Who knew it would come to this? That the fellow once derided for smirkiness and boobery, who won the White House because a Democratic Party official in Palm Beach botched a ballot design, who seemed a good bet to join his poppy in the Single-Term Wing of the Hall of Presidents, who was dismissed as a foreign policy rube by leaders overseas, now stands as the most powerful–and perhaps the most unfettered–President in modern history. In the wake of September 11, George W. Bush expanded the authority of the presidency and the federal government he heads (military tribunals, secret detentions and the like). He increased official secrecy (beyond what he and Vice President Cheney had already accomplished). And he claimed the right–with Congress’s assent–to declare war on Iraq on his own, while he was already prosecuting, at his discretion (and that of Donald Rumsfeld), a mostly clandestine war against terrorism, which has included the CIA covertly assassinating suspected enemies with remote-controlled drones. Richard Nixon never had it so good.

On the home front, Bush, by dauntlessly campaigning like a partisan madman for Republicans last fall, thwarted a historical trend and practically single-handedly reshaped the political realm–at least in the short run–to his advantage. So much so that he was able to ring in the new year with a most brazen opening shot. He hurled at Congress yet a new round of supersized, budget-breaking tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the well-to-do, while his White House prepared to clamp down on domestic spending, which tends to benefit middle- and low-income Americans. The White House, for example, has proposed cutting $300 million for heating assistance for the poor. For comparison’s sake, the country could provide health coverage to all the 9 million uninsured children and fully fund Head Start for the cost of Bush’s proposed elimination of the dividend tax. It’s leave-no-millionaire-behind time–even if a costly war is about to start (only your President knows for sure). The son of the man who once ridiculed Ronald Reagan’s trickledown, supply-side fantasies as “voodoo economics” now champions Reaganomics with a vengeance. And with the embers still aglow from Trent Lott’s verbal cross-burning, Bush returned to the Senate the judicial nomination of Charles Pickering–whom the Senate Democrats had rejected because of his questionable civil rights record–and other controversial court nominees previously spurned by the Democrats. During the presidential campaign, Bush vowed (incessantly), “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” Now the motto is, “In your face.” He sure has grown in office. From Boy George to King George.

Bush seems in love with his own boldness. With good reason. His first big, relieve-the-rich tax cut was pronounced a non-starter, yet he rammed it through Congress, with the acquiescence of a dozen Senate Democrats. Last year, when Democrats urged Bush to take his get-Saddam obsession to the United Nations, he accepted their advice and then persuaded–or rolled–the Security Council. Recall the argument that the Saudis will never go for war against Iraq? The oil autocrats there recently said they would permit Bush to use bases for some war-related activity. And Germany and France, which have opposed Bush’s Iraq endeavor, have signaled they may well join in, if or when D-day comes, even though they favor continuing inspections and working through the UN. The ongoing inspections process might be a bummer for the White House, but they still seem to believe they can call (and fire) the shots as they see fit. And Bush is trying not to let that inconvenient business in North Korea–it’s not a crisis, it’s not a crisis–interfere with the march to war. With North Korea, Bush’s goal is containment: Contain any controversy, that is, and don’t let reality intrude on the we’re-in-control agenda crafted by Bush, Cheney & Rove, Ltd.

Certainly, in the first half of his first term, the Administration had several what-is-Rove-thinking moments: the Jeffords Jump, PR-foolish environmental-protection rollbacks (arsenic in water, anyone?), the tussle over Cheney’s secret meetings with energy lobbyists and Enron. Does anyone remember Enron now? With the GOPers in charge, you can bet your diminished 401(k) there won’t be any more high-profile Enron hearings in the Senate; the Democrats blew that chance. Enron feels so pre-9/11–which it wasn’t. But much of Bush’s less-than-glorious political history–even post-9/11 episodes unrelated to that awful day–appears to have been erased or rendered secondary by the explosions at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He sure knows that.

Where are the brakes? If Bush puts the pedal to the metal, who or what can slow down this force de président? His tax-cut plan met with widespread criticism–and not merely from Democrats. The Washington Post editorialists uncharacteristically mocked Bush: “But if $700 billion [in tax cuts] is bolder than $300 billion, why stop there? Why not cut $1.7 trillion, or $2.7 trillion?… Why not abolish [the income tax]? Wouldn’t that be bold? Wouldn’t it be the conservative and–speaking now as beleaguered taxpayers–the compassionate thing to do?” Yet the Bushies did not seem bothered by the extensive skepticism. Nor have they displayed concern that GOP Senators John McCain, Lincoln Chafee, George Voinovich, Susan Collins and Charles Grassley all have expressed varying degrees of unease with parts of the package. With almost all Senate Democrats firmly against these cuts at the moment–Zell Miller, once again, stands out–it might take only one or two Republican skunks to ruin Bush’s party. (Team Bush apparently hopes to run the tax cuts through the Senate in what’s known as a reconciliation measure–which would not be vulnerable to a filibuster.) In the face of this, the Bush bravado is unnerving. Is he playacting–unveiling an over-the-top plan to wow the base, realizing it will eventually be sliced and diced? Or does he know something we don’t? Perhaps he’s ready to stare down the few remaining Republican fuddy-duddies who fret over deficits. After all, Senate Republicans ought to be grateful to Bush. He won them back their chairmanships, and he nimbly guided them through the ugly Lott imbroglio. Bill Frist starts his tenure as Senate majority leader as a partly owned subsidiary of the White House. Grassley told The Hill, “The president should not take the attitude that he has a free hand with Congress, even though that may be accurate.” The White House has to love warnings like that.

