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A Defining Year for US Politics - 2001-12-26

The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington reshaped the American political scene during the last few months of 2001. But, by the end of the year signs were pointing to a resumption of partisan politics in advance of the 2002 congressional midterm elections.

The act of terror that horrified then galvanized America also transformed the presidency of George W. Bush.

The new president now had a mission: ridding the world of terrorism. And his speech to Congress and the American people in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks reaffirmed an age-old maxim that events sometimes force a leader to rise to new heights.

"We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage," he said. "We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail."

The attacks and resulting U.S. military campaign against terrorists in Afghanistan also produced a rare example of political unanimity.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who had led the unsuccessful fight to stop the president's tax cut plan earlier in the year, now rallied to his side. "We want President Bush to know, we want the world to know, that he can depend on us," he said.

The crisis sparked by the terrorist attacks and the president's speech to Congress marked a sharp turning point in how the American people viewed Mr. Bush.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Americans who were once in awe of Bill Clinton's ability to connect with voters now found themselves reassured by George W. Bush's direct, yet soothing straight talk. "No one will ever accuse him of being as great a natural speaker as Bill Clinton was, but the kind of sincerity and toughness, I think, came through here," he said.

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress put aside their differences to show support for the war effort, at one point even joining together to sing God Bless America on the Capitol steps.

But in times of war and other national crisis, the American people look to the president to provide leadership. And University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says George W. Bush has risen to the occasion.

"He has been focused. He has done a good job. Just about everybody sees that. And he has a mission to his presidency. I doubt that in all of American history, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, you have ever had a president grow into the job quite as quickly," Mr. Sabato said. "Usually it takes a while. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes they never grow into the job."

Bipartisan support for the president's handling of the war, however, did not carry over into support for the president's domestic agenda. Democrats clashed with Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress over an economic stimulus plan, with sharp differences over tax cuts and health care coverage for the unemployed.

Democrats who were willing to march in lockstep with Mr. Bush on the war effort were eager to stake out differences on the economy and other domestic issues.

"Part of this is that the Democrats have made fundamental strategic calculation, that so long as they support the president strongly and firmly on the war, they now have the political luxury of beating him up on domestic politics and the fact that they don't think he has done a very good job with the economy," said Tom Defrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. "Both parties are also looking ahead to the 2002 congressional midterm elections when control of both the House and Senate will be up for grabs," he said.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Democrats are positioning themselves to try to take political advantage of the weakening U.S. economy.

"And the exception usually is in wartime," he said. "Sometimes it is also in periods of scandal, but usually wartime. And wartime trumps economy. If the war dies down, if victory is achieved, at least in a transient sense, then people, politicians and the election will start to focus on the economy. And that will help Democrats."

Political experts predict that while opposition Democrats will continue to support the president's campaign against terrorism, the partisan divide on domestic issues is likely to grow in 2002.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001