Bush's big affirmation

The GOP's historic midterm takeover of Congress gives Bush a mandate, but a fragile one.

George W. Bush's historic victory on Nov. 5 – a surprise Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, unprecedented for a midterm election – vindicates the president's controversial election two years ago and hands him the keys to the national policy agenda. The GOP triumph, in which Mr. Bush boldly put his prestige on the line, barnstorming the country for Republicans, also boosts the president's image on the world stage as he goes toe to toe with terrorists and Iraq.

"Bush was [just] elected president of the United States," says independent pollster John Zogby. "He's on his own with his own agenda. From here on in, everything is a referendum on George W."

Bush now faces the classic scenario of "being careful what you ask for, because you might get it." The kingdom is his – but his control of Congress is razor-thin, and he lacks the Senate supermajority of 60 votes needed to halt a filibuster. And as when Bill Clinton had control of Congress for the first two years of his presidency, Bush may find he has to mediate policy differences between different wings of the Republican Party.

Still, a new day has dawned for Bush's stalled legislative agenda, including creation of a department of homeland security, approval of a host of conservative judges, prescription-drug coverage for Medicare, and drilling for oil in Alaska's wildlife refuge.

It looks likely that Congress will make permanent the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut enacted last year, though many Senate Democrats were already on board with that. GOP control of the Senate also raises the possibility that one or more conservative Supreme Court justices may retire in the next two years, allowing Bush to name a replacement and win likely confirmation.

According to Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, creation of a department of homeland security will be the first priority in the lame-duck session of Congress that starts Nov. 12.

Looking ahead to the 2004 presidential race, one of Bush's biggest challenges is to boost the economy. Even while returns were coming in Tuesday night, White House officials were talking about putting together a package of measures designed to stimulate growth – such as tax cuts for business and investors – to unveil in the new Congress.

The 9/11 factor

The specter of 9/11 continues to loom large. The attack on America galvanized his presidency after a lackluster first nine months, and boosted his popularity to levels that remain high. Sept. 11, observers say, gave Bush a coating of Teflon that made him hard to attack during the campaign.

If terrorists hit US soil again, Americans would likely rally around their president again – but it could be argued that several such attacks could, at a certain point, tip against the president. War on Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, if Bush's saber-rattling comes to that, would also be risky for Bush and the GOP.

And so, as Bush looks figuratively down Pennsylvania Avenue at Capitol Hill, he sees a Congress that is "his" – but still closely divided. The Republicans have 51 out of 100 seats in the Senate, with at least one race, Louisiana, still undecided. In the House, the Republicans won 227 out of 435 seats. Bush may find that he becomes more active in dealing with members of the Senate – both Republicans and Democrats.

"The Republicans have control of the Senate, and better yet for Bush, there are at least a half-dozen Republicans who owe him – everyone who won by a small vote where he campaigned and raised money," says Stephen Wayne, a scholar at Georgetown University. "In the next couple of years, when push comes to shove, Bush can call in his chits. This will be important for maintaining unity in the Senate."

One big risk for Bush now is that he becomes overconfident. Bush has made a career out of being underestimated – particularly with his breezy style and anti-wonk persona – and then surprising people. Throughout the 2002 campaign, Republicans kept expectations low and reminded reporters often that presidents almost always lose seats in Congress in midterm elections. They insisted this election was not a referendum on Bush's presidency, that "all politics is local."

Suddenly all politics is national, and Bush now faces the highest of expectations from a nation facing grave challenges. "The greatest risk [to Bush] is in one word: hubris," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Many presidents and staffs have succumbed to hubris in the wake of great victory – usually the beginning of their downfall."

Why the GOP triumphed

It's possible, analysts say, that Bush's popularity and policies weren't behind some of the Republican victories in Tuesday's election. So many factors go into a race – local issues, the campaigning skill of the candidate, financial resources, the strength or weakness of the opponent – that there's a danger in drawing large national conclusions from a collection of local results, especially regarding foreign policy matters.

Mr. Fleischer, the White House press secretary, continued to try to keep expectations low over Bush's ability to carry out his agenda, including Iraq. At the noon briefing yesterday, he was asked, do Tuesday's results give Bush a mandate? His response was to quote the president as saying: "The credit goes to the candidates and to those who focused on changing the tone, people who want to work together to get things done."

"He hopes it's a mandate to get Republicans and Democrats to work together," Fleischer said.

Viewed from overseas, though, Bush's victory looks like a ringing endorsement of his presidency – and makes the US appear even more super as the sole superpower. "There's a message that Bush's popularity, which is almost entirely related to his leadership in the war on terrorism, did translate into electoral strength," says Paul Light, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. So the White House can present Tuesday's victory as an international mandate, he says, "and send a message to allies that the American public may be more resolute."

• Staff writers David Cook and Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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