Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Political observers are surprised at how well George Bush has performed during his first two months in the White House. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll gave him an approval rating of 60 percent, a sharp increase since mid-January.

So, what accounts for this favorable launch of a presidency that in December seemed doomed to constant turmoil in its relations with a deeply divided Congress? Here are the major factors::

* The president's excellent inaugural address on January 20 and his general demeanor. Bush displays the quiet self-confidence and optimism that has reassured a skeptical electorate.

* His selection of cabinet members and senior White House advisers. This is a group of experienced, highly qualified people who were ready to take on the task of running the government. Only Attorney General John Ashcroft faced serious opposition during his confirmation by the Senate.

* The contrast with former president Bill Clinton. Media coverage of Clinton's less than dignified departure from Washington, controversy over his initial lease of very expensive office space in New York, and outrage expressed even by supporters over his pardon of fugitive billionaire, Marc Rich, made George Bush look great by comparison.

* The new president's impressive budget speech to a joint session of Congress on February 27. He looked and sounded presidential to the television audience, even though his endorsement of large tax cuts was not applauded by Democratic members..

* Bush's emphasis on domestic needs instead of foreign policy requirements. His plan for education reform, support for faith-based programs to reduce poverty and drug use, and tax relief during the sharp economic downturn gained him public support. Higher heating bills last winter and California's dramatic energy crisis provided an impetus for early tax relief.

Most new presidents are accorded a brief "honeymoon" by the media and Congress before politics takes firm control in Washington. George Bush's honeymoon may be shorter than most, for two reasons: he is operating in a far more partisan manner than the country expected, and Congressional Democrats now realize he is a more formidable opponent than anticipated. If they fail to confront him now on tax cuts, energy programs, and the environment, Democrats fear the voters will elect more Republicans next year and dash their hopes of retaking control of Congress.

Despite his early success in opinion polls, the Democratic National Committee thinks it has an issue to spur public opposition to the Republican in 2002 and to Bush's reelection bid in 2004. It claims the Bush presidency is "illegitimate" because Republicans "stole" the crucial Florida election by manipulating the vote recount. DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe says the Florida vote controversy will mobilize his party and bring in large campaign contributions.

Republicans are persuaded that time is on their side in this debate. First, they think Bush and Republicans in the Senate and House will chalk up enough legislative accomplishments to make the outcome in Florida's election largely moot. Second, they think time will produce more sober reflection regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial decision to overrule Florida's high court on the question of whether recounting questionable ballots violated federal law and the constitution.

Few observers dispute that the Supreme Court's action thrust it into the political realm, which it generally tries to avoid. But the question that will be debated for years by historians, legal scholars, and political scientists is this: does the nation's highest court have a responsibility to intervene in the political sphere when the other branches of government reach an impasse that may threaten the country's stability?

Chief Justice William Rehnquist thinks so.

On January 19, the day before George Bush was sworn in as president, the Washington Post carried a story under the headline: "Rehnquist: Court Can Prevent a Crisis." It reported on a lecture the chief justice had given in Washington two weeks earlier in which he suggested that members of the court may sometimes need to become involved in political matters in order "to avoid a serious crisis." He cited the court's intervention in the disputed presidential election of 1876, in which Florida's electoral vote was an issue.

The charge of "stealing the election" will certainly be heard in the coming years. But it is not likely to sway the public's current attitude toward George Bush provided he runs an effective, and clean, administration.

Most Americans breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Supreme Court ended the intense national debate about Florida's vote recount. Had political uncertainty, perhaps even turmoil, continued into January and the election thrown into the House of Representatives, this country could have experienced a political crisis. And Bush would have been elected by that chamber of Congress because each of the fifty state casts just one vote, and a majority of them currently have legislatures that are controlled by the Republican Party.

The president's popularity to date rests largely on his plans for dealing with domestic matters, including his decision to prevent disruptive airline strikes that could affect millions of travelers this spring. But he has not been tested by a foreign policy or national security crisis, He has put relations with Russia, China, North and South Korea, and Israel on the back burner, and he shows caution in addressing a mounting civil war in Colombia.

However, during the next six months the new administration will be tested in foreign policy, and congressional Democrats are ready to compare Bush's policies with those of Clinton, if there is a military confrontation with China over Taiwan, or renewed turmoil in Korea.

The Pentagon and the nation's defense industry now watch skeptically to see how the president deals with national security issues, following his decision to place a hold on military procurement spending this year in order to help justify large tax cuts. A crisis in East Asia or the Middle East would cause Congress and the Armed Forces to demand a larger defense budget.

George Bush is fortunate that the world is relatively peaceful in 2001 and that the public seems favorable to his policy goals. Still, the White House must be praying that no foreign crisis erupts to spoil what has been a much better than expected start of his presidency.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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