The result was an election that in effect was a tie. Gore won the popular vote but was one vote short in the electoral college of the majority he needed. And with all the other states decided, it was clear that the outcome of the presidential election would depend on Florida, where Bush had the slenderest of leads. After furious rounds of recounting, haggling in the courts and in the media, Florida's secretary of state certified that Bush had won the state. There were indications, though, that more people had tried to vote for Gore in Florida than had tried to vote for Bush, but that enough of their votes were set aside for mistakes (such as punching the wrong hole, or double punching) that Bush had a slight edge. As the battle over whether to recount entered the courts, the dispute was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which on 12 December 2000 decided—by a 5 to 4 vote on the key issue—that further counting would be impractical and unfair. In effect, the White House was Bush's.
Gore conceded the next day, and Bush accepted the presidency in a speech on 13 December in the Texas House of Representatives—chosen, he said, as a symbol of bipartisan cooperation. "After a difficult election, we must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens," he declared. "I am optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C. I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past."
That did not happen, at least not immediately. Many Democrats were outraged, feeling that the election had been stolen from them. But Bush continued to reach out, and in his inaugural address he sounded again the theme of inclusiveness: "While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it." And Bush, always much more welcoming to immigrants than other elements in the Republican Party, added that every immigrant "makes our country more, not less, American."
Upon taking office, Bush selected aides who were generally respected for their experience and competence and who in some cases came from the corporate world: Paul O'Neill, who had been chairman and CEO of the world's largest aluminum manufacturer, Alcoa, was chosen treasury secretary. Politically, the cabinet ranged from John Ashcroft, the conservative attorney general who survived a bitter fight over his nomination, to Norman Mineta, a Democrat, as transportation secretary. Many key figures in the government were recycled from the earlier Bush administration, although there was no evidence that the first President Bush himself played a crucial role in policy formation. Colin Powell, as secretary of state, and Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, both came across as surprisingly weak until the terror attacks of 11 September—after which they assumed enormous importance. George Tenet, the CIA director, became a close adviser, briefing the president in person for twenty to thirty minutes each morning (he had given Clinton, by contrast, a written daily briefing). But the crucial adviser, in many cases, was Karl Rove, Bush's longtime political strategist. When opposition grew to U.S. military bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, for example, the Pentagon opposed conciliation, for fear of losing an important site for target practice. But with Hispanics an increasingly important constituency, Bush sided with Rove and announced that the bombing would eventually be halted.
Bush's early focus of attention was the tax cut, and he was successful in getting a landmark cut through Congress. This lowered the top personal rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and started the country on a path toward eventual elimination of the estate tax, a tax on assets held by an individual at the time of death (though this of course could be changed by future Congresses). He also pushed for "faith-based" programs to administer social services, and helped put the issue on the national agenda. Bush was unable to get Congress to institute a system of educational vouchers, in which as an alternative to keeping their children in failing public schools, parents could redeem vouchers to help pay for private or parochial school tuition. As part of his plan for educational reform, however, Bush was able to push through legislation requiring mandatory yearly testing of students in grades three through eight, as a way of making schools accountable for their children's proficiency in reading, math, and science.
One of the toughest issues he faced in his first summer was whether to approve federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Proponents urged that stem cells offered immense promise in treating a broad range of diseases, while critics—many of them on the Right—noted that extraction of stem cells destroyed the embryo and a potential human life. Bush discussed the issue widely with aides and outsiders and ultimately came down in the middle. He declared that federal funding of stem cell research would continue, but only for existing stem cells—extracted for the purpose of in vitro fertilization and stored in labs—that otherwise would be destroyed. It was a nuanced position that, while attacked by some on both sides of the issue, seemed to win respect among many in the middle of the road.
Rather less successfully, Bush pushed for a sweeping new energy policy that would put emphasis on increasing production. His assumption of office coincided with a series of power shortages in California, and he argued that the only way to address the power crunch was to increase drilling. In particular, he called for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But these proposals made little headway, and polls found voters deeply suspicious that Bush was too close to big oil and too prepared to destroy the environment. After Enron, a multi-billion dollar energy company headquartered in Houston, collapsed into bankruptcy at the end of 2001, the Bush administration was also embarrassed by the close ties between the company and senior Bush aides, and between the president and Kenneth Lay, the former chairman of Enron.
Foreign relations were initially a mixed bag, reflecting Bush's lack of confidence in foreign affairs. After initial missteps, he generally was credited with sound handling of his first crisis, the collision in April 2001 of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet off the southern coast of China. The American plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan, but eventually the Bush administration won the return of both the crew and the plane. Bush was given high marks by political analysts for his first overseas trip, to Europe in June, but he benefited from the fact that expectations had been low. He charmed some audiences, but also left many allies infuriated by his insistence on two points: abandoning the Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming, and continuation with America's national missile defense system even if it meant U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. The Bush administration gave further evidence of its doubts about multilateralism by opposing a treaty establishing an International Criminal Court, by threatening to withdraw from a July 2001 United Nations conference that sought to devise a treaty on small arms trafficking, by rejecting enforcement measures for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and by declining to send a senior delegation to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Economist of London, which generally took a pro-Bush stance, asked in its pages on 28 July 2001: "Has George Bush ever met a treaty that he liked?"
In his approach to the presidency, Bush closely followed the Clinton model of constantly campaigning. While he left details of his first budget to others, Bush traveled frequently around the country, making campaign-style appearances to promote his policies. He devoted less attention to states like California and New York that would probably be unwinnable in 2004 and focused on crucial states that might go either way in a reelection fight. Yet for all the energy he showed as a campaigner for his policies, he was not nearly as intricately involved in policy development as Clinton had been, and Bush often took off on Friday afternoons to head for Camp David or his beloved ranch near Waco, Texas. Bush made some inroads with Congress, but his policy there failed catastrophically in one sense, when control of the Senate passed to the Democratic Party due to Senator Jeffords' abandonment of the Republicans.
One of Bush's first challenges was an economic slowdown, and ultimately his reelection prospects may depend on his handling of it. He presented the sagging economy as a problem that he inherited, and in large part he was right: the extraordinary high-tech bubble, which left markets and the real economy buoyant, peaked in the spring of 2000 and steadily deflated after that. Bush sold his tax cut partly as an antidote to the economic weakness, and many economists approved of the tax rebates (up to $600 for a couple) that were sent out in the summer and fall of 2001 and that offered a fiscal stimulus. At the same time, the markets were unnerved by the prospect that America's tremendous progress on reducing the federal debt might be coming apart.
Bush insisted that the tax cut would not threaten the Social Security part of the budget surplus. But he had to tweak accounting rules and come up with very optimistic projections to avoid delving into those retirement funds. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office, which is nonpartisan, projected that substantial amounts would have to come out of the Social Security surplus between 2001 and 2004. Bush presented the tumbling budget surpluses as desirable—a straitjacket that would prevent Congress from squandering taxpayer money—but they also meant less money available for his priorities, such as education and military spending. And if the United States slips off its sound fiscal track of the mid- to late-1990s, that would be a far-reaching legacy that would force fundamental rethinking within the Bush administration about its priorities.
Six months after taking office, Bush had an approval rating in a Gallup Poll of 57 percent. That was better than the comparable Clinton figure of 41 percent and impressive considering the tumultuous, controversial way in which he had assumed office. But it was well behind the figures for predecessors including his father, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy (who had the highest six-month approval rating, 75 percent).