The legacy of Sept. 11 reminds us of the commitments of every president, old and new

During times of crisis, we should recognize the dedication that our presidents have to this country

Over Memorial Day weekend this year, I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

I had been to Ground Zero and seen the reflecting pools before, but going underground to the museum was a completely different experience. For most of the visitors there, I’m sure the artifacts and exhibits evoked distinct memories of that late-summer Tuesday. But for me and others who weren’t old enough in 2001 to recall the news broadcasts, the frantic phone calls and the deafening silence that fell over the country, it felt more real than ever before.

For then-President George W. Bush, many of those phone calls, emotional letters and cries for help went directly to his desk. As Bush guided the United States past the unbridled agony of losing some 3,000 Americans, the nation responded in kind: 90 percent of the nation approved of President Bush in the weeks after the attacks, which remains the highest presidential approval rating since Gallup began its tracking during the Truman administration.

But the presidency has evolved: tragedies and national strife are far less likely today to elicit support for the sitting president than they were in 2001.

America has recently confronted natural disasters, mass shootings and international threats, with each event posing an opportunity for the president to deal a blow to whatever stands in the nation’s way. Yet rarely today are the president’s responses seen as effective, and his approval tends to remain level or drops during these events. For instance, 64 percent of Americans approved of President Trump’s response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in August and September of last year, yet just 44 percent approved of his efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico weeks later. Earlier, President Obama’s approval rating changed only one percentage point following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Whether this reflects partisan bias, the inability of the president to unite the country or the new difficulties of the office and the institution, people have tended to look beyond the Oval Office for solutions to our national problems. After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, for example, Americans who sought stricter gun control measures looked not just to Obama but to congresspeople who staged sit-ins and filibusters in the name of that cause.

Admittedly, this may not be a fair comparison. The United States simply hasn’t faced a challenge of such magnitude since 9/11. But the country’s response after 9/11 offers a valuable lesson for us today. Regardless of loyalties, each American has an innate connection to the country’s conscience, an unshakeable desire to see the United States at its best.

President Bush did before the attacks and long after; President Obama did in his lowest moments; President Trump has and will continue to have such a connection. No person would subject themselves to the four- or eight-year obstacle course that is the American presidency without a strong loyalty to the notion of American prosperity and the hard work required to achieve it.

So as this Sept. 11 passes and as we look ahead to the next one, let us consider the power of an individual conscience in fighting for the very best version of America. Not only with respect to President Bush and his response to 9/11, but also to the thousands of men and women who proudly enlisted in our armed forces and sacrificed their lives to defend freedom in the years after.

Whether you agree with President Trump’s policies, whether you tolerate his machinations and breaches of etiquette, whether you count yourself among the ranks of “the resistance” – appreciate him at least as a man forever loyal to America, regardless of accusations that, for now, remain unproven. Appreciate the next presidents in the same way, for the mere act of being president requires an unwavering commitment to these principles.

Sept. 11 was an unmitigated horror for millions. In connecting those events to modern politics, I don’t wish to minimize the emotional toll. Instead, those lost should remind us of our common purpose, how every citizen shares a connection to the American spirit.

Even though so many loath the man in the White House, this common strand should remind us that every president, however toxic or incapable he appears, cares deeply about the wellbeing of the country. And as our country confronts its next challenges, let us look to our president with that in mind, just as we did after that fateful September morning.

Will Fritzler is a first-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at will.fritzler@vanderbilt.edu.

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