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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei 5762

Bill Schneider

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The "born-again" president -- GEORGE W. BUSH is a born-again President. On the evening of September 20, when he addressed Congress and the nation, he became a new President with a new purpose and a new relationship with the American people.

Remember ``the vision thing''? That was the criticism made of his father, who seemed to have no overarching sesne of direction in his presidency. The elder Bush was ``the in-box President,'' dealing with problems as they reached his desk without communicating a clear sense of the big picture.

This President Bush has found a vision: to lead the world in a struggle for freedom over fear. It is a far more compelling vision than the ``compassionate conservatism'' Bush ran on last year. It is bringing him popular acclaim. It is animating his presidency in a way that compassionate conservatism never quite did. And it seems to have engaged him personally as a cause that gives meaning to his life as well as his politics.

The public response has been astounding. After a shaky start in the first few days following the September 11 attacks, President Bush has hit his stride. Remember, Bush barely got elected last year, and his job approval ratings this year have mostly hovered in the 50s -- even after he got his signature issue, the tax cut, through Congress. Last weekend, President Bush's approval rating hit 90 percent. That's where his father was at the end of the Persian Gulf War. And George W. Bush has not even begun to fight.

Bush told his cabinet this struggle is now ``the defining purpose of this Administration.'' That's making some conservatives nervous. "Their" agenda was supposed to be the defining purpose of his Administration. Bush's war agenda looks too much like big government to them. ``Wars are nasty things,'' anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told The Washington Post``They make governments grow.''

A new cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security sounds slightly threatening to conservatives (and to civil libertarians on the left as well). It sounds like some sort of secret police. Democrats are pressing for economic stimulus measures in the name of national security. The idea of bailing out the airline industry does not sit well with free market conservatives. But there's a war on. Seventy-eight percent of the public supports giving federal money to the airlines in order to keep them out of bankruptcy, according to last weekend's Gallup poll. That includes 80 percent of conservatives and 79 percent of Republicans.

The President's speech to Congress was a resounding success -- 87 percent of the public gave it high marks -- because it was so intensely personal. In that respect, President Bush was playing to his strength, as every President does at a time of crisis. John F. Kennedy's strength was his powerful intellect. Ronald Reagan's, his deep political convictions. Bill Clinton's, his empathy with the American people. President Bush's strength is his integrity. The public has always given Bush high ratings for honesty and trustworthiness, qualities for which Clinton drew very poor marks.

It was Bush's personal commitment that carried his message to the American public. ``I will not forget this wound to our country, or those who inflicted it,'' the President said. ``I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for the freedom and security of the American people.''

Bush's religious values figured prominently in his address. ``This is civilization's fight,'' he said, but he was careful to include Muslims: ``We respect your faith. . . . The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect to hijack Islam itself.'' Bush concluded with a ringing assertion, ``Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.'' The President's remarks were also, in an interesting way, a generational call-to-arms. His father's generation, which endured the Great Depression and fought World War II, has become ``the greatest generation'' in American popular culture, the subject of adulatory books and movies and television series. As for President Bush's own baby boom generation, the quality that comes to mind isn't sacrifice. It's self-absorption. Which explains the baby boomers' admiration for, and envy of, their fathers.

``In our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment,'' Bush said, speaking for his generation. ``Our nation -- this generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future,'' the President pledged. ``We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.''

The President apparently hit a responsive chord. When asked by Gallup, ``Do you think the war against terrorism will be a long war or a short one?'' 92 percent of Americans said they expect a long war. Back in 1941, Gallup asked the same question about ``the war against Japan.'' One week after Pearl Harbor, only 51 percent of Americans expected a long war. Today, 94 percent of Americans expect the war against terrorism to be ``a difficult war.'' In December 1941, 65 percent expected the war against Japan to be difficult.

At 90 percent approval, President Bush can do anything he wants. He faces no political resistance. But that kind of approval rating carries a danger. The President has defined this struggle as his personal mission, and he will be held accountable for its outcome. A 90 percent approval rating can be fleeting. He need only ask his father.

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09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?


© 2001, William Schneider