The President had been in office only eight months. He was not off to an auspicious start. His only major accomplishment had been a dubious one—a tax cut that primarily benefited the wealthy premised on a budget surplus he had inherited from his predecessor. It looked to most observers like he would be little more than an interim caretaker, an unelected leader with an unimaginative agenda.
No one could’ve guessed from the President’s unengaged, carefree pre-9/11 manner that the cataclysmic events of that day would awaken and energize his hidden talents and propel him on the road to greatness. But that’s just what happened.
The first bold strokes of leadership appeared on that very first day. As events unfolded—the towers collapsed, the Pentagon was hit and the fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania—the President rushed from his rendezvous with school kids in Florida and, while sailing through the now empty skies above America, immediately contacted the directors of US intelligence agencies for detailed reports. We now know he also spoke with his dad and with President Clinton to get their take on the situation. His staff arranged a televised appearance for that evening to be broadcast from the Oval Office and at 9:00 pm, he appeared on all the networks and most cable channels to ease the nation’s fears and share the information he had gathered throughout the day.
The President borrowed from his predecessors in his talk that evening. Recalling FDR’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he reassured his countrymen that he was in the White House and on the job, in constant contact with military and intelligence officials. He said “a huge safety net” had been put in place with intelligence agencies cooperating with one another, the armed forces on full alert, local police departments in the loop, and all airplanes temporarily grounded.
Over the next few days, he met with his longtime friends in the Saudi royal family, rounded up all known bin Laden family members in the US for questioning and spoke to a special session of the United Nations himself. His UN speech was memorable:
“Whenever terrorism threatens one sovereign nation,” he said, “it threatens all sovereign nations. In the interconnected world in which we live, no nation can go it alone, no matter how powerful its army, no matter how bountiful its riches, no matter how advanced its economy.”
Within a matter of weeks, the United States had assembled a broad-based military coalition to rout the Taliban government from Afghanistan and capture the leaders of Al Qaeda who were hiding out there. Traditional European allies were joined by an unprecedented collection of nations, creating a genuine worldwide alliance.
When Osama bin Laden and four of his top lieutenants were killed in March, 2002, by a joint French-American unit, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the President tempered his excitement, saying he was not yet ready to declare “mission accomplished.” Over the next year coalition forces worked militarily to capture or kill the rest of the Qaeda inner circle while the administration worked diplomatically to deal with the root causes of such fanaticism.
By mid-2003, the terrorist threat from Islamic radicals appeared to have been reduced considerably. America and its allies had begun rebuilding the parched Afghan countryside. The Saudi government, embarrassed that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers had been Saudi citizens, began instituting internal reforms in an effort to stifle the militant jihadist sentiments burbling up from schools and mosques there.
In his State of the Union speech in January, 2002, the President laid out a daring plan for national energy independence.
“When John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the ‘60s,” he said, “there were those who said it couldn’t be done. But there were many more who responded to the challenge. Thanks to the commitment and leadership of the government and the enthusiastic support of the American people, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, eight short years later.
“Today, I call on the Congress and the American people to meet another challenge, an even more important one for the future of our country and the world. Let us commit ourselves tonight to the goal of curing our national addiction by ending our dependence on foreign oil within ten years.”
Over the next few months, the President put his words into action, proposing a rigorous new set of gas mileage standards for automobiles, bringing in the leaders of the major oil companies to discuss renewable sources of energy with scientists and environmentalists, pushing auto manufacturers to speed up the development of hybrid gas-electric vehicles.
Perhaps the gutsiest move of all came when the President courageously pushed through a rollback of his earlier tax cuts, and used his bully pulpit to inspire a sense of shared responsibility for the security and wellbeing of the country. Again he harkened back to JFK when he said in a televised speech, “We cannot afford to be self-centered, for we are all in this together. We all benefit from the greatness that is America, and America’s greatness lies in the unified commitment of its people to continually strive to make the world we live in a better place. When each one of us does his or her best for the good of all, everyone shares in the bountiful result.
