The inherent tension in President Bush's political style has always been the difference between rhetoric that emphasizes harmony and bipartisanship and a conservative agenda that reflects a penchant to push the envelope with bold proposals -- a uniter and divider all rolled into one package.
Rarely has that tension been more obvious than at Bush's post-election news conference yesterday, and rarely has he been as explicit about which will guide him as he begins his second term.
Bush exuded the confidence that comes from winning a bruising reelection campaign, and he showed that four years in Washington have left him hardened and more realistic about the capital's partisan and polarized political culture. He also appeared more determined than ever to bend Congress to his will as he pursues his new agenda, knowing that presidential second terms often provide a limited window to get things done.
"When you win," he told reporters, "there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view, and that's what I intend to tell the Congress, that I made it clear what I intend to do as president . . . and the people made it clear what they wanted, now let's work together."
There are reasons why Bush and his advisers see the election returns as a mandate for the policies he talked about on the campaign trail. His 51 percent victory is far from the kind of landslide that Ronald Reagan won in 1984, but in the polarized atmosphere of a 50-50 nation during a controversial war, his margin over Kerry gives him a bit of breathing room that he never enjoyed coming out of the 2000 election.
In both his public appearances since defeating Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Tuesday, Bush talked about his desire to earn the support of many of those who voted for his rival and his hope that he can attract the support of at least some Democrats for an agenda that includes overhauling Social Security and the tax system.
But he made it clear he is not looking for a gathering somewhere near the middle of a political spectrum defined by red and blue. "With the campaign over, Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results," he said. However, yesterday's appeal to Democrats came with strings attached, with the president saying, "I'll reach out to everyone who shares our goals."
There are good reasons for Bush to approach his second term differently from his first. Four years ago, he was a president who lost the popular vote and needed a helping hand from the Supreme Court to make it to the Oval Office. Today, he looks to a second term as the first president elected with a popular-vote majority since 1988, after a campaign in which he talked every day about the policies and principles he would espouse. There are no questions today about his legitimacy.
Hard knocks from Democrats
Four years ago, he had a slimmer majority in the House, and the Senate was divided 50-50, with the votes of GOP moderates crucial to success and Vice President Cheney's vote needed to break a tie. Today, after two elections in which his party has gained seats in the House and the Senate -- a political first -- he knows he can win passage of some of his legislative priorities even with defections within his own party.
He has also absorbed the lessons of the hard knocks he received in dealing with Democrats on Capitol Hill and knows that Washington's partisan environment bears no resemblance to the climate of cooperation he faced as governor of Texas.
Four years ago, on the night the Supreme Court effectively gave him the presidency, Bush gave his victory speech in the Texas House chamber, then controlled by Democrats, to symbolize his determination to work with the opposition in Washington. "The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington, D.C.," he said, adding, "I am optimistic that I can change the tone in Washington, D.C."
But those hopes disappeared quickly, as Democrats rebuffed Bush over what they saw as his attempt to steamroll them with conservative policies, and as the president grew exasperated by what he regarded as an obstructionist opposition. When Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) defected early in Bush's first term, giving Democrats control of the Senate, any hopes the White House had for cooperation vanished.
This conflict between Bush and congressional Democrats came to be symbolized by the sour relationship that developed between the president and the Democratic leader of the Senate, Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). Today, Bush looks toward a second term in which Daschle will not even be in the Senate, defeated on Tuesday in the most closely watched race, aside from the battle for the presidency, by an across-the-board GOP assault that was waged with the full support of the White House.
Bush has weathered four difficult years that included the worst terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter having left the United States with tattered relations abroad and the strong opposition of many at home. Iraq became the center of the election debate, and through much of the campaign, Bush was on the defensive as he tried to explain and justify his policies there. Tuesday's election will not end that debate, and Bush's legacy still will be shaped by what happens there. But Iraq no longer threatens to end Bush's presidency.
'Vision of a better tomorrow'
In his news conference, Bush said "I've got work to do" to explain his foreign policy, and he promised to reach out to other nations as he goes forward. But he sounded as if the controversies over what he has done have left him, if anything, more confident in his vision. "You cannot lead this world and our country to a better tomorrow unless . . . you have a vision of a better tomorrow," he said. "And I've got one, based upon a great faith that people do want to be free and live in democracy."
Bush may face a divided electorate for the rest of his presidency, and some analysts have asked why he has pursued a strategy that focuses more on generating enthusiasm among the loyalists than on winning over converts. Four years ago, his legislative agenda included tax cuts that divided Republicans and Democrats, and education reform that initially served as a model of bipartisan cooperation.
Bush pointed to that legislation as a model for what he would like to do again, but there is very little in his domestic agenda that begins with the kind of broad appeal of education reform.
He probably can win many battles without the help of Democrats, given his congressional majorities, but reforming the Social Security system is such an ambitious and controversial proposition that outside experts believe it will be essential to reach a consensus that includes Democratic support. His domestic legacy may rest on how he approaches that challenge.
The president articulated as clearly as ever yesterday how he sees elections as vehicles for gaining acceptance to pursue the policies of his own choosing. "You asked, do I feel free?" he said. "Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style."
After four years, the capital and the country have come to understand that style far better than they once did. It is a style that does not exclude reaching agreement across the political aisle, but it is one that has at its core Bush's fealty to basic principles. Having won a second term on those terms, he is now set to govern in his own style.