Generals know that war plans become obsolete at the first shot. Similarly, Bush and his aides knew they would have to adapt their strategy to shifting events. All presidents face unanticipated crises. In large measure, their ultimate success lies not in their ability to fulfill campaign promises, but in their skill in coping with the unexpected.
For Bush, the unexpected quickly materialized. In March 2001, Californians slid into the worst energy crisis America had seen in a generation. Parts of the state had such severe electricity shortages that power companies imposed “rolling blackouts,” which shut off the power completely to consumers from high-tech industries to individual homeowners.
There was plenty of power around the nation. The problem, Bush and administration officials believed, lay in California’s deregulation of the energy industry, coupled with a rapid increase in demand for power during the summer of 2000. There was plenty of electricity—just not at the rates that the deregulation strategy would allow the power companies to pay. The utilities ran out of money and the people ran out of power. Several Silicon Valley high-tech firms threatened to move to other states where energy was more reliable.
For the Bush administration, this was a big crisis. Night after night, stories about the blackouts filled the evening news. Their central strategic question: Did they have to act at all? Team Bush decided, in fact, to leave the tough decisions to California state officials. Bush asked Cheney to draft a national energy plan, which focused primarily on increasing energy production: oil drilling on federal lands, including Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; fast-track regulatory review for building new power plants and transmission lines; and tax incentives for renewable energy sources. The emphasis on energy production was so strong that Business Week called him the “wildcatter-in-chief.”
Environmentalists were furious, especially at the prospect of opening up the Arctic wildlife refuge for oil drilling. Democrats protested the secrecy with which the Cheney plan was prepared. Some western Republicans were unhappy that the federal government might override decisions made in the states. According to a Gallup Poll, 51 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush’s plan. One Washington journalist pointedly compared Bush’s energy plan with Clinton’s health plan, released at about the same point of his presidency—with disastrous results. “If the President is not careful, energy could do to his Presidency what national health care did to President Clinton’s,” wrote Business Week’s White House correspondent Richard S. Dunham.
Like the unpopular Clinton health-care proposal, the Bush energy plan was put together in secret and contains certain elements that are strongly opposed by a vast majority of citizens.
Bush gambled that he could prevent California’s huge energy problem from becoming his problem. He was worried that it would deflect attention from his tax cut and draw him into a big-government response to a problem that, by instinct, he believed ought to be settled by private energy developers. Bush knew that the Cheney plan would offend the environmentalists, but he did not count on being able to win their support in any event. A bit of luck helped—the California legislature found a way to finance more power purchases, and the headline-grabbing crisis ebbed away. In the end, he was able to sidestep calls for federal action, put his energy development strategy on the table, get back to the tax cut, and protect his popularity. His approval rating remained in positive territory—55 percent in a Washington Post–ABC News poll taken in early June. Bush’s skillful move helped him avoid being drawn into a battle he didn’t want to fight.
Team Bush barely had a chance to catch its breath before a far more terrible catastrophe hit: the terrorist attacks of September 11. Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has a president dealt with a crisis as deep or as sudden. The terrorist attacks permanently changed the nation—and his presidency.
For Team Bush, the fundamental questions were who did it—and how to respond. With surprising speed, defense and intelligence analysts answered the first question by identifying Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. The second question was much harder.
For several days, the administration struggled to assess the threat and possible reactions. By September 17, however, in front of the smoldering Pentagon wreckage, Bush put the issue starkly. Referring to Osama bin Laden, Bush told his audience, “I want him—I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’”
A few days later he gave a rousing speech to a joint session of Congress. He demanded that Afghanistan immediately turn over bin Laden and said, “The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.”
The U.S. response indeed came just a few weeks later, and the Taliban fell much faster than most analysts had predicted. To Bush’s enormous frustration, there was no evidence that bin Laden died in the attacks or in the monthslong search that followed. But despite the failure to capture or kill bin Laden, Bush’s approval rating soared. An October 9, 2001, ABC News poll put the president’s job approval rating at 92 percent, the highest in history since polling on the subject began in 1938.
By at least that one very rough measure of success, Bush succeeded in quickly switching course and dealing with the terrorist threat. The question—the same one faced by John F. Kennedy in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis—was whether he could recapture the debate with the issues he had decided would define his presidency.