George W. Bush is seeking the prize that eluded his father, a second term in the White House. Four years after an election that divided the country, President Bush is facing an electorate still split over his leadership.
On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush took the oath of office as the 43rd President of the United States. He assumed the presidency following one of the most controversial elections in U.S. history. Election night stretched on for weeks, as the vote tally in one state, Florida, hung in the balance. In the end, the Supreme Court determined the outcome by putting an end to the recount demanded by Democrats.
And so it seemed somehow fitting that President Bush took power on a gray day with a cold drizzle in the air, a day that some said matched the mood of an election-weary nation. "America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens," he said.
He delivered a speech full of optimism, promising a new era of civility in American politics, and a domestic policy built on what he called "compassionate conservatism."
It seemed so long ago, a time when the nation tried to catch its collective breath, after an exhausting election marathon.
All that changed on a September morning that dawned bright and full of promise. On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck the United States. The nation and the president, would never be the same. "A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America," he told the nation following the attacks.
Three days later, he went to New York City, standing on a pile of twisted metal and ash, all that remained of the two World Trade Center buildings that once touched the sky. Rescue workers at the site started chanting, and handed him a megaphone. "I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon," he said.
Within weeks, U.S. forces launched attacks on al-Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and drove the Taleban regime from power. By 2002, the president was talking about a possible new battleground in the war on terror, Iraq. "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer," he said.
The issue split the United Nations Security Council, and created friction with some of America's allies, most notably France and Germany. On March 19, 2003, President Bush announced the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," he said in a nationally televised address.
Saddam Hussein was driven from power relatively quickly, and by May, the president said major combat operations were over, addressing the nation from the deck of an aircraft carrier, decorated with a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
But the violence did not end, despite the capture of the ousted Iraqi leader, and the rationale for war began to come into question from his political opponents. George W. Bush, who ran in 2000 as a compassionate conservative, found himself seeking a second term as a war president. "I wish I wasn't the War President. Who in the heck wants to be a War President? I don't. But this is what came our way," he said recently. It could be the issue that decides this election. The president's popularity was very high after the September 11th attacks, and the invasion of Afghanistan. It began to slip as the death toll increased in Iraq.
John Fortier is an expert on politics and the presidency at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He says the president's approval ratings, though still positive, are entering dangerous territory. "He is sort of in the middle. He hasn't fallen too much in popularity. He is not in great shape in the election. He is a president on the brink," he says.
Some presidents who have led the country during a time of war have won easy re-election. Others have faced defeat or given up their dreams of a second term before the campaign even began. The key for President Bush, says Steven Hess of the Brookings institution, is whether the public views the conflict in Iraq as just. "He certainly isn't responsible, I don't think he's responsible, for 9-11. But Iraq, yes, he is responsible for that. His objective, his vision if you will, is what led the nation into that particular engagement very decidedly. I'm sure. Very definitely. I wouldn't say otherwise," he says.
In January 2001, for only the second time in the history of the United States, the son of a former president assumed the highest office in the land, and put forward his vision for America. The first to accomplish that feat was John Quincy Adams in 1825. But he only served one term in office. George W. Bush is aiming for two.