Bush’s Challenge

The election is over. We learned what we knew all along, that America is a deeply divided nation. Despite some who are boasting of a decisive victory, this election was close, with only a few percentage points dividing President Bush from his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

Republicans are celebrating Bush’s win, claiming that it was a victory of “values” and of “optimism and hope.” Democrats, on the other hand, saw none of that. Many simply cannot comprehend how 59 million of their fellow citizens voted to reward what they believe has been a failed Presidency. Where, they ask, is the accountability for the lies about Iraq, the disaster of Abu Ghraib, and the declining standing of the US world-wide.

Instead of “hope and optimism” these Democrats saw a Republican campaign that preyed on fear. Instead of principals and values, they saw a campaign that worked to tarnish the character of John Kerry.

And so, at its end, the reelection of George Bush leaves the country more, not less, divided.

While Republican congressional leaders and party activists are promising to use, what they are calling a mandate to aggressively pursue a radical conservative agenda, the President, at least initially, struck a different note.

In his acceptance speech, Bush promised to reach out to the 56 million Americans who opposed his reelection bid and earn their trust. He pledged to heal the divide. Some scoffed in disbelief, claiming to have heard the same commitments from then President-elect Bush in 2001.

The President now has the opportunity to make good on his promise. Even before he begins his second term, Bush can send important signals with personnel changes in his Administration. If he replaces Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is widely believed to be interested in stepping down, with a more moderate, less rigid individual, civil libertarians and advocates for immigrant’s rights may breath a sigh of relief. Personnel changes in the Pentagon and foreign policy staffs at the White House will also be important. The ideologically driven Defense Department officials who have directed the disaster in Iraq should be held accountable for their failures and removed, as should their cohorts in the White House. If there are early signs that leadership in foreign affairs will return to the diplomats in the State Department not only will that contribute to uplifting the morale of the US’s much beleaguered career foreign service officers, it will also help rebuild trust with US allies.

Another important early sign of the President’s intentions will occur in the next month. If Bush acts to restrain the efforts of the more radical Republican congressional leadership in continuing negotiations over the 9/11 reform legislation, moderate Republicans and Democrats may be encouraged to believe that White House support can be found for consensus on both this important bill and future legislation as well.

In picking moderates for his new cabinet and curbing more extreme members of his own party, Bush can send signals that he will, indeed, heal the divide. In reaching out beyond the US’s borders, the President can also take advantage of his victory to communicate a new direction. Early and decisive action on the Israeli-Palestinian front as was recently recommended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, would offer hope to Palestinians, empower moderates in Israel, and work to rebuild US ties with an alienated Arab world. Offering a vision of a Palestinian state without using balanced pressure to make that vision real has only frustrated the peacemaking effort and caused many to question the US’s sincerity. If the second George W. Bush Administration were to borrow a leaf from the Administration of George H.W. Bush, progress may still be found not only in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in building a truly international effort to aid in the nation-building of a unified and democratic Iraq.

And so as President Bush embarks on the beginning of an historic second term-an opportunity only given to 14 men in our nation’s history-he has the opportunity to confound his critics, heal a divided nation, and correct America’s course in the world.

He can do this and become a great President, or he can submit to the more ideological base in his party, continue the division, and leave office with America still at war with itself and with public opinion in much of the rest of the world.