It may sound crass, but every student of presidential history will attest it's true: There's nothing like a national crisis - preferably war - to forge presidential greatness.
It happened to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. To lesser degrees, it happened to Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman. Although many historians doubt that the war on terrorism can elevate George W. Bush into the pantheon of presidential greats or even near-greats, it has undeniably galvanized a president whose prewar approval ratings in the 50s could very well have sunk to recession-wary 40s or even 30s by now.
"It's absolutely transformed the presidency, because Bush has found purpose and meaning in what was a drifting presidency before Sept. 11," says historian Allan Lichtman, at American University here.
The battle against terrorism has not merely rescued Mr. Bush from a national to-do list of six agenda items - several of which seemed doomed in a split Congress. It has also forced a fast-forward evolution of the presidential persona. In a matter of months, he has left behind the frat-boy, intellectual-lightweight image and assumed the gravitas of a commander-in-chief.
Bush commands the respect of Democrats such as partisan pit bull James Carville who, even if they deride his domestic policies, praise him for his war strategy. He's now viewed more seriously by world leaders. Heads of state who once complained about Bush's go-it-alone stance on global warming and national missile defense are now his partners in a worldwide defense of "civilization," as the president gravely puts it.
"The smirk is gone," says Paul Light of the Brookings Institution, who says Bush's "maturation" is the headline of the year.
While hard to define, the gravitas factor could count most with voters in 2004, especially considering the closeness of the last election, says Mr. Light. Before Sept. 11, "the public did not have a good idea of who he was, what he stood for, or how he governed." Light says his polling data now show that the upward spike in Americans' trust in government is closely tied to their views of the president himself. He is now enjoying the longest stretch of 80-plus approval ratings since Gallup began the rankings in the Franklin Roosevelt era.
To Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, the maturation talk is nothing short of hogwash.
"Great events do not transform presidents. They bring out who they are," said Mr. Rove at a recent event with the national press corps. "All this about he's changed and he's transformed - no, he's who he is, required to do more in a great crisis."
Historians such as Mr. Lichtman say the war, in fact, does play to Bush's strength - his CEO style of focusing on a few issues, maintaining control of the big picture, and delegating the details (though the war demands far more attention to detail than he is accustomed to).
Although the president vows to stay focused on the terrorism fight even if the American public should tire of it, Lichtman and others caution that this war, as politically useful as it may currently be, is not likely to lead to presidential greatness nor to guarantee reelection.
A key reason: It's an odd war. Aside from the initial terrorist attacks, US casualties have been minuscule, unlike the heroic sacrifices at battles like Normany or Gettysburg. Just as important, it has yet to require great national sacrifice back home to match the effort overseas. And, of course, great presidents have to win their wars. Osama bin Laden is still unaccounted for.
At the same time, barring a new front opening in Iraq or another major terrorist attack against Americans, the antiterror effort could switch from a nightly-news hot war to a back-of-the-paper cold war.
A vital factor, too, is the war's timing on the political calendar. "All this has happened in the first year of his presidency, and not in the fourth year," says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University historian.
None of this appears to be lost on the White House. From Bush to the chief of staff to political strategists like Rove, the lesson of his father's presidency is not forgotten. It is the economy that determined the outcome of the 1992 Bush reelection campaign, not the bygone Gulf war.
To that end, says Rove, Bush's advisers are "plotting and thinking" through a post-Afghanistan strategy. It includes reviving parts of the agenda that got buried this year, such as the national energy plan. It also may include new measures, such as executive action to clear away federal regulations that are thought to stifle the economy.
Not wanting to upstage his boss's State of the Union address next month, Rove hands out few clues about what's next. But he knows that the war can't serve as the be-all and end-all of this administration. "People don't vote retrospectively. That's why [Winston] Churchill gets voted out of office," he says. "That's why war presidents don't necessarily fare so well in the aftermath of war, because people vote prospectively, not retrospectively."