Where Roosevelt was worried that Americans feared the war would never end, Bush frets that Americans think the war on terror has already ended. Where Roosevelt called for a national mobilization against mighty villains, Bush must rally the nation against invisible enemies. And while F.D.R. focused solely on the long war ahead, Bush must leverage his newfound stature into domestic achievement. "There's a real sense that we have to come up with some big, new ideas," says a nervous White House official. "We have to show we're not just sitting on our high poll numbers."
With the Taliban vanquished, Bush has to start worrying about political enemies at home. No. 1 on his list: Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader who last week ended the unofficial ban on full-contact politics with a speech that clobbered the President for throwing away the budget surplus on a massive tax cut. Bush's domestic agenda, Daschle charged, "is being written by a wing of the Republican Party that isn't interested in fiscal discipline."
The President's advisers are still debating how aggressively to respond to Daschle. Hard-liners argue that with Bush's approval ratings hovering near 90%, now is the time to push a conservative agenda and dare the Democrats to oppose it. "Unless the President takes on Daschle, we will have paralysis, and voters won't be able to see distinctions," says a House G.O.P. leader. But Bush favors a softer approach: calling for a continuation of post-9/11 unity and bipartisanship, thereby making Daschle seem shrill and churlish. At the same time, Bush knows that his father's apparent blindness to the recession of 1991 negated his Gulf War triumph. So between now and his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, Bush will hold a series of public events designed to prove his empathy for Americans hit hard by the current tough times.
In his big speech, Bush plans to drape his arms around the entire nation, Democrats included. In an upgrade of his "Communities of Character" initiative that was shelved because of the September attacks, Bush will propose a range of volunteer programs aimed at harnessing the reawakened desire of many Americans to serve their community and give to charity. His big idea: to expand the Corporation for National and Community Service, which Bill Clinton created with the youth-service program Americorps.
It helps that exhorting Americans to serve their community doesn't cost a lot of money. With the federal budget back in the red, the rest of Bush's agenda will be harder to pass. He will push Congress to approve the package of corporate tax cuts and unemployment benefits that stalled late last year, and try to revive his controversial energy policy. Medicare reform, a prescription-drug benefit for seniors and a patients' bill of rightsleftovers from last year despite bipartisan support for eachwill also find their way into the President's address, though election-year politics will probably keep them from going anywhere. And the biggest idea from Bush's campaignprivatizing Social Securitywill have to wait as well. Although Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser, argues that Social Security reform is a political winner, House Republicans begged the President not to make them vote on such a polarizing issue in an election year. And he won't.
That Bush will spend the bulk of his State of the Union talking about the domestic picture is a sign of just how successful he has been in the war on terrorism. When he last spoke from the well of the House of Representatives, he scarcely dreamed that four months later he would return to herald the rout of the Taliban and the rise of a peaceful Afghan government. But with Osama bin Laden still at large, Bush must keep the country engaged in what promises to be a protracted, murky war on terrorism without a daily display of military progress. He won't name new countries on the target list, his aides say, but will argue instead that the fight against al-Qaeda must continue in less visible ways.
In the days after the attacks, the White House was worried about too much "bloodlust" from the American people. Now it fears the public will lose its focus on the war and begin brooding about the economy, leading to an erosion in support much like the President's father suffered. Bush's advisers have pored over polls showing how long previous Presidents have enjoyed wartime spikes in popularityand discovered that they never lasted more than 10 months. Which is why Bush may never have a better chance than this to get big things done at home. The next time he gives a State of the Union address, his political capital may have run out.