As for the Democrats, is there muscle behind their huffing? Will they, as some now are vowing, use extreme but legitimate means–filibusters and holds–to defeat Pickering and other nominees they consider unacceptable? Can they hang together in opposing the Bush tax plan, or will the White House be able to peel off a small number of Democrats with targeted compromises? (Most of the real action will occur in the Senate; the minority caucus there has a greater ability to obstruct than its counterpart in the House.) The political unit of ABC News recently offered a wise observation: “The President’s macro message (and that of his party) is ‘we want lots of tax cuts,’ while the Democrats are left trying to talk tax cuts, but also, inevitably, saying things that make them at least seem opposed to tax cuts generally, and that is a matchup that George ‘Dubya’ Bush is 2 for 2 in national elections.” Bush actually wants another fight on class warfare. The Democrats, PO’ed by Bush’s charge that they are the ones playing class warfare, will need to match his determination–use that anger!–just as the party’s 2004 contenders ought to be pondering how to counter Bush’s brass with daring of their own.

The hubris runneth over indeed at 1600 Pennsylvania, but Bush and Rove are not kamikazes. (Cheney? Well, he may not be worrying about running for re-election.) Bush and his crew seem to realize there may be such a thing as going too far, though they define that quite liberally. Bush softened the tough-sheriff talk on North Korea. He made Lott walk the plank. And conservative advocates–psyched for war in Iraq and for brash tax cuts–have been concerned that Bush might nominate White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez (whom many right-wing partisans do not deem sufficiently conservative) for the next Supreme Court opening, sacrificing ideology for politically useful diversity. Bush may be held in check only by what he (or Rove) judges excessive–meaning what they assume will turn off soccer moms, suburban independents or whatever swing group they determine to be crucial to re-election. This White House wants to keep on claiming, as the campaign did, that Bush is a “different kind of Republican,” not a meanie or a Lott-like GOP-er. While sticking with the “Southern strategy”–see Pickering–Bush recently chose to hold his 2004 GOP coronation in New York City. Obviously, he will be able to bask in the glow of the heroes of 9/11. Firefighters, emergency workers, police officers and rescue dogs will no doubt be featured at the convention, which will be a weeklong reminder that since that day Bush has been busy protecting you. But it will also showcase the non-Trent, different-kind-of-Republican wing of the party: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki and, most of all, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

War may determine all for Bush. September 11 defined Bush’s presidency, but then he decided to further (and fundamentally) define the Bush II years by promising a showdown with Saddam Hussein. There was no public clamor for moving from Afghanistan to Iraq (unless you count neocon commentators like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer). Bush elected to place the Iraq problem at the top of his to-do (before 2004) list. He can expect to be judged by voters on how he deals with this challenge. And his performance there may determine how much latitude he has in pushing the rest of his wish list. For now, he has a free hand to handle Iraq. Congress has stepped out of his way. Many in the international community have accepted that Bush will do what he wants and have opted to accommodate him (and cut the best deal they can with Washington). Iraq is truly Bush’s signature project (with Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and other Dems signed on as junior–very junior–partners). It could undo his presidency, or it could solidify his popularity and political standing as America’s protector. It remains the 800-pound X-factor–unless the North Korea situation worsens or terrorism strikes once more.

Entering Year Three, Bush is a potent President. It is sixteen months after 9/11. He has proven he can continue to exploit fully the natural boost in his approval ratings that followed the attacks–though they have been trending down. He and Rove have generally been even savvier than they were on the campaign trail. But with the tax cuts and the Pickering et al. nominations, Bush has outed himself. In 2000 he attempted to have it both ways. He was solidly conservative–tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security, anti-abortion rights–while he plotted to blur the traditional differences between the parties by proclaiming that he, too, cared about education, healthcare, poor people, the elderly and minorities. That basic strategy is not going to change. But with his recent excesses–overreaching, the Democrats are saying longingly–Bush has further widened the gap between his conservatism and his (feigned) compassion. Optimistic Democrats smell opportunity.

During the 2002 Congressional elections, Democrats failed to distinguish themselves clearly enough from Bush. Well, now they can thank Bush for doing that job for them. His desire to go for the bold–using the political might he has skillfully amassed–offers his opposition an opening. Is it possible that the stronger Bush acts, the more vulnerable he will become? His foes can wish for that. Bush did thrive when he was underestimated. Perhaps he is a better target when overestimated–especially if by himself.