By Richard S. Dunham
For a man under intense pressure at home and abroad, President Bush sure doesn't show it. There he was on Oct. 11, after a Cabinet meeting, joshing with a White House reporter about the scribe's allegedly clashing taste in shirts and ties. Or, a day later, comfortably switching back and forth between English and his special brand of Tex-Mex Spanish at an East Room event celebrating Latinos and learning.
Bush's mixture of personable playfulness, comfort in his own skin, and seriousness of purpose on serious issues made him the most popular governor in modern Texas history. After nine months of carefully scripted public appearances that did not do him justice, the President is finally showing his full personality to the American people. And at just the right time.
In this crisis, Bush has gone back to what worked for him in the Lone Star state. Like he did in Texas, he's reaching out to top Democratic lawmakers in an attempt to reach bipartisan consensus on many top issues and showing flexibility without sacrificing basic principles.
Like he did in Texas, he's showing unwavering determination on the issues most important to him. Like he did in Texas, he's talking about how America's diversity is one of its vital sources of strength. In so doing, he's proving that you don't have to be a great communicator to get across your basic values and personality.
The obvious question is why the President's handlers didn't allow Bush to be Bush for so long. Why they kept his interaction with the public and the White House press corps to a minimum -- and all of it highly orchestrated. Why they regularly sided with hard-line conservatives at the risk of alienating centrist swing voters. Why they failed to reach out to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, both of whom have proven to be strong supporters of the President's military action in Afghanistan. Bush was miscast in the role of aloof superpartisan.
As governor, Bush was popular because he forged close personal bonds with key Texas Democrats, even at the risk of alienating the Republican right from time to time. He was popular because he not only talked about diversity but he acted to improve the lives of minorities -- from the schools to the streets to the corridors of power. He nearly doubled his support among minority voters from 1994 to 1998 by proving that he was "a different kind of Republican." All this while keeping his sky-high standing among GOPers.
It's too early to tell whether, as President, Bush will return to the partisanship of the first nine months that had caused his popularity to wane. That would be a mistake. Let's hope that he's a President transformed. The American people have seen the best of Bush since the terrible tragedies of September 11. And he has disproven the doubters who considered him a tongue-tied lightweight.
That's just one of the reasons his job-approval rating has soared to about 80%. It's unlikely to stay there forever. But if he continues to reach out to political rivals at home and allies abroad -- while remaining steadfast in his war on terrorism -- he'll be well on his way to a Presidency as successful as his six years as governor of Texas.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Beth Belton