Bush's two tasks: lead, heal nation
In his daunting dual role, his performance as commander so far trumps that of pastor.
WASHINGTON — As President Bush marshals America's response to Tuesday's terror attacks, history suggests that he stands at a crucial moment in time - that he has the opportunity to unify and transform the nation in ways that will ripple out for decades, and that will long define his presidency.
If past crises are guideposts, success will require Mr. Bush to play at least two key roles:
First: Effective commander. He has already garnered support from allies - including NATO nations. And he has set groundwork for strong military action. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Franklin Roosevelt also successfully steered the nation toward hard-fought victory against Japan and Germany. Jimmy Carter, however, couldn't muster an effective response to Iran's taking of American hostages in 1979 and suffered for it.
Second: Empathetic counselor. Playing the role of "pastor in chief" requires something akin to Ronald Reagan's tribute to the Challenger astronauts in 1986, that they had " 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.' " Mr. Bush has faced some early criticism for not taking the symbolic step of quickly returning to Washington after the attacks - and for not fully and immediately addressing Americans' concerns during his public appearances. His declaration of today as a national day of prayer - and his planned visit to New York - may help assuage the country's grief.
In many ways, Tuesday's unprecedented terrorism is a Gordian knot bigger than any president has yet faced. Yet, "It's at moments like this that the nation wants to be led - that the general layer of cynicism and criticism drops, which allows presidents to exercise more leadership than they otherwise would," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University.
In his role as commander, Bush has made quick strides.
Most notably: NATO - for the first time in its history - committed to invoking Article 5 of its charter, which states that an "an armed attack" against any of the European or North American members "shall be considered an attack against them all." It requires NATO members to take the steps needed - including military action - to restore security.
But Bush will need to get rock-solid commitments from allies and other nations, and soon. While "they've said all the right things" in the immediate aftermath of the incidents, says historian James MacGregor Burns, their support could fade - especially if it takes weeks before military action occurs.
Indeed, the Swedish and German foreign ministers have already pushed for caution - and not acting before all the facts are known.
The bipartisan congressional resolution that vows retribution, passed early yesterday, is seen by some as negating any need for a formal declaration of war, thus allowing Bush to act quickly when he wants.
Work is under way in Congress to guarantee funds - perhaps $20 billion - for initial rescue and clean-up efforts. And although Congress is leery of giving Bush a blank check for future needs, privately many members say he will get as much as he requests.
The first thing a president needs to do is "get control of the crisis," says former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who worked for President Clinton. So far, he says, Bush has done "pretty well."
The complication comes if the days drag on. President Carter, for instance, got bogged down as Americans counted the 444 days that 52 hostages were held in Iran. A military rescue mission got stranded in the desert, leaving Americans feeling impotent.
President Roosevelt, however, went to Congress the day after the Pearl Harbor attack and got a declaration of war. That began the biggest military build-up in the country's history. The aim was clear. The enemy was known. And the victory was eventually won.
More recently, Bush's father assembled an international coalition in relatively short order to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. And once it began, the Gulf War was over in a matter of weeks.
So Bush is being pushed to act quickly, but also not so fast that he punishes the wrong people. Furthermore, unlike Pearl Harbor, this enemy is "faceless," as Bush puts it. That makes his task especially tough.
Separately, in his role as pastor, many observers hope he improves in coming days.
Americans want to know "that these people didn't die in vain," says Craig Smith, a speechwriter for President Ford. "We needed something quick, and we needed something more than we've been getting," he says.
In an Oval Office moment yesterday, Bush - for the first time in public - showed the strength of his feeling on the issue.
Asked how he is praying and thinking about the tragedy, he said, "Well, I don't think of myself right now. I think about the families, the children."
More than the words, however, there were his glistening eyes and his slightly quivering mouth. Clearly emotional, he walked quickly out of the Oval Office after declaring, "This country will not relent until we have saved ourselves, and others, from the terrible tragedy that came upon America."
Such emotion - and empathy - is crucial in leadership. Yet Bush has so far had trouble showing it in public. And a public articulation of empathy is key to leadership, observers say.
"Part of being president is being the nation's chaplain," says Mr. Panetta.
The very day of the Challenger disaster, for example, President Reagan made his powerful remarks.
Four days after the 1995 bombing, Clinton went to Oklahoma City and told the victims' families empathetically, "You have lost too much."
Then there are President Lincoln's famous words after the battle of Gettysburg: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...."
Staff writers Liz Marlantes and Francine Kiefer contributed to this article.