The First Bush Administration
George W. Bush became president following an extremely close and hotly disputed election. In the 2000 contest, Bush won one of the narrowest electoral college victories in history (271 to 267), and he did so only after a protracted dispute over the vote in Florida, which ended when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a divided and controversial decision, halted vote recounting in the state a month after the election had taken place (Ceaser and Busch 2001, 171-212). Moreover, Bush won even though his opponent, Al Gore, won more popular votes nationwide. While this is always a possibility under the electoral college system, Bush was the first president to fail to win a plurality of the popular vote in over 100 years. The closeness of the presidential election matched the outcome of the congressional elections. Republicans captured a bare majority of the seats in the U.S. House, while the U.S. Senate was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans (each with 50 seats). Since Vice President Richard Cheney would preside over the Senate and would be able to break any tie vote, Republicans were able to form the majority in that chamber, giving them control of both houses of Congress.
The nature of the Bush victory, the narrow Republican margins in Congress, and the very even partisan division of the country suggested that Bush might have difficulties in his first term. Indeed, Bush assumed office with a relatively low approval rating of 57 percent (Gallup Organization 2005). During the first several months of his presidency, Bush experienced victories and defeats. His biggest victory came when his proposed tax cuts, which were a central feature of his campaign, were largely passed by Congress. His biggest setback occurred when Republican Senator James Jeffords announced in May that he was leaving the party and joining the Democratic caucus, giving the Democrats control of the Senate. During his first seven months in office, Bush's approval declined, and by early September it stood at just 51 percent (Gallup Organization 2005).
All of this was changed by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The nation rallied behind the president. On September 20, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, pledging not only to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice but also to fight a broad war against terrorism. In October, the U.S. began attacks in Afghanistan against both the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and the ruling Taliban regime, which had harbored the Al Qaeda organization. By November, the Al Qaeda camps had been destroyed and the Taliban regime ousted from power. It was a swift and clear victory for American armed forces, marred only by the inability to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was the architect of the September 11 attacks. Bush's approval rating approached 90 percent in early December (Gallup Organization 2005). His presidency was truly transformed by the September 11 attacks and his response to them.
In his January 2002, State of the Union address, Bush stated that he would not allow dangerous regimes to possess weapons of mass destruction. He specifically named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as part of an axis of evil that threatened the United States and the world. This statement and others were part of a declaration by the Bush administration that it might engage in preemptive actions to prevent future terrorist attacks. The immediate attention of this policy was Iraq. Bush argued that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein possessed and was developing its capacity to use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined the evidence for these claims in an address to the United Nations in 2002. Support for a war against Iraq was less strong than the almost unanimous support for the military action against Afghanistan, but Bush was able to secure a decisive authorization to use force from Congress in October 2002. About one-half of the Democrats joined the Republicans in giving the president the resolution that he wanted. In the following months, the U.S. began a troop buildup in the Middle East. In March, 2003, the war began. In April, the Hussein regime fell. In May, Bush proclaimed that hostilities had ended.
Although American forces quickly defeated the Iraqi forces while suffering few casualties of their own, the war in Iraq became a divisive issue. Criticism of the Bush administration's policy came from three areas. First, prior to the start of the war, critics argued that the Bush administration needed to secure United Nations authority and build a broad coalition of nations for any military actions. The U.N. Security Council did not vote to support the U.S. attacks, and several leading countries, such as France and Germany, were opposed to the actions. Bush argued that he did have a coalition of countries that supported the action, of which Great Britain was the most significant, and that earlier U.N. resolutions provided sufficient authority. These resolutions stemmed from the 1991 Gulf War, following which Iraq agreed to destroy its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and to submit to inspections. The Bush administration claimed that Iraq had not lived up to its agreements and that its failure to do so provided justification for the war.
After the initial phase of the war, in which the Iraqi regime was quickly defeated, a new line of criticism appeared when it became apparent that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction or even an active and viable program for producing such weapons. Critics of the Bush administration charged that the administration had slanted the intelligence information on Iraq to make the case for war. Bush denied that he or other members of his administration had deliberately made false statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the faulty intelligence was an embarrassment to Bush. He felt compelled to justify the war not on the basis that Iraq was an immediate threat to the U.S., but on the grounds that replacing the Hussein regime was a necessary part of the fight against world terrorism.
A third line of criticism developed when there was a prolonged and violent resistence to the American forces and their Iraqi allies, a resistence that had not been predicted by the Bush administration. While this resistence was too weak to push American forces out, the repeated bombings and attacks caused significant casualties and disrupted the rebuilding of Iraq. By October 2004, over one thousand Americans had been killed in Iraq. Nearly ten thousand had been wounded. Critics charged that the Bush administration lacked a sound plan for the post-war reconstruction of the Iraqi economy and political system. This criticism seemed particularly stinging because Bush had argued that an important goal of the war was to establish a democratic regime in Iraq, which he claimed would help to bring democracy to other countries in the Middle East and peace to the region. Moreover, reports of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards and investigators were widely aired in the media in the spring of 2004. These reports added to existing disillusionment over U.S. actions in Iraq.
Emerging divisions and dissatisfaction over U.S. policy regarding Iraq led to a decline in Bush's approval rating. An approval rating that was over 60 percent at the beginning of 2003 dropped to about 50 percent by early 2004 and stayed at this level for much of that year (Gallup Organization 2005). Not all of the decline was a result of the war with Iraq. A sluggish economy also contributed to the decline. The recession of 2001 had ended, but the following recovery was characterized by limited job growth (Stevenson 2004; Frankel 2004). Many Americans were concerned about both the economic future of the country and their own economic prospects.
The developments of the final two years of the first Bush administration made the re-election of the president far more questionable than it had been at the midterm point. In the 2002 congressional elections, Bush campaigned for Republicans to a much greater extent than most presidents do in midterm elections. When the elections produced gains for Republicans in both the House and the Senate, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress once again, it was widely interpreted as a victory for the president (Sabato 2003). At that time, many believed that his reelection was a near certainty. By mid-2004, few felt that way.