A Generational Call to Arms

George W. Bush is a born-again President. On the evening of September 20, when he addressed Congress and the rest of the nation, he became a new President with a new purpose and a new relationship with the American people.

Remember "the vision thing"? That was the criticism of his father, whose presidency seemed to have no overarching sense of direction. The elder Bush was "the in-box President," dealing with problems as they reached his desk without communicating a clear sense of the big picture.

This President Bush has found a vision: to lead the world in a struggle for freedom over fear. It is a far more compelling vision than the "compassionate conservatism" that he ran for office on last year. And it is bringing him popular acclaim and animating his presidency in a way that "compassionate conservatism" never quite did. Bush's new vision seems to give meaning to his life as well as to his politics.

The public response has been astounding. After a shaky start in the first few days following the September 11 attacks, the President has hit his stride. Remember, he barely got elected last year, and his job-approval ratings this year had mostly hovered in the 50s—even after he pushed his signature issue, the tax cut, through Congress. Last weekend, his approval rating hit 90 percent. That's where his father's was at the end of the Persian Gulf War. And George W. Bush has not even begun to fight.

The President told his Cabinet that this struggle is now "the defining purpose of this Administration." That's making some conservatives nervous. Their agenda was supposed to be the defining purpose of his Administration. Bush's war agenda looks too much like big government to them. "Wars are nasty things," anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told The Washington Post. "They make governments grow."

A new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security sounds slightly threatening to conservatives as well as to civil libertarians on the left. It sounds like some sort of secret police. Democrats are pressing for economic stimulus measures in the name of national security. The idea of bailing out the airline industry does not sit well with free-market conservatives. But there's a war on. Seventy-eight percent of the public supports giving federal money to the airlines to keep them out of bankruptcy, according to last weekend's Gallup Poll. Eighty percent of conservatives and 79 percent of Republicans share that view.

The President's address to Congress was a resounding success—87 percent of the public gave it high marks—because it was so intensely personal. In that respect, Bush was playing to his strength, as every President does at a time of crisis. John F. Kennedy's strength was his intellect. Ronald Reagan's was his deep political convictions. Bill Clinton's was his empathy with the American people. George W. Bush's strength is his integrity. The public has always given him high ratings for honesty and trustworthiness—traits that Clinton was widely perceived to lack.

Bush's personal commitment carried his September 20 message to the American public. "I will not forget this wound to our country, and those who inflicted it," the President said. "I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security of the American people."

Bush's religious values figured prominently in his address. "This is civilization's fight," he said, but he was careful to include Muslims: "We respect your faith.... The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself." Bush concluded with a ringing assertion: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

The President's remarks were also a generational call to arms. His father's generation, which endured the Great Depression and fought World War II, has become in American popular culture "the greatest generation." As for President Bush's own baby boom generation, the quality that comes to mind is self-absorption, not sacrifice, which explains the baby boomers' admiration for and envy of their parents.

"In our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment," Bush said, speaking for his generation. "Our nation—this generation—will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future," he pledged. "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

The President apparently hit a responsive chord. When asked by Gallup, "Do you think the war against terrorism will be a long war or a short one?" 92 percent of Americans answered, "long." Back in 1941, Gallup asked the same question about "the war against Japan." One week after Pearl Harbor, only 51 percent of Americans expected a long war. Today, 94 percent of Americans expect the war against terrorism to be a "difficult war." In December 1941, 65 percent expected the war against Japan to be difficult.

With a 90 percent approval rating, President Bush can do anything he wants. He faces no political resistance. But that kind of rating carries a danger. The President has defined this struggle as his personal mission, and he will be held accountable for its outcome. A 90 percent approval rating can be fleeting. He need only ask his father.