As President Bush marks the halfway point of his term with Tuesday's State of the Union address, the historical rhymes of his father's presidency are sounding loudly.
When George W. Bush was elected the 43rd president in 2000, it was inevitable he'd be compared early and often with his father, the 41st president. But what's striking is how the two central issues he faces - Iraq and the economy - strongly echo those of the first President Bush, and, as with his father, could make or break his reelection. A fainter echo is also sounding on whom Mr. Bush might nominate for the Supreme Court, as speculation mounts over a vacancy this year.
So far, Bush the younger has scored big successes on the few occasions when he's laid down markers with Congress - though his father was considered more adroit at working with Capitol Hill. First there was the $1.35 trillion tax cut, passed in the spring of 2001; then there was the vote in October 2002 authorizing military action against Iraq. In other areas, such as passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, he's compromised and emerged appearing a winner. But there have, of course, been defeats, such as Bush's energy plan and the defeat of his nomination of Judge Charles Pickering.
"There's a very definite life cycle of presidential administrations in which success tends to be front-loaded," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "As controversial as the 2000 election was, [the honeymoon] lasted long enough to get tax cuts through. Then 9/11 came along, and he got an additional boost."
Now, the high poll numbers Bush reaped from his handling of Sept. 11 and the Afghan war are starting to fade, and the specter of his father's failed reelection campaign is beginning to loom. Iraq and the economy remain front and center as polls show growing public skepticism over the president's handling of each. On the economy, Bush is facing more Republican opposition to his $674 billion tax-cut plan than he expected. On Iraq, even if a war is deemed successful, and President Saddam Hussein is ousted, the White House is keenly aware that victory would guarantee nothing in the 2004 election.
At a Jan. 22 Monitor forum, Karl Rove, Bush's political right-hand man, said he expected the election to be close, even if Bush is successful in Iraq. He alluded to the first Bush's victory in the Gulf War - and subsequent defeat at the polls. "It's natural caution, perhaps," said Mr. Rove. "But ... in the aftermath of war, sometimes public attitudes change and people who successfully prosecuted wars are no longer in office. I think that happened recently in our experience."
An imposing portrait of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, hangs in the small lunch room off the Oval Office, where Bush has meals with congressional leaders and advisers. Bush wanted the painting there as a gesture to the only other son of a president to become president, and to the nickname - "Quincy" - that George H.W. Bush gave his son when he decided to run.
But in style and manner, George W. Bush isn't much like Adams, who was aloof and had a distaste for political debate (and failed to win reelection). Bush is also quite different from his father, in style and politics, though much of his war cabinet comes right from the first Bush's administration: Vice President Cheney was defense secretary; Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was a senior National Security Council official.
According to Herbert Parmet, a biographer of the first President Bush, the family is very close. "They're in constant touch," he says. "They have their own Bush family e-mail domain."
But the current president has shown himself a more consistent conservative since entering politics. While the father had to take on the conservative anti-abortion orthodoxy to gain admission to Ronald Reagan's presidential ticket in 1980, the son has always opposed abortion rights.
"Bush is a pragmatic conservative," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna college in Claremont, Calif. "I don't think he's an ideologue.... Look at the education bill: A truly ideological president wouldn't have made common cause with Ted Kennedy," he adds, referring to the liberal Massachusetts senator.
Still, analysts agree, Bush is more conservative than his father, who came of age under Eisenhower Republicanism and its hallmarks of cooperation, moderation, and an acceptance of the foundations of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The son came of age in the Reagan era, marked by efforts to prune government - with the exception of the Defense Department. Bush's ultimate support for the Department of Homeland Security fits the Reagan mold - though he initially resisted a new bureaucracy.
'Thou shalt nots'
In the end, the road map for Bush's term has been set by the list of "thou shalt nots" from his father's presidency: not leaving President Hussein in place in Iraq, not appearing to ignore a faltering economy, and not naming any new Supreme Court justices who are less than conservative, particularly on abortion.
It is expected that at least one justice will retire by this summer, and speculation is rampant over whom Bush will nominate. Much talk centers on Al Gonzales, chief White House counsel, but already some conservative commentators are expressing concerns that he's not true-blue enough. They don't want another David Souter - a justice Bush the First appointed, with assurances from then-Chief of Staff John Sununu that Mr. Souter would reliably take conservative positions. Instead, Souter has been a centrist.
Since last November's election, when Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, Bush has made numerous conservative gestures - opposing the affirmative-action policy at the University of Michigan, renominating Judge Pickering (controversial for his civil rights record) for federal appeals court, proposing several measures opposed by environmentalists, laying out another big tax cut. The question is whether these moves are early efforts to firm up his conservative base before a swerve to the center in time for the 2004 election.
One thing that's certain: He hasn't won much goodwill among Democrats. This White House's willingness to work with Senator Kennedy on the education bill may have been an exception, say Democrats who are disappointed in a president who came to Washington promising cooperation. "I found the older Bush to be much easier to work with, more open, not as partisan," Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia told a Monitor breakfast last week.
And if Bush won high marks for his performance after Sept. 11, his future appears unclear. In addition to foreign-policy challenges in the Middle East and North Korea, his domestic agenda is also brimming: the economy, Medicare, energy, civil rights, education, the environment.
"There's a sense that he does have a certain style with words that's comforting," says Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton. "But I think the biggest problem right now is most people are really not quite sure whether he's got the leadership to take us out of these crises, or whether there will be greater trouble."
The US Constitution says: "The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Here are some White House facts about the speeches that ensued:
First address: George Washington, 1790.
Shortest address: George Washington, in 1790, at six minutes.
Longest address: Harry Truman, in 1946, at over three hours (read by a clerk).
First evening address: Franklin Roosevelt, 1936.
Years in which the address was written, not spoken: 112, from 1801 (Thomas Jefferson thought the oration too regal for a republic) to 1913 (when Woodrow Wilson approached the lectern).
Famous doctrines first enunciated in State of the Union addresses: The Monroe Doctrine (James Monroe, 1823), The Emancipation Proclamation (Abraham Lincoln, 1862), The Four Freedoms (Franklin Roosevelt, 1941).