Bush, George W., Populist Rhetoric of

Two-term Republican president George W. Bush (2001–2009) used populist appeals to redefine his privileged upbringing and position himself as the leader of a moral and democratic global majority standing against a powerful minority of violent extremists. As a presidential candidate, Bush sought to transform his image from a Connecticut-born, oil-wealthy son of a former president into that of a humble Texas rancher who found God, quit drinking, and became a family man. Bush used his middle initial, W. (or “Dubya,” according to pundits) to avoid the moniker “George Bush Jr.” In 1999 the Bushes bought their ranch in Crawford, Texas, where Bush spent significant time during his presidency, and which he sold shortly after leaving office. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush spoke about his childhood in Midland, Texas, where people worked hard for better lives and embraced the town's motto, the “sky was the limit.” Each person, regardless of individual differences, believed he or she had an equal claim to the United States’ promise because all people are equal before God.

Al Gore, the Democratic challenger in 2000, also utilized populist appeals, leading some observers to frame the election as a battle of rival populisms. Gore pledged to defend working families against “big” enemies, such as big oil and big polluters. He presented Bush, and his running mate Dick Cheney, as wealthy Republicans who would spend billions on tax relief for top investors, income earners, and inheritors of large estates. Yet Bush himself fostered an identity as a simple man who shared the values and perspectives of the common people rather than those of Washington. Gore's strategy received criticism from the political right, who claimed the candidate was engaged in class warfare, and from the political left, who questioned his reliance on economic populism after a substantial period of economic growth.

Though Bush ultimately won the Electoral College vote, the popular vote went to Gore; thus the Bush presidency began with a disputed victory that was ultimately settled by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bush did not receive the “honeymoon period” afforded most presidents. This produced a dubious political mandate that, coupled with criticisms of Bush's perceived lack of intellectual abilities and tendency to malaprop, created an unfavorable image for the new president.

Since Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero turned chief executive, presidents have sought to develop the image of the president as a hero. For John F. Kennedy and his supporters, for example, “the White House was an historic theater in which the hero should seek the center stage” (Roper). For Bush, the War on Terror following the September 11, 2001, attacks provided him with his moment. The president's public approval ratings on September 10, 2001, were the lowest of his presidency to that date. “Majority opinion was against him on a range of policy issues” (Roper). He was in danger of mirroring John Quincy Adams, who, like his father, was a one-term president. After September 11, Bush received the longest stretch of approval ratings over 60 percent for any president in the last 40 years. The remarkable transformation was “a roller coaster of political reinvention” (Roper). On the day of the attack, Bush appeared less than fully confident. From then on, however, he “radiated a sense of self-assurance and calm determination” (Greenstein). Bush assumed a mantle of heroic presidential leadership and “appeared as a president tested and tempered by the crisis” (Roper).

In the first year of the War on Terror, Bush articulated fundamental differences between the United States and its enemies, invoking American ideas of exceptionalism and moral rectitude. Bush appealed to the notion of faith in proclaiming the United States’ strength as a compassionate and loving nation in contrast to those who opposed American values, such as freedom and democracy. Bush explained:

I see things this way: The people who did this act on America and who may be planning further acts are evil people. They don't represent an ideology. They don't represent a legitimate political group made of people. They're flat evil. That's all they can think about, is evil. And as a nation of good folks, we're going to hunt them down and we're going to find them and we will bring them to justice. (September 25, 2001)

The president chose to depict terrorists as “evildoers” who valued the accumulation of power and the sacrifice of human life, in response to those who questioned whether the United States was in some way deserving of the 9/11 attacks. Bush “wanted to make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence,” as his speechwriter David Frum explained, “so he reached right into the Psalms for that word” (Fineman). Presidents at war traditionally avoided fault by constructing “narratives that depict enemies as coercive antagonists that impel action” (Winkler). This legitimizes presidential initiatives as defensive actions in the name of national security.

The message Bush delivered after 9/11 was unique in that “war messages are typically thoughtful rather than angry; they explain the origins of the immediate problem and the necessity for war; normally arguing that military force is being used as a last resort.” The president and nation “were angry rather than thoughtful, the origins of the immediate problem and the enemy were unknown, and the military force seemed a necessary first resort” because “the national trauma demanded retribution” (Smith). This led to the development of “crisis rhetoric” where policies were questioned on the basis of support for the mission rather than their plausibility and perceived effectiveness. Achievement became a matter of faith and determination rather than a matter of proof and rational calculation.

