ON A PRESIDENCY

Elected amidst controversy, George W. Bush, the accidental president, finds his voice, his cause and his way, as his nation reels from an unexpected and unprecedented blow and turns to him for leadership.

He approached the podium at 9:30 a.m. in a Sarasota, Fla. elementary school for what was scheduled to be a speech about education. Instead, his duty was to address a nation that just witnessed an act of war on live television.

The nation watched his countenance change from stunned to composed as he delivered news of "an apparent terrorist attack on our country."

Nine short months before that day, the same country wondered if George Walker Bush was capable of handling such a job.

"I honestly thought he was a lightweight," Ball State political science professor Greg Crawley said, explaining his early impressions of Bush.

And perhaps Bush was a lightweight entering his term as 43rd President of the United States. Just eight years before he was part owner of a Major League Baseball franchise. Soon, though, Bush went from businessman to politician, taking the position of governor of Texas in 1994. Then, in 2000, Bush took arguably the most bizarre path to the presidency ever.

Amidst the controversy, though, Bush showed poise. His job approval rating after 100 days (62%) was five points better than his inauguration approval rating (57%).

"Most thought he would be weaker as a president," said Crawley, "but he came across strong. He acted more presidential than people thought."

Then, on Sept. 11, Bush's agenda changed.

"Every president has an agenda," senior presidential advisor Karl Rove said, "but they are always subject to the whims of history."

How the leaders respond to these crises typically define their presidency. One needs only to look at Abraham Lincoln's Civil War, Herbert Hoover's Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor, or Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam to see how history remembers presidents in times of crisis.

"The way he's handled Sept. 11 to this point and how it is resolved will define his presidency," said Crawley. "That is what we will focus on in talking about if Bush was a successful president."

Bush first heard of the attacks moments after they occurred while interacting with Florida second-graders. Even after he heard that a second plane struck, his outward appearance was strong. He joked that the students read so well they must be sixth-graders.

Bush would carry on the strong facade throughout the somber day and the ensuing weeks, but friends say he was more reverent in private. In the days after the attacks, friends recall him tearing up as he talked about the disaster. Some say it was weeks before he had the time or inclination to start joking with them again.

Bush's approval rating soon soared to 90 percent, the highest number since his father won the Gulf War ten years prior.

Crawley is slightly skeptical of Bush's high ratings.

"He was in the right place at the right time. I'm not sure it took much effort on his part," Crawley said, "but he didn't make any major blunders or errors."

Bush's war in Afghanistan proved successful in overthrowing the Taliban. He now promises to get the new Afghanistan government on its feet.

Among the changes the president has proposed since the attacks is a Department of Homeland Security. The department, which would have 170,000 employees, would be the largest government overhaul since Harry Truman renovated the country's national security agencies.

The president's popularity still has leveled off. This doesn't come as a surprise to most. Even the rally around FDR after Pearl Harbor lasted less than nine months.

Bush's ratings are currently at 64 percent, but his numbers are still higher than they were prior to Sept. 11.

"His ratings now are higher than they would have been if there hadn't been a September 11," David Rohde, a political scientist from Michigan State University said.

Crawley says the American people will start to pay attention to other aspects of the presidency before the 2004 election, if they haven't already. Bush now has a new set of challenges to meet. The conservative Texan has new wars to fight or to choose not to fight. He has to deal with a struggling economy.

"We have all given Bush a pass because we want to believe he's up to the job," Paul Begala, a democratic strategist, said. "It scares us to think he's not."


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