Less than a year into his presidency, George W. Bush faces a challenge that no other president in the last 60 years has encountered — to calm an outraged nation and send proof to the world that “America’s freedom will be defended.”
With Washington and New York City in near chaos and much of America in shock, Bush moved quickly Tuesday to reassure the country and pledge quick revenge for those responsible for terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“The resolve of our great nation is being tested,” Bush said. “But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test.”
Within hours, Bush closed some of the nation’s borders, put the military at home and abroad on “high status alert,” shut down air traffic within the U.S. and rerouted incoming international flights away from their U.S. destinations. And he promised to “hunt down” those who organized the deadly attack.
Despite the tough talk, Bush found himself ducking out of public view much of the day _ delaying a return to the White House because of concerns over his personal security. Experts say the true test of the man and his presidency is yet to come as Americans and the world watch to see if he lives up to his pledge to “punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”
“This is the first really great test of the Bush presidency. Questions have persisted of whether he is up to the job. This is his chance to show that he is,” said George Edwards, director of presidential studies at Texas A&M University. “There have been terrible disasters and humilities against the country in the past. But this is the most severe attack ever on our soil …and it’s important the president be seen as in command.”
Earl Black, a professor of American politics at Rice University in Houston, said the eyes of the nation and world will focus on Bush and his actions over the next few days _ especially since foreign affairs was considered one of Bush’s major weaknesses during last year’s presidential campaign.
“There is no doubt that this is a situation that really calls for well thought out presidential performance. It could go either way, just based on what really unfolds …This really calls for purposeful presidential leadership,” he said.
Early Tuesday, a president obviously in shock, spoke in Sarasota to assure Americans that federal officials were doing everything possible to protect public safety. By early afternoon, as Air Force One stopped briefly in Louisiana, Bush determinedly worked to control his outrage over the human loss as he vowed revenge.
Political experts likened Tuesday’s tragedy to other presidential crises, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis and the Oklahoma City bombing. In each case, the incident defined or significantly altered the focus or image of the president in office.
Pearl Harbor turned Franklin D. Roosevelt from a neutral stance on international conflict into a bold advocate of war against Germany and Japan. John F. Kennedy’s cautious handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis during his first year in office won the confidence of critics who thought him too passive to communist aggression. And Bill Clinton used words alone to serve as America’s emotional healer after the devastating bomb attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City.
“People have compared it to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Pearl Harbor, but in those cases we knew clearly where the danger came from and the threat. This is not such a situation … it is really unprecedented,” said Donald Robinson, professor of government at Smith University in Massachusetts.
Indeed, the death toll from Tuesday’s attacks is expected to be far higher than the carnage left by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
Americans will want quick revenge — and they’ll expect Bush to quickly determine who was responsible for the attacks, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
“He has to be compassionate for all the families that have been decimated, but also firmly committed to finding out who did this,” she said. “This is the first real frontal assault on our American soil. If he doesn’t find out who did it and do something about it, it could be trouble for his presidency.”