A New and Improved George W.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, October 12, 2001; 12:00 AM

President Bush enjoys a level of public support with few precedents in the post-Vietnam era. The country has begun its war against terrorism far more united than it was even at the outset of the battle his father led against Saddam Hussein. How did this happen?

The obvious is true: This war was brought to our soil, and virtually all Americans see responding to the terror attacks as both right and just. But Bush has done far more than just take advantage of broad patriotic sentiments. He has maintained his high levels of popularity after that initial spike in the polls because, in response to the crisis, he abandoned some of the habits of his first months in office. His choice now is whether to stay on the new course.

It's hard to see the president restoring the unilateralist tinge that colored so many of his early foreign policy choices. Winning the battle against terror required an end to unilateralism and the construction of a broad international coalition. The need for such an alliance immediately raised the profile and operational responsibilities of Secretary of State Colin Powell. This, too, had positive political effects. Powell, the quintessential coalition builder, is the Cabinet officer most popular among independents and Democrats.

And a president who has said he is not "into" nation-building has shown signs of understanding that this is just what may be required in Afghanistan. Our failure to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s may have laid the groundwork for the rise of the very forces we now oppose. It turns out there is a practical side to humanitarianism and even nation-building. This sentiment is shared across party lines but is especially important to Bush's new Democratic allies.

Even Bush's rhetoric has had special appeal to his former opponents. Early on he stood up in defense of the rights of America's Muslim community. In assailing the Taliban, the president emphasized the aspects of its rule -- its war against gender equality, its denials of religious liberty, its oppression of political opponents -- most offensive to liberals and the political left. In his speeches, Bush grafted the language of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to the martial rhythms of Ronald Reagan.

Bush also abandoned his pre-Sept. 11 approach to domestic issues, which rallied his political base at the cost of strengthening the determination of his opponents. In the months before the attacks, the president was willing to win legislative battles by uniting his own party and picking off as many Democrats as narrow victories required. Since then, he has sought broad majorities on emergency spending and war policy by winning over not just dissenting Democrats but also the party's leadership.

But conservative Republicans are growing uneasy with the new drift. They fear Bush is conceding more than he has to on domestic issues. In the House, they are pushing for an economic stimulus package that would speed up the tax cuts passed this year.

No measure would more surely drive a wedge through the new war coalition. Even though few of them are proposing to do so now, most Democrats think repealing some of the future tax cuts would serve the cause of long-term fiscal prudence in the face of new spending on war, security and recession. The Democrats also argue that a stimulus package needs to balance tax cuts with new spending.

Bush, himself a conservative, probably shares some of the concerns of his congressional allies. But his new popularity is built in part on his success in transforming a partisan administration into a kind of coalition presidency. Bush, says Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, has an opportunity "to reshape the image of the party from the top down."

If the president decides to continue with a broadly bipartisan approach, is there a Republican model for him to follow? In one of those tricks of history, the new Bush presidency most closely resembles the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who happened to be a hero of Bush's late grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush.

Eisenhower, especially on the foreign policy issues that confronted him in the early days of the Cold War, governed comfortably with Democratic congressional leaders. At times, Ike even relied on Democratic votes to get his way when more conservative Republicans would not give him what he wanted.

The Republican Party is much changed, of course, and Bush is probably more conservative than Eisenhower was. Davis, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also cautions that Eisenhower built his own popularity without helping his party's much.

But as Bush ponders his choices on domestic issues, he might recall that Eisenhower's broad coalition style won him reelection by a landslide and enormous affection across party lines. If Bush is to be a Republican war president, is there any better model than Ike?

© 2001 The Washington Post Company