George W. Bush may soon have to confront a political peril brand new to him – great expectations.
Last year as the freshly inaugurated president approached his first address to Congress people were asking, "Can this Presidency Be Saved?" Many doubted it. Could he at least deliver a serviceable, non-embarrassing speech that could launch the process of building a legitimate presidency in the post-Florida universe? Well, his speech got raves.
The same questions and doubts came up after September 11. Could Bush possibly muddle through a big speech in such traumatic and dramatic circumstances? Again, he hit it out of the park.
Fast forward to the morning of his first official State of the Union Address and the front-page headline in The Washington Post, "Bush and GOP Enjoy Record Popularity." Yikes—what a difference a war makes. His newfound rhetorical potency is now but a minor footnote in his success (and in our expectations). As the Post declared, Bush's "extraordinary" popularity is "higher and more protracted than any modern president." Who'd thunk?
Given this higher bar, the GOP's new clutch hitter delivered again, perhaps not a grand slam, but an elegant extra base hit for sure.
A striking aspect of the speech, to me, was the president's modesty. "I have been humbled and privileged to see the true character of this country in a time of testing," Bush said, and it felt very sincere. He has every reason to boast, but he didn't. Bill Clinton was a boaster. George Bush has better manners and it's one of his most attractive qualities.
So now some people are starting to anoint this as a Historic Moment. Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne says that Bush "has come up with a new and coherent political philosophy." More grandly, he writes, "His [Bush's] project is not simply to get reelected, but to remake American conservatism." ('Hey 41, look what I did!')
Conservative author David Brooks mused that, "Bush may turn out to be a transformational president after all." Transformational? Sounds big.
(Actually, I suspect that the impulse to aggrandize the moment comes partly because so many people are reading Edmund Morris' biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a truly "transformational" Republican who ruled during a century's first years.)
While not ready to declare the dawn of a new epoch, I am struck, as is everyone else on the planet, that Bush is so popular in spite of so many things.
He is popular in spite of a recession. He is popular in spite of renewed budget deficits. He is popular in spite of Enro. He is popular in spite of not catching Osama bin Laden yet. He is popular in spite of a finding in a recent CBS/New York Times poll that 50 percent of those asked think Bush Administration policies favor the rich. He is popular in spite of John Ashcroft.
Bush the Elder was also immensely popular during the Gulf War, but that faded fast. A cautionary tale for the Younger? Sure. 43's public approval is already higher, longer and deeper than his father's war bounce. 41's popularity during his war was predictable and usual; the extent of 43's success so far is unexpected and highly unusual. The way he navigated past the shoals of Florida, orchestrated his tax cut through Congress and commanded a new kind of war was truly top notch statecraft.
But that doesn't mean it can't all go up in smoke. The past 15 months have been a wild news roller coaster where the "world has changed" several times. Who knows what's next? It sure does look like Bush has found his star though.
This year's State of the Union address may well come to mark the start of a new, third phase in Bush's young presidency (Recovery From Florida and The War being Phases I and II), when his popularity yields accomplishments beyond the war on terrorism and when we discover whether his newfound stature has legs.
The traditional Washington locution for this stage of the game is, "How will President Bush spend his political capital?" Frankly, it would be a hell of an accomplishment for the President to simply retain public confidence in the protracted war on terrorism and optimism about an economic recovery.
But now there are great expectations. Will Bush use his political capital to pass more of his "domestic agenda" this year? Will he use it up in battling Enronism? Can he break the iron cycle where the White House party loses seats in congressional mid-term elections?
But most everything about this State of the Union indicates that this administration could well be poised for more success, big time. Granted, one speech signifies little. "A State of the Union is kind of like a silver helium filled balloon…. The night of the address it is full of applause and attention, a few days later it is shriveled up on the floor and forgotten," Landon Parvin, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, told my colleague, Thalia Assuras.
The bottom-line nugget of the speech was clear and simple. "We will prevail in the war and we will defeat this recession." Obviously, the public has great faith that this president is the man for both jobs. This speech can do nothing but cement those sentiments. There was no overreaching, no lack of seriousness.
Perhaps the riskiest part of the speech was its passing cultural indictment: "For too long our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.&146; In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like." Well, one might say that Bush's current budget formula – reduce taxes, increase spending, full steam ahead – is a prime example of a fiscal "feel good."
Yet when he said, "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self. We have been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass," he struck a chord. And there were no blaring false notes in the speech, no mean feat.
In his run for the White House, George W. Bush got a lot of mileage from exceeding the low expectations he inspired. In his address to Congress, he debuted in the new time of great expectations. I expect good reviews.
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Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
By Dick Meyer