Great presidents, it’s said, are in large measure products of circumstance. It’s at moments of national crisis that a leader has the opportunity to rise above his narrow base, put aside his own past baggage and rally a united citizenry. Only in crisis can a president be transformed into something larger than the sum of his parts.
Of course, not every president rises to the occasion. As President Bush showed in his State of the Union address this week, it’s possible for a president to stand before the nation in a moment of profound crisis and be revealed as nothing more than the limited individual we saw the day before.
America is facing a crisis of global proportions, as Bush rightly reminded us in his speech. It is a challenge to America’s values and its standing on the world stage, and it is a challenge we did not seek. A war has been declared on us by an international force of utter ruthlessness, and we must respond as a nation. Bush is not wrong in that.
He may be right, too, that the rise of dictatorships that pursue weapons of mass destruction compounds the terrorist challenge. The case for pre-emptive war has not yet been made convincingly, but Americans — and the world — are willing to be convinced.
The president’s next step, then, should have been to rally America and the world around the common cause of confronting the danger. If we are to go to war, Americans must face the enemy united, both among ourselves and with our fellow democracies across the sea. We must be clear about the reasons for war and the justice of our cause. We must understand the sacrifices that will be demanded. In all this, it is our president who must lead and unify us.
Bush, sadly, chose not to lead but to divide. In a calculated display of shocking partisanship, Bush combined his call to war against Iraq with a reiteration of his now familiar laundry list of radically conservative domestic schemes, from his $670 billion tax giveaway to the rich to his “faith-based” plan for funding churches and a new scheme for undermining Medicare by forcing patients into private HMOs — while declaring every American’s right “to choose their own doctor.”
Every one of these schemes is guaranteed to touch off an ugly, protracted battle in Congress and the media. Americans will be fighting Americans, when we should be fighting Al Qaeda and its allies.
The president should not have gone this route. In order to help Americans unite, he should have offered to modify his tax-cut plan and announced immediate, round-the-clock negotiations with Democrats — who represent fully half the electorate and control nearly half the Congress — to find a plan that meets them half-way. He should have announced that in deference to the misgivings of constitutional scholars and religious minorities, he was pulling back his faith-based initiative for further study, and appointing a bipartisan, interreligious panel of experts with a mandate to review the issue.
The last president who led a divided nation into war while insisting on a radical reordering of domestic priorities was Lyndon Johnson. In his 1966 State of the Union address Johnson, like Bush this week, struck dual themes of rallying Americans to war abroad and launching an ambitious economic restructuring at home. Unlike Bush, Johnson had just been elected in a historic landslide.
And yet the results were disastrous. Within two years Johnson was retiring from politics in humiliation, while his party was preparing to cede power to the opposition for what would become a generation of steadily rising Republican hegemony. As for that war, the nation never did rally. The war dragged on for nearly a decade, tens of thousands of American lives were lost and the enemy beat us.
Bush doesn’t need that kind of tsores. Neither does America.