Bush Faces Defining Moment

When terrorists steered hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they thrust George W. Bush into the center of a national crisis that will likely define his presidency.

Aides describe the president as "steely" but "even-keeled" as he tries to lead the United States through a crucial moment in its history — one unlike any faced by his predecessors.

"The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war," the commander in chief told reporters in the White House Cabinet Room this morning, where Bush was meeting with his top national security advisers.

"Freedom and democracy are under attack," he said.

Day One

Less than 12 hours after those attacks began, the president returned to the White House to calm the nation and warn its enemies.

"Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America," he said Tuesday night in an address from the Oval Office.

The president vowed retaliation, saying, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

That course of action already has strong public support. More than nine in 10 Americans told an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll they back military action against any groups or nations found to be responsible. Better than 80 percent also favor action against countries that assist or shelter terrorists.

"We've got a nation rallying behind a president who is doing what he has to do," said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank.

The first of what Bush today described as "acts of war" came when a plane struck the World Trade Center at approximately 8:50 a.m. Tuesday. Aides say that when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card informed Bush of the second crash, which came roughly 10 minutes later, the president concluded there was "no doubt" the carnage was the result of terrorism.

Bush had been set to give a speech on education at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., but instead offered his first public remarks on the attacks.

"Terrorism against our nation will not stand," he said.

Bush told his audience he would be returning to Washington after his speech, but, for security reasons, flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. In the air, the president spoke to Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and authorized the military to go to high alert.

On the ground, the president again spoke publicly about the crisis.

"The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," he vowed.

The president's next stop was Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home to a heavily fortified underground command bunker, where Bush participated in a National Security Council meeting via teleconference.

After a brief debate between the president's political staff and Secret Service agents, Bush returned to Washington under fighter escort to give his Oval Office address.

Shoulder to Shoulder

Some members of Congress complained privately Tuesday they hadn't been briefed on the situation by administration officials, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle quickly closed ranks behind the president.

"Make no mistake, this was an act of war against the United States and all of our people, and we will not be divided," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., one of Bush's most outspoken Capitol Hill critics, said in a statement on the House floor this morning. "The president, the Congress and the American people are … totally and completely united."

Bush met with congressional leaders at the White House today, as the House and Senate prepared to pass a joint resolution to condemn the attacks, express sympathy for the victims and "support the determination of the president … to bring to justice and punish the perpetrators of these attacks as well as their sponsors."

Former President Clinton told reporters today he agreed with what Bush said in his "fine address to the country" Tuesday evening, adding, "I think it's absolutely imperative that the American people demonstrate to the whole world our unity."

'Cool, Calm and Determined,' Say Experts

Political and foreign policy experts also give Bush high marks for his handling of the crisis.

"We don't get leadership challenges bigger than this one and, so far, I don't think any American could complain about the response from the president," said Ornstein. "He has been cool, calm and determined."

"His performance to date throughout the crisis has been excellent," said Nick Lardy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He's been firmly in control, spoken very clearly on the issues and, most importantly, has not been part of any rush to judgment, but has set a very methodical path for the United States to follow."

Experts say difficult decisions likely lie ahead for Bush, who will be under heavy pressure to follow through on his promise to "conquer the enemy" responsible for Tuesday's attacks.

"This will be a monumental struggle of good vs. evil," the president said this morning. "But good will prevail."