President Bush has proved himself, but the storm clouds are gathering again

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The Independent Online

Even by the roller-coaster standards of recent American presidencies, George Bush's first year in office has been unusually volatile. The 43rd President, whose election victory was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court, is now one of the most popular ever.; a man who could scarcely utter a sentence without torturing the words has found a voice almost equal to the office he holds; and the president's son, who risked languishing for years in the shadow of his father is no longer George W, "Dubya", George Bush Jnr, or "43"; he is simply President Bush.

One year on, the overt divisions – social, political and economic – thrown up so starkly by the 2000 election have largely been banished. After the terrorist attacks on 11 September, Americans rallied behind the President. Even the fiercest critics have grudgingly acknowledged that George Bush has proved his mettle, just as his father did, as commander-in-chief. He has shown himself surprisingly cool and measured at a time of extraordinary crisis: in campaigning for the presidency as a leader and manager, Mr Bush was not entirely oversold.

With some relief, we can say that Mr Bush has confounded many forecasts and turned out to be neither stupid nor – except in the careless loss of his Senate majority – incompetent. But, as the flag-waving patriotism unleashed by 11 September starts to subside and the solidarity of national outrage starts to dissipate, the clouds that darkened Mr Bush's election and the early months of his presidency are already regrouping. The campaign for the mid-term Congressional elections in November will show how successful Mr Bush has been in reconciling Americans with each other and with his presidency. The speed with which politics as usual has returned, however, suggests that the answer is "not very".

The tax cuts on which Mr Bush was (barely) elected have done nothing to keep America out of recession, and yet he now wants more of them. The massive budget surplus achieved by the Clinton administration – and used by the Bush campaign to justify the first tax cuts – is already spent. The impending deficit, job cuts and sinking social spending threaten the social fabric.

Mr Bush is also pressing ahead with environmental policies that threaten one of his country's most admired and treasured assets: its natural splendour. And the Enron scandal, even if no personal wrongdoing is established on the part of Mr Bush, taints his administration by association. It is a fact that Mr Bush's political career – from its humble beginnings to his winning of the ultimate prize – was well-greased by his family and business connections in the energy sector, Enron included. Those links give the scandal political "traction"; how much – in the unlikely absence of new revelations – will be for Americans to decide at the ballot box.

A US president is, of course, national leader first of all. But the size, power and history of his country dictate that he inherit the mantle of world statesman. The most disappointing aspect of Mr Bush's first year is the extent to which he has failed to exercise the power at his disposal, except for the single, and primitive, purpose of hunting down the presumed perpetrators of the September attacks. He has not given even the slightest sign that the destruction of the World Trade towers has broadened his outlook.

For Mr Bush, international terrorism began – and he appears to hope that it will end – with those attacks. His refusal to recognise the status of Taliban prisoners under the Geneva Conventions, to sign the US up to international justice or environment standards and his abrogation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty reflect the same isolationist view of his country. Without a change of heart, Mr Bush could find that the nations that answered his call for a "war on terror" may be less willing next time around.