Same man, different president
WHAT A difference a day made.
When George W. Bush took the oath of office four years ago, it was as a moderate Republican anxious to get beyond the unpleasantness of Florida and reclaim his reputation for easygoing bipartisanship. His agenda was hardly revolutionary: cutting taxes and improving public education at home, steering clear of nation-building abroad. He came across as easygoing, incurious, not given to hard thought or hard work -- and like his father, unencumbered by "the vision thing."
What Bush did seem to care about was the tenor of public discourse. During the presidential campaign he repeatedly promised to "change the tone in Washington, D.C." He scolded both parties for fueling "a cycle of bitterness, an arms race of anger" and promised to "restore civility and respect to our national politics." He even raised the issue in his inaugural address: "Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment," he said. "It . . . is a way to shared accomplishment."
Then came Sept. 11.
It was always an overstatement to say that 9/11 changed "everything," but it certainly changed Bush.
The man being sworn in today is a radical conservative with an audacious agenda, from overhauling Social Security to overhauling the Middle East. He is deeply polarizing, more loathed by Democrats than any Republican since Richard Nixon and more admired by Republicans than any GOP leader since Ronald Reagan.
The nonideological, can't-we-all-get-along slacker of 2000 has been replaced by an intense, uncompromising, undiplomatic hawk. The visionless son of the visionless father has become the nation's crusader in chief, a president determined to change the world -- and not terribly concerned if much of the world hates him while he goes about it.
Four years after Bush vowed to drain the poison from American discourse, our political life is meaner and more bitter than ever. Four years after he forswore unwieldy foreign entanglements, we are at war -- an increasingly unpopular war -- in Iraq. Four years after he offered moderation and an even keel, there is no end of stormy weather over his aggressive goals and style.
So why is Bush about to become only the 16th president in US history to take the oath of office a second time? Why was someone so disquieting returned to office with the largest vote total ever -- 10 million more votes than he won in 2000? Why did the voters not only renew the president's lease on the White House but -- for the first time since 1936 -- give his party enlarged majorities in the House and Senate too?
And something else: What accounts for the good feeling most Americans have about Bush? A new
Making sense of the Bush paradox will doubtless occupy historians for years to come. But the core of the explanation, I think, is threefold:
First, Americans trust Bush's judgment on the overriding issue of our time: the West's life-and-death struggle against Islamist fanaticism. Whatever he may have gotten wrong over the past four years, he got the core meaning of 9/11 right. In the war on terrorism, Bush has been most truly a leader -- 61 percent of the public approves of the job he is doing, and 70 percent expect him to make even more progress in the years ahead.
Second, the American mainstream likes Bush's moral bluntness. He has made a point of calling evil by its name: The terrorists are "evildoers," they are backed by an "axis of evil," this is a time for "the violent restraint of violent men." About the most important things, Bush speaks plainly and bravely. That is something that tens of millions of Americans, not all of them Republican or conservative, find reassuring.
Finally, Bush is an optimist. He exudes confidence that tomorrow will be better than today. He shares Reagan's faith in America as a shining city on a hill and Bill Clinton's identification with the aspirations of ordinary Americans. Unlike the brooding weathervane he defeated in the election, Bush consistently points to a brighter, freer, more prosperous future. That is a valuable trait of leadership at any time. In a time of war it is priceless.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.