Bush's early war rhetoric was full of evangelical language. He identified two awakenings experienced by the American people. The nation first awoke to danger after the attacks on the World Trade Center and recognized that American values and culture were not safe in the post–Cold War world. The second awakening came in determining how to respond to the attacks. Militarily, Americans realized that they must support an all-encompassing mission of eradicating terror. Americans also drew comfort from being a loving nation, and they responded through service. This latter point laid the foundation for the domestic component of the War on Terror, an often overlooked portion of Bush's war rhetoric.

In the 2002 State of the Union Address, the president stated his hope “that all nations will heed our call, and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.” If governments were timid in the face of terror, the United States would act. “Every nation should know,” Bush explained “that for America, the War on Terror is not just a policy, it's a pledge. I will not relent in this struggle for the freedom and security of my country and the civilized world” (March 11, 2002). Moreover, other countries were either “for us” or “against us.” He defined Western values as universal desires. Bush explained that “prosperity and freedom and dignity are not just American hopes or Western hopes. They are universal, human hopes . . . even in the violence and turmoil of the Middle East, America believes these hopes have the power to transform lives and nations” (June 24, 2002).

The terrorist attacks caused Americans to reassess what was important. Bush viewed part of his job as capturing this “new spirit.” He believed that “for too long our culture has said ‘if it feels good, do it.’” The sacrifice of soldiers, the brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of citizens revealed a glimpse of a “new culture of responsibility” (State of the Union, 2002). This responsible society was part corporate, part personal, and part social. Businesses had to be more forthcoming in their accounting practices. Individuals should love their neighbors. American society had to pursue greater peace and compassion at home and abroad. Serving something larger than one's self became the new definition of patriotism. Bush frequently spoke about his “soldiers” in the “armies of compassion” and recognized dozens by name in campaign speeches.

After dehumanizing Al-Qaeda and mobilizing the armies of compassion, Bush turned his attention toward Iraq. The notion of fighting terrorists abroad in the pursuit of national security was not on its face extraordinarily controversial. Launching a preemptive strike in Iraq, however, became a highly disputed expansion of the War on Terror. Iraq did not have the clear connection to the war that Afghanistan did. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime refused to give up Bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, Bush feared that if weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) came into possession of rogue dictators, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the United States would be in great danger. In 2003 the Bush administration asserted that Iraq possessed WMDs that posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States. In fact, however, the 9/11 Commission later concluded that Iraq and Al-Qaeda did not have a collaborative relationship prior to September 11 and that Iraq did not give refuge to top Al-Qaeda leaders, as the Taliban had with Bin Laden. Bush eventually acknowledged that Iraq did not have WMDs and that Saddam Hussein had no direct connection with 9/11, despite intimations in the 2004 campaign that he did. During the campaign Bush framed his Democratic opposition as questioning whether the United States was really at war and as viewing terrorism as a crime that should be dealt with as a law enforcement issue. Bush presented himself as a tested leader who understood the necessity of a proactive military approach during a time of great danger, the hopeful hero seeking center stage of the debate.

Bush effectively used populist appeals to present himself as small-town Texas rancher to whom the masses could relate, irrespective of his wealthy upbringing in a powerful political family. He overcame the disputed 2000 election, the lack of a popular mandate, and doubts surrounding his governing ability to become an effective and popular leader in the aftermath of 9/11. As a wartime president, Bush used populist appeals to build support for the war efforts and subsequent policy decisions made by his administration. The defense of freedom was the centerpiece of these efforts. Bush developed a rhetorical framework premised on a sharp contrast between the global majority of freedom-loving people and the terrorist elite, who aggressively threatened the safety of democratic citizens, embodied in the “for us” or “against us” dichotomy he employed.

Similar to other politically conservative populists, Bush's populism exhibited a strong religious component, which for him was inspired by his evangelical Christian faith and his struggle to overcome alcoholism. These contributed to his views of compassionate conservatism at home and to his foreign policy ambitions of ending tyranny abroad and spreading democracy throughout the world. The human and financial cost of a two-front war and related nation-building efforts strained Bush's image and popularity during his second term. The 2007 economic collapse eliminated any domestic credibility Bush had maintained. When accepting his party's nomination for president in 2000, Bush joked that the United States’ first president, and arguably one of the greatest, referred to himself as “George W.” Upon leaving office in 2008, the George W. of the twenty-first century hoped that his legacy would grow to resemble that of Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman, both of whom faced great challenges and widespread unpopularity only to become great U.S. presidents in posterity.

Luke Perry

See also: Evangelicalism and Populism ; Obama, Barack, Populist Rhetoric of


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