“Let us remember the words of John F. Kennedy that inspired my generation more than 40 years ago: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’”
In the same speech, he introduced “Freedom 21,” a massive governmental undertaking that he dubbed “a Declaration of Independence for the 21st century.” Besides carving the new gas mileage timetables into law, this program provided incentives for mass transit, including a long-term plan to reconstruct a high-tech American railroad system; provided funding for research into alternative energy sources; established a ten-year infrastructure renewal program to address the long deferred maintenance problems of the nation’s transportation systems; offered homeowner conservation credits; created the “Freedom 21 Commission,” made up of scientists, academics, climatologists, environmentalists and captains of industry, to study and recommend solutions; and introduced a new consumption tax on gasoline, a new “millionaire surcharge” to restore progressivity to the federal income tax, and raised the upper limit on Social Security withholding to $200,000.
It took Congress many months to hammer out the details of the President’s proposal. But with mid-term elections that fall, legislators were hungry for a domestic triumph to campaign on. Remarkably, a package came together for the President’s signature just in time for Christmas. It was not perfect, but it was a start, and it provided a foundation for future legislatures to build on.
Since then, the President’s verbal eloquence and leadership has resonated throughout the country and around the world. His call for shared sacrifice in the name of patriotism rekindled a national spirit that had all but disappeared since the Vietnam and Watergate days. A country that appeared to be headed toward a split between rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal, has now begun to feel like a nation united with a purpose. There’s a genuine feeling that we’re all in this thing together.
The 50-cent per gallon gas tax wasn’t particularly popular when the President first embraced it four years ago. But now, as it becomes fully phased in, people are no longer complaining. Car buyers are trading in their old gas guzzlers for the new generation of hybrid and modified hybrid vehicles, and the car companies that signed on early are reaping a windfall. When Ford first announced that it was switching its Norfolk plant from trucks to compact hybrids by licensing Toyota’s technology, workers were worried, fearful that consumers would not be willing to give up their pickups and their SUVs. But as the company’s fortunes have begun to turn around, its local employees find themselves with some of the most secure jobs in the region.
The burgeoning solar and wind energy industries are still in the toddler stage, but the tax incentives that were implemented for both consumers and manufacturers have encouraged growth on a far more impressive scale than would have been possible otherwise. Scientists have pointed to these measures as important first steps in addressing the problem of global warming.
As he approaches the mid-point of his second term, polls show the President to be more popular than any of his predecessors at the same time in their tenure. The national mood is positive, even though the world remains a dangerous place.
Once UN inspectors completed their task in Iraq, revealing that for all his bellicose talk Saddam Hussein had been engaged in little more than a high stakes con game, the Iraqi people didn’t immediately rise up against his tyranny. That was a disappointment to many, including some in the administration. Ironically, though, because of Saddam’s secular government, the fundamentalists were unable to trade Afghanistan for Iraq as a training ground for terrorists.
That honor has gone to Iran. Like Kim Jong-il in North Korea, the mullahs who rule Iran continue to trouble the rest of the world with their utterances and actions. Nonetheless, the United Nations, led by America’s persuasive moral authority, has succeeded in isolating and containing the threat from these two rogue regimes.
Closer to home, the Gulf Coast was hit with the hurricane double whammy last year. Again, the President and his administration moved into action quickly. FEMA coordinated emergency plans with state and local authorities days before Katrina arrived. The National Guard was put in place to deliver supplies, help the poor get out of the danger zone, and maintain some semblance of normality after nature unleashed its powerful fury.
The world is still not free from threats, but Americans do feel more secure now than they did when the planes hit the twin towers. That feeling is a testament to the leadership of a President who threw out the campaign slogans and soundbite politics to bring the country together in a spirit of bipartisanship and shared sacrifice, who shut down the special interest lobbyists and put people before profits.
There will be a lot of high-speed rail stations and high-tech high schools named for him someday.
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.