By Richard S. Dunham
Crises test the mettle of us all. In Washington, the September 11 terrorist attacks gave Americans a tragic but telling glimpse at how those in public office react under the worst kinds of pressure. The good news: Despite widespread public disgust with Beltway business-as-usual, top federal officials have performed admirably and, in some cases, brilliantly during these unsettling times.
The preliminary verdict is clear: About 90% of Americans approve of the way President Bush has handled the toughest job in town. And more than two-thirds give kudos to Congress -- the highest approval rating in memory for the folks on the Hill.
The terrorist strikes have changed the way Washington conducts business. On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) have spent more time together in the past three weeks than they had in the first three years of their leadership relationship. For the time being, bipartisanship and compromise have replaced conflict, and the most extreme elements of both parties have muzzled themselves. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.
Meanwhile, normally low-profile Cabinet officials have risen to the occasion. Now, the nation knows how wise President Bush was when he picked Norman Mineta as Transportation Secretary, Joe Allbaugh to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Tommy Thompson as Health & Human Services boss. Here's a preliminary report card on the performance of some key players:
President George W. Bush: The Commander-in-Chief has rallied the nation and created an international coalition of staggering breadth. He has balanced Americans' desire for quick vengeance with the need for building international support for a complex campaign against terrorism. He also has been a moral leader, speaking out forcefully against discrimination directed at Arab Americans and Muslims. And he has worked to rebuild public confidence in the economy and the airline industry. Grade: A.
Vice-President Richard Cheney: Americans felt reassured that the Vice-President was in the White House command bunker on September 11, while the President worked his circuitous way back from Florida via Louisiana and Nebraska. Cheney, a former CEO and White House Chief of Staff, is cool in a crisis, and he's a superb manager. Only problem: He has taken a lower profile in recent weeks after some White House staffers privately griped that he acted too much as though he was in charge on September 11. Grade: B+.
Secretary of State Colin Powell: Pity the poor news magazine that ran a recent cover story asking, "Where in the world is Colin Powell?" Powell was a powerful voice in the Administration before the attacks, and he's even more so now. He has proven to be masterful as a global diplomat. And his public utterances have been perfectly modulated. His respect around the world has reached new highs. Grade: A.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: For months, the Pentagon boss had been criticized by conservatives and liberals for everything from his management style (supposedly imperious) to his go-slow approach to defense reorganization. But when the going got tough, Rumsfeld got going. He was steady, measured, and very solid. That's one of the reasons the President picked him to begin with. Grade: A.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill: The former Alcoa CEO has been the Administration's emissary to the business community, serving as a cheerleader for the stock market and an advocate for a balanced economic stimulus plan. He's not always the most articulate advocate, and sometimes his blunt talk rubs people the wrong way. But O'Neill's detractors inside the Administration -- who portray him as out of the loop on big economic policy decisions -- don't know what they're talking about. He may not be as smooth as Powell, but he's smart and is trusted by his longtime friends Cheney and Alan Greenspan. Grade: B-.
Attorney General John Ashcroft: Somebody has to play the bad cop, and that role has gone to the nation's top cop. Ashcroft has been pushing for adoption of a series of anti-terrorism tools that liberal and conservative groups say will violate fundamental civil liberties. While other Administration officials have been heaping praise on Congress, Ashcroft has been heaping criticism. He says lawmakers are taking too long to act and aren't giving him sufficient powers to wage a permanent war on terrorists. Of all the key players, Ashcroft has ruffled the most feathers. Grade: C+.
The Congressional Leadership: The Hill has been so fractious in recent years that true bipartisanship seemed an impossible dream. But the September 11 assaults united Republicans and Democrats like nothing else had since the Japanese bombing of Oahu 60 years ago. Tremendous credit goes to Democratic leaders Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) for showing the world that domestic political differences would not divide the country in an international crisis. And Hastert has shown the nation that he is a reassuring, decent, strong leader. All in all, just what's needed. Grade: A.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every week in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht