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Rising to the Challenge -- For Now
An Essay by Jack Germond

audio Listen to Germond's commentary.

Oct. 2, 2001 -- The president is being compared with -- if you can believe this -- FDR and Harry Truman. Giuliani's admirers are depicting him as so essential to the public good that term limits should be circumvented.

It is true that both men have shown strong leadership and exceeded expectations. Mayor Giuliani has put aside the snarling style that had characterized much of his public manner. He now comes across, by contrast, as a calm and positive force.

The president is offering Americans reassurance that would have seemed beyond his ability a month ago. No one would accuse the president of being another Churchill. But most of the time, he has seemed to say the right thing at the right time.

"In the case of this president, the danger is that any failure will be taken as confirmation of the early doubts about whether George W. Bush is up to the job. That may not be fair, but American politics is often unfair."

Jack Germond

For any politician, crisis is a defining moment. Threatening circumstances force citizens to look more closely at their leaders.

Early in 1979, for example, only three months after he was elected governor of Pennsylvania, Richard Thornburgh was confronted with the crisis at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg. He had a calm demeanor dealing with the frightening situation. He projected an image of strong and effective leadership -- it sustained him politically for several years. When voters were paying close attention to their governor, he delivered.

The president's grip on the good will of the electorate today is probably more tenuous, because so much more is required of a national leader. Bush's public approval ratings could dissolve if his performance in rooting out terrorists doesn't match his rhetoric -- or if the economic consequences of the crisis turn out to be prolonged and serious. His standing could be hurt if the crisis brings a wider war in the Middle East. Americans are notoriously not very patient.

The precedents are not comforting for President Bush. Everyone remembers how the first President Bush frittered away a 90 percent approval ratings after the United States defeated Iraq in 1991 in the Gulf War.

But President Jimmy Carter after Iran seized the American hostages in 1979 is probably a better analogy. Then, as now, patriotic feeling ran high. Americans rallied behind their leader. But the level of disapproval rose by early April in 1980. Carter's restraint was seen as confirmation of a weakness long suspected. The situation made him vulnerable to the challenge of Ronald Reagan.

In the case of this president, the danger is that any failure will be taken as confirmation of the early doubts about whether George W. Bush is up to the job. That may not be fair, but American politics is often unfair.

Jack Germond is a retired columnist who covered national politics for 40 years.