Rupert Cornwell: One year on, Mr Bush is in a remarkable position

'This presidency will come down to earth one day, but it will take more than a pretzel'
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The Independent Online

Maybe, when he returned to the White House after his inaugural gala on the night of 20 January 2001, George Bush allowed himself reasonably to believe that things might be a little better in a year. Having won the presidency in the most controversial circumstances for a century, he had earlier in the evening almost wrenched his daughter Jenna out of her ballgown in a particularly clumsy pas de deux.

But never in his wildest imagination (and the 43rd President is no more noted for his flights of fancy than for his dancing) could he have foreseen the reality: his legitimacy conceded by even the most churlish Democrat, an image of fecklessness banished, a sense of national unity and purpose restored, not to mention approval ratings to kill for.

Could that be the same George Walker Bush, just 12 months ago judged the most undeserving man to enter the White House? Amazingly, it is. The making of George Bush was, of course, 11 September. That morning he was down in Florida peddling his education reforms with the air of a man who had nothing better to do. That night he was the tentative leader of a stunned nation, as always struggling to find the right words.

But within 10 days, an inspirational visit to Ground Zero in New York and a rousing address to Congress had changed everything. At this moment Bush bestrides American politics as few of his predecessors. The metamorphosis – not so much of the man as of public perceptions of him – is astounding. This once most inconsequential of politicians has acquired gravitas. No one refers to him as "Dubya" any more. The sobriquet belongs to another age, another man.

These things never last. But for the moment, Mr Bush is enjoying that highest state of political grace – where nothing sticks. For weeks, commentators have been poised to pounce on any hint of frailty.

The Enron affair, with its suggestions of collusion between the new Republican administration and the disgraced energy company, seemingly confirming the Bush administration as the Washington lobbying arm of the Texas oil industry, in another time might have had the desired effect. But so far, not a bit of it. If anything, the opposite is true.

Some bombshell disclosure may yet upset every calculation. But in his handling of Enron, Mr Bush's admirers even detect the emergence of a "Bush doctrine", summed up in the slogan adopted by Nancy Reagan in the war against drugs: "Just Say No". Such, if the White House is to be believed (and events certainly bear out its story) was the administration's reaction to Enron's pleadings for help last autumn. And such was its line towards Argentina at the height of the crisis, just before Christmas.

More than four months after 11 September, and three months after the start of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Mr Bush's approval ratings stand at over 80 per cent, a mite down from their absolute zenith, but remarkable none the less. Better still for his Republican party, facing touch-and-go mid-term elections this November, the presidential coat-tails are proving long and strong.

Last summer, polls showed that Democrats had the more popular policies, by a margin of 55 per cent to 45. Today the figures are roughly reversed. Republicans can even dream of bucking the normal mid-term trend for the party in the White House, by gaining seats. That would not only mean holding the House where their majority is only six, but winning back the Senate too.

The hair's-breadth 2000 election victory (if victory it was) has meanwhile disappeared from the national consciousness. Al Gore, bearded and forgotten, ponders whether to run again. Bill Clinton, yesterday's lion, calls meetings with his old aides on how to salvage his reputation. For the moment, Bush sees off any Democratic contender in 2004 by a landslide.

For his opponents, the only comfort is the memory of Bush the father, the liberator of Kuwait who only 18 months after masterminding one of the most successful military campaigns in US history, was sent packing by the voters. And maybe this Bush's moment of glory has come too soon, three years before he must next face the voters.

But this Bush is also a quick learner, all too easily underestimated. Ann Richards joked about him and lost the governorship of Texas. Al Gore peered down his nose at him and lost the White House. He has observed his father's errors, above all the seeming remoteness from ordinary people and their worries, and will not repeat them.

This Bush knows that come 2004, the economy, not feats of war will decide his fate. His father was undone by the mildest of recessions. The son's good fortune is that this recession has struck early, but he is taking no chances. That is why even as the B-52s were still pounding caves in Eastern Afghanistan, a pretzel-scarred Bush was on the road this week, beating the drum in factories in the Midwest for his economic stimulus package.

Ah yes, the preztel. Could this be the "killer biscuit" for George Bush, just as the "killer rabbit" was for Jimmy Carter, the image that dooms a Presidency ? No chance. This was Bush the regular guy, snacking on the sofa in front of the NFL play-offs – an activity probably shared at that moment by a majority of his male fellow citizens. This presidency will come down to earth one day. But it will take more than a pretzel to do it.