Office as he said, “This country will not relent.”
Those remarks and many others appeared unscripted, but much of Bush’s stagecraft is the handiwork of his image team – led by counselor Karen Hughes, adviser Karl Rove and speechwriter Michael Gerson.
Team Bush is getting good notices from Democrats.
“Those of us in Congress will work with the president to do whatever is necessary to bring our enemies to justice,” House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said Saturday in the party’s weekly radio address.
Moments after Bush’s address to Congress on Thursday night, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California gushed, “It was a 10.”
High marks all around, for now.
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