WASHINGTON — Before Sept. 11, a lot of Americans took President Bush rather lightly. But after his show of leadership at that moment of crisis, most Americans began to take him seriously. Polls measuring his job performance shot up, and they have held up well.
At first our involvement in this war against terrorism brought about a solidity of public support with criticism pretty much muffled. But as the war has worn on and our active engagement with Afghanistan ebbed, for at least the time being, the opposition has begun to lift its voice. Democratic leaders have hit Mr. Bush hard of late for what they see as his failure to protect the environment and for his administration's laxness in guarding civil liberties.
At this Sept. 11, a year later, the president's standing with the public still looks good, even though it has dipped somewhat under the fire of criticism.
Right here we must remember that when Bush moved into the White House with a popular vote that was less than his opponent's, it was widely predicted that he would never be able to gain the backing of Congress he would need to get anything done. Indeed, from the beginning, in the eyes of a lot of people Bush was a mediocre fellow headed for little accomplishment during his term in office.
So the Bush presidency started out with a less-than-promising outlook. He worked hard personally and politically to bring the Democrats in Congress behind him. But he had hardly got his breath before GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords jumped ship and became an independent, giving the Senate to the Democrats and leaving the president with just a slim majority in the House.
Bush had to wonder whether the considerable political skills he possessed which he had honed as the governor of Texas would be enough for him to move his agenda forward. A failed presidency had to be a Bush worry.
Along came Sept. 11 and Bush suddenly became a popular wartime president. The resultant public support for Bush brought about a Congress that started to heed his legislative requests. And so it is that Congress (despite some foot-dragging by both Democratic leaders, Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt) has moved important elements of the president's program forward, notably his education proposals, and his current effort to reorganize the federal government in order to cope better with the terrorist threat on the home front.
It would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture of the post-Sept. 11 President Bush. Certainly the leadership ability he had shown at that time and since has greatly enhanced the public's appreciation of him. And this appreciation has certainly put a spring in George W.'s step. In many ways a new presidency has emerged.
But the economy just hasn't rebounded the way Mr. Bush keeps telling us it will. So a lot of Americans who have lost their jobs or their businesses or their hopes aren't shouting three cheers for the president. Indeed, the Democrats are counting on these economic woes to shape a vote of discontent in November that will bring both House and Senate into their control.
So it's possible that this rejuvenated president could lose his steam after this November election. It would be exceedingly difficult for him to get much done in an unfriendly Congress and after an election in which the Democratic victories would be widely interpreted as a negative public assessment of the Bush administration.
Bush and his Republican team see how important this election is. That's why the president is campaigning so hard. Actually, it's likely that the Democrats will add the House to their hold on Congress in this election. History has shown that the losing party in a presidential election usually gains a number of seats in the next congressional election. And the Democrats have to pick up only a handful of seats this time to win back the House.
But Sept. 11 did something special for this president. He became, overnight, the leader of the free world in the war against terrorism. Furthermore, he has shown the world that he's quite a leader. My guess is that he'll still be riding high in popularity and effectiveness however the November elections turn out.