Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks, US President George W. Bush declared that fighting terrorism would henceforth be the main mission of his administration.
Despite strong misgivings around the world that Bush’s approach was misconceived and would only make things worse, US public opinion has largely backed the administration through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, if Bush has been out of touch with the world, the weight of domestic public opinion is also starting to shift away from him. The "war on terrorism" and the war in Iraq may actually be electoral liabilities with a public that is ready to embrace a positive agenda focused on its own growing needs.
Americans, despite being subjected to a hyper-nationalist media, seem to be taking a more sanguine approach to terrorism than their government. Bush’s consistently falling approval rating — the influential Zogby poll recently put it below 50 percent for the first time since Bush assumed office — may reflect this growing divergence. A Fox News poll in early September found that 55 percent of Americans believe the US and its allies are winning the "war on terrorism," and Bush gets his highest personal approval ratings for his handling of this issue. Yet only a third of Americans credited government security measures for the absence of additional attacks on US soil. Half of those polled believed this was due to the terrorist organizations’ biding their time.
While Americans strongly support efforts to prevent new attacks, neither Osama bin Laden nor the Bush administration has made the vast majority live in day-to-day fear. According to the Fox poll, whose findings were typical, only one-third of Americans were worried that a terrorist attack might take place where they live or work, and just 8 percent thought they and their families were in direct danger. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans, according to an Associated Press poll, were concerned the fight against terrorism would lead the government to overly restrict individual freedom.
It is this realistic assessment of risks, rather than complacency, that explains why the economy has overtaken terrorism as the major concern of American voters. While most people don’t feel they will be personally hit by terrorism, they do worry about losing their jobs in an economy where unemployment is rising. Median household income has fallen and nearly 2 million more Americans find themselves below the poverty line today than when Bush came to office, according to recent government figures. Sixty percent of Americans say they believe the war against terrorism will last for more than 10 years, which also explains their rising impatience with an administration that has created the impression that all other priorities can wait until the war is "won."
As they worry more about the economy, voters have also turned their attention to Bush’s failings. According to a September 25 Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of voters said Bush could be doing more about the economy. Pew drew a parallel with the fact that former President George H. W. Bush faced a similar number six months before the 1992 election, which he lost.
George W. Bush, whose advisers calculated that victory in Iraq would be a gleaming prize to present to the electorate in 2004, also faces a tactical difficulty. The administration cannot simply adjust to the shift in public opinion by changing the subject from Iraq and terrorism to the economy, because there is a direct link between the two in the mind of the electorate. Voters feel they are losing out in the trade-off between the administration’s foreign adventurism and its meeting basic needs at home.
Voters are horrified by the half-a-trillion-dollar deficit, tax cuts for the rich and cuts in nationwide social services. With the spiraling deficit, elderly Americans — a politically powerful and growing constituency — still have no insurance to pay for prescription medicines, even if their lives depend on them. The administration’s most visible response to this crisis has been to crack down on those trying to buy their medication more cheaply in Canada.
Every survey has shown a large majority of Americans opposed to Bush’s recent request for an additional $87 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Newsweek poll in late September found that 56 percent thought that US spending in post-war Iraq was too high, while just 4 percent thought it too low. What makes Americans even more reluctant to open their depleted wallets is that two-thirds of them believe Bush has no clear plan to get out of Iraq. While the president has declared that Iraq is now the "central battle" in the war on terror, he was recently forced to admit there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks, even though his administration implicitly made that link for more than a year. Now, the number of Americans who believe Iraq was involved has started to plummet.
Here too Americans are showing the kind realism their government disdainfully rejects: 72 percent favor the handing over of some US authority to the UN in Iraq to encourage other countries to share the burden there, according to the Newsweek poll. A CBS news poll found that two-thirds of respondents believed the UN should have principal responsibility for setting up a new Iraqi government.
The key question is whether this discontent will unseat Bush at election time? British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once declared that a "week is a long time in politics." With a year to go, anything could happen. But consistent trends, and surprisingly robust showings by some Democratic presidential contenders — particularly Wesley Clark, a retired general from the electorally crucial south — suggest Bush has an uphill struggle ahead.
This article first appeared in The Daily Star (Lebanon) .