War has shaped many presidents. World War II, for example, led Franklin D. Roosevelt to abandon much of his New Deal in the interest of uniting Congress behind the war effort. But in the months since September 11, George W. Bushs domestic agenda has remained exactly the same as it was on September 10. Bush has grown greatly as commander in chief. Sadly, he has yet to grow as president.
Far from seeking to unify the nation, Bush governs as though his main constituents were the extreme right-wing congressional leaders for whom "big government" is as much a foe as terrorism. Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge substitutes for an energy policy, commercial exploitation of our last wild places for land stewardship, lax oversight for enforcement of environmental laws, and starvation budgets for proper funding of environmental programs.
The test of presidential leadership in a military crisis is mobilizing a national will to victory, at home as well as on the battlefield. While Americans were scared after September 11, they were also hopeful, longing for unity, and prepared to grant the administration their trust. Polls showed that people craved the chance to contribute and to commit, but their yearnings went unanswered. While the rest of the nation talked about how everything must change, Bush explicitly rejected the possibility. "The object of terrorism is to try to force us to change our way of life," he said on October 23. "Theyre going to fail."
There were no appeals for sacrifice from Washington, no efforts to craft a truly bipartisan domestic policy. Instead, a traumatized public was urged to go shopping. The crisis created a tremendous opportunity, the kind that can elevate a president to greatness, but this president is squandering his chance.
The most obvious wasted opportunity was in the field of energy. Given that 15 of the hijackers were raised in Saudi Arabia, the public was primed for energy independence. In a nation with 5 percent of the worlds population and 3 percent of the worlds oil reserves that consumes 25 percent of the worlds oil, the dots were waiting to be connected. The president could have called on the auto industry to dramatically improve the fuel economy of our vehicles, and invited our scientists and engineers to assist in a crash program to develop energy from sun, wind, biomass, and innovative conservation.
Instead, all the administration has done to end our reliance on Middle East oil is fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and continue its obsessive campaign to drill the Arctic Refuge. Americas energy policy (such as it is) remains to protect the interests of the American energy industry.
The response to the anthrax attacks was similar. A great president could have seized the moment to upgrade the public health system and to ensure that we are monitoring our air, drinking water, and food supplies not only for bio-terror poisons but for industrial and chemical pollutants as well. But while the administration dramatically beefed up funding for public health laboratories to test for exotic contaminants, it continues to starve state and local programs of the funding they need to detect and remedy the industrial pollution that is statistically far more dangerous.
It was striking how, in a time of stress, an aching nation sought solace in its natural wondersa course of action advised by the Red Cross. At public gatherings, crowds sang of spacious skies and purple mountains, while visitors flooded our parks and wild places. Symbolically, the Bush administration suspended the entrance fees at national parks and monuments on Veterans Day, but then resumed efforts to exploit public lands, for example by facilitating the stripping of trees from Bitterroot National Forest in Montana and Californias Sierra Nevada.
Instead of seizing opportunities to heal and strengthen the nation, the Bush administration has used the fog of war as a cover for pursuing its same old goals. National security replaced the California energy crisis (remember that?) as an excuse for subsidizing the nuclear industry; protection from terrorism became the rationale for excusing chemical plants from declaring the dangers they posed to surrounding communities. In the name of national security, we actually became less safe.
Most disturbing of all has been the lack of response from the Bush administration to the deeply felt emotional needs of the American people, who hunger for a sense that we are truly connected with each other, and with our government. People long to express their patriotism by caring for America the Beautiful, not desecrating it; they want to protect themselves and their families, not to numb themselves with the same old patterns of material consumption.
Meeting those emotional needs in a time of national emergency is another great test of presidential leadership. Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the White House as a "bully pulpit," but President Bush seems unwilling to use that pulpit to lead at home. Rather, he seems content to deploy our military overseas and manage the Oval Office in-basket in accord with the narrow agendas of Trent Lott and Tom DeLay.
While the president has wasted several months, the window of public trust has not closed completely. His administration could still revisit its stale domestic agenda, just as it has its go-it-alone international stance. An energy policy that would reduce our thirst for oil by a million barrels a day over the next five years would be a good start. So would a 2003 federal budget that will adequately secure our food, water, and air from contamination by domestic polluters as well as foreign enemies. So would a full commitment to preserve America the Beautiful.