History weighs heavy on Bush as he faces his toughest test

The President
Click to follow

Even George Bush's worst enemies would not have wished it upon him – not just the most searching test of his eight months in office but, arguably, the most traumatic challenge to have faced any post-war president. And, as Mr Bush himself is well aware, how he meets this challenge may well decide the fate of his presidency.

After his strange odyssey around the country on Tuesday as the country found itself, in effect, in a state of war, Mr Bush was operating out of the White House again yesterday, meeting his security and economic advisers and pitching America as the leader of a global battle to eradicate terrorism.

"These were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war," he declared. The American people were facing "a different enemy from any they've faced before ... who preyed on innocent people and then ran for cover. But they won't be able to run for cover for ever, and won't be able to hide for ever."

The President, who last night toured the damage at the Pentagon, said the carnage made him sad and angry. He said: "The nation mourns, but we must go on."

Mr Bush is often accused having no grasp of, or even real interest in, foreign affairs but yesterday he vowed to "rally the world" for a long-term war against terrorism. "It will take time and resolve but, make no mistake, we will prevail," he said. He sent a memo to White House staff urging them to donate blood and will follow that up with a direct national appeal for donors, to cope with the horrendous carnage in New York and at the Pentagon.

The President was not helped at the start of the drama by the spectacle of the most powerful man in the world being ferried from one unnamed military base to another, as if he were a beneficiary of the witness protection programme. But this dent to the traditional image of presidential might was not his fault. Rather, the blame lies with the drastic security procedures which snap automatically into place in such an emergency. An American president is not only chief executive and head of state. At a time such as Tuesday, he is first and foremost commander-in-chief of armed forces in a worldwide state of "Delta" – maximum – alert.

Mr Bush's larger problem was, and remains, one of projection. His television performances in the hours after the catastrophe won mixed reviews. An uncertain early response, described as "ineffectual, neither reassuring nor forceful enough" by The Washington Post, was followed by a sombre, more measured, nationwide address from the Oval Office on Tuesday evening.

His thin-lipped, somewhat superficial manner of delivery does not help. Nor do the evident similarities with his father. One reason why George Bush Snr lost the presidency in 1992 was his perceived remoteness from the problems of ordinary people. His son's ability to "connect" with the public will be determined largely by his handling of this crisis.

National crises can make or break presidents. Bill Clinton was in acute political difficulty, forced to defend his "relevance" to the country, until he crystallised the national sense of outrage and compassion after the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb. In December 1941, Franklin Roosevelt gained even greater prestige from his speech damning the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the crisis with which this week's terrorist onslaught is being compared.

These are the examples Mr Bush wants to follow. The one to avoid is Jimmy Carter, whose fate was partly sealed by what was seen as a weak and ineffective response to the crisis of the US hostages held in Tehran, epitomised by the botched rescue mission of April 1980.

President Bush will also benefit from a national sense of unity – exemplified in moving style on Tuesday evening as senators and congressmen, Democrats and Republicans alike, assembled on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America." In a poll yesterday, 78 per cent of Americans said they were confident their leader could handle the crisis, a far better performance than the 50 per cent approval rating he was earning before Tuesday's attacks.

From Australia, where he has been on a speaking tour, Mr Clinton, so often scathing last year in his criticism of Bush the candidate, rallied behind the son of the man he defeated in 1992: "We should not be second- guessing, we should be supporting him." But the moment is fraught with danger for President Bush. The crisis may have banished the economic slowdown and the arcane row over the vanished US budget surplus from the front pages but its repercussions on national confidence could turn the feared recession into fact, and damage the President's standing even further.

Then there is the small matter of the hunting down and punishment of those responsible for the attacks who are still alive. The word yesterday from Mr Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was that Washington would not be rushed. But, as national outrage at what has happened grows, pressure to act with power could become overwhelming.

After the bombings of the two US embassies in Africa in 1998, Mr Clinton quickly ordered missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan. The first was at a mistaken target, while the second failed to hit the intended target, the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who is also the number one suspect for Tuesday's outrage. But, in its desire for revenge, the angered and distraught American public did not seem to care.