Despite his frequent talk of "compassionate conservatism" and a promised commitment to an expansive domestic agenda, George W. Bush's first term in the White House has been shaped by war and deep partisan divisions that often made him seem as if he were Ronald Reagan's son, pursuing ambitious if controversial goals, rather than the son of George H.W. Bush, who was known, and sometimes ridiculed, for his lack of interest in what he called "the vision thing."
If the president were now rolling to the easy victory many predicted after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he likely would see his reelection as a validation of the conservative policies of his first term. Instead, this man, who has always taken pride in seeing himself as a kind, caring, and decent leader who worked easily with political opponents as governor of Texas, has found himself the target of deep and widespread anger. Thus, caught in the controversy of his decisions over war and taxes, President Bush will enter a second term viewing his reelection as a second chance, something voters denied his father in 1992, rather than a mandate for a socially conservative and singularly aggressive agenda.
President Bush's second-chance presidency will be his opportunity to shape his legacy through a mixture of optimism, vision, values, and opportunity. The man who campaigned for office as a "uniter, not a divider" is almost certain to make outreach--to domestic opponents and foreign critics alike--the modus operandi of term two. While he is unlikely to shift dramatically from his conviction that threats to national security must be met head on, the last half of 2004 included efforts at personal diplomacy that are vaguely reminiscent of his father's attempts at coalition building prior to the first Gulf War. As the war in Iraq began to drag on, with U.S. casualties mounting and costs rising rapidly, Bush met repeatedly with world leaders to seek greater international participation in the reconstruction of the country and urged the United Nations to take a bigger role than it had yet been willing to assume. Notably absent from those meetings--even meetings with his counterparts in France and Germany--was the kind of muscular and almost bullying rhetoric the president had used during the buildup to the war. In Iraq itself, the United States took a backstage role, at least publicly, letting Iraqis become the public face of both the rebuilding effort and the campaign to destroy the Iraqi rebels trying to disrupt the transition to a democratic government. If one trait marked the president's behavior during the latter months of 2004, it was a decidedly uncharacteristic restraint, far more reminiscent of his father's style than of the style he himself had displayed at the war's outset. That, rather than the foreign-policy attitude his critics had condemned as arrogance, will likely mark a second term.
On the domestic front, Bush will reclaim the unrealized goals of his first four years--and in this will succeed where his father did not. President George H.W. Bush put forth comprehensive programs for a host of domestic issues--plans to reform our education and health-care systems and programs to inspire citizens to public service. The Gulf War diverted his attention (sound familiar?) and afterwards, his advisors persuaded him to put his preferred agenda on hold until after his presumed reelection. The current President Bush came into office determined not to repeat the sad history of his father's administration, but his domestic goals, too, got lost in the consuming fires of combat. Given a second chance, President Bush will demonstrate that compassionate conservatism has substance. He will commit his administration to inventive systemic reforms that in a true "take responsibility for yourself" Republican way, address education, tax policy, health care, and retirement.
President Bush's father had made education reform a prime goal of his presidency. "No Child Left Behind," this president's education initiative, was reminiscent of proposals that had been put forth by George H. W. Bush. And both plans met the same fate. With foreign policy dominating his presidency, George H.W. Bush saw his education goals fail to make it into policy. With the new war in Iraq eating up huge chunks of the federal treasury, this president's ambitious education programs have been forced to get by on far too few dollars. Reforming the country's school system would have been the centerpiece of the father's second term; it will be the centerpiece of his son's next four years.
President Bush will continue to deal with the constant threat of international terrorism, but like the Soviet threat of the 20th century, this issue will settle into its appropriate place in the policy lexicon of the Oval Office. (Presidents have lived and dealt with threat before. Franklin Roosevelt even found time to pursue an aggressive domestic agenda--thanks in part to pressure from his wife--in the midst of World War II. ) Even his way of fighting the war on terror will come to resemble the approach taken by his father. The first President Bush, a war hero himself, understood the value of military force, but he was, above all, a negotiator, a coalition-builder, a man who saw national security issues as multi-dimensional, involving diplomacy, foreign assistance, and the proverbial struggle "for the hearts and minds" of potential adversaries. Faced with the need to use force in places like Kuwait and Somalia, the first President Bush focused intently not only on how to get the military in, but also on how to get it out.
This president, confronting a different kind of challenge after the attacks of September 11 and believing that Saddam Hussein posed the potential for yet another such attack, responded quickly and militarily, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. The result has been division in America, hostility abroad, and while the president will continue to believe he acted as he had to, he will respond to future crises much as his father did, with military force being not the only, or first, option. This second-chance president will step with more caution before he leads the country into further battles, and will devote considerable energy to reforming the intelligence and defense apparatus in Washington.
There is no way of knowing, of course, whether the president's approach toward the terrorist threat might have changed if he had retained the popularity he enjoyed in the early days after September 11 or in the aftermath of congressional authorization to go to war in Iraq. But if Bush wins reelection, it will be because many of his voters found John Kerry a lesser alternative and were willing to give President Bush and his agenda a second chance, even though many questioned his management of the war in Iraq.
Do not look for Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft to dominate a second Bush presidency as they have the first. Do not look for President Bush to hurl more flowers (such as the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage) at the feet of those who proclaim themselves to be spokesmen for American conservatives. Having found the voters willing to let him try again, George W. Bush will respond with a presidency that will make him more popular when it ends than when it began.