Not since Franklin Roosevelt took his oath of office in 1937 has a president enjoyed the full powers of his mandate for the full four years of his second term.
After taking his oath Thursday, George W. Bush stood at the threshold of opportunities that only Roosevelt was able to exploit.
Other second-term presidents since Roosevelt succumbed to political ills and physical infirmities:
- Dwight Eisenhower was weakened by serious illnesses and a Democratic majority in Congress after the 1958 elections.
- Richard Nixon was crippled by the Watergate scandal and driven from office.
- Ronald Reagan seemed to lose control of his subordinates and may have been weakened by loss of mental acuity later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease.
- Bill Clinton was handicapped by his liaison with Monica Lewinsky and Republicans’ exploitation of that affair to impeach him.
This president does not dominate politics the way Roosevelt did after his landslide victory in 1936, but Bush did win 31 states, even traditionally Democratic ones such as Iowa, and will have the benefit of enlarged GOP majorities in House and Senate.
Will Americans follow?
To be put to test every day from now until he turns over the presidency in 2009 is the question of whether enough Americans want to follow where Bush wants to lead them, especially when it comes to foreign commitments.
“There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom,” Bush declared.
Freedom abroad is not only good and necessary for others, but it is vital in Americans’ own defense, he argued.
“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” he said.
Bush did admit that “freedom, by its nature, must be chosen,” and he promised “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.”
The question still to be debated is how much freedom and democratic government Iraqis, Iranians, Palestinians and others really want. Can the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, reaffirmed by Bush Thursday, be grafted onto a foreign society?
For the most part, Bush’s address was free of any doubt or skepticism. It was instead a prose hymn to human freedom, as loftily idealistic as any of Woodrow Wilson’s high-flown rhetoric.
But the words must be matched by an expense — military casualties, American soldiers being killed by Iraqis who do not define freedom the way Bush does.
Support for nation-building
There are some reasons to doubt whether Americans have the know-how, the financial capacity, and the stomach for years-long nation-building projects in Iraq and other places where U.S. topples a regime, or where, as in Somalia, a state has gone kaput.
The president said, "ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations" as he called upon Americans to brace themselves, their children and their grandchildren for that work.
America has a dozen aircraft carriers, but as Bush’s choice for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, hinted in her statement Tuesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America also has a critical strategic deficit: not enough Arabic or Farsi speakers.
As Niall Ferguson, a British historian now teaching at Harvard University who supports the U.S. involvement in Iraq and elsewhere, said last year, “The United States suffers from what is best called an attention deficit. Its republican institutions and political traditions make it difficult to establish a consensus for long-term nation-building projects.”
Largely overlooked in Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Rice was a remark by a Republican senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
“There's more than one way to implement the ‘city on the hill’ moral mission that we have in this country to spread freedom around the world,” Alexander told Rice. “One way is to change a regime and try to make a country more like ours. Another way might be to celebrate our own values and strengthen ourselves and be a good example, and by doing that, to spread freedom.”
Alexander is no isolationist, but he is one Republican who thinks that nation-building is proving to be ever more costly and that a different approach might be needed.
To some degree, Alexander reflects the views of Tennessee and American voters.
The electorate, if not the entire American population, remains divided over Iraq and over how America should conduct its war on Islamic terrorists, as well as over cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
Bush made glancing reference to abortion when he said in his address “even the unwanted have worth.”
Democrats more intense
On Capitol Hill, the Democrats, reflecting the thinking of their party's activists across the country, are still conducting the 2004 campaign, even though it ended Nov. 2.
Evidence of this was provided Wednesday when Democrats insisted on using Senate rules to delay for a week the inevitable confirmation of Rice to be secretary of state and Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general.
The Democrats do not have the votes in the Senate to stop Bush’s nominees.
Indeed if one omits independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats, the Democrats have only 44 seats, the fewest number of Senate seats they have had since 1931.
But partly because they are reduced in numbers, Democrats, even on Bush’s day of triumph, sounded ever more intense in opposing him.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi used the inauguration to send out a fund-raising e-mail.
Referring to Bush and the Republicans, Pelosi wondered, “What, exactly, do you think they're celebrating? …. the fact that President Bush has publicly promised that no one will be held accountable for the mess in Iraq, despite mass deception about weapons of mass destruction, and despite the fact that we have lost more than 1,500 heroic soldiers with more than 10,000 wounded?”
And defeated Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry seemed to keep his ambitions for 2008 in view as he sent his own e-mail to supporters, urging them to sign a petition calling on Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“We've got to remain firm in our insistence that those who create policies that don't work have the courage to admit their mistakes,” Kerry wrote, adding, “I will not yield in this effort.”