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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 237-242

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On the Homefront:
Politics as Usual?

Charles E. Cook Jr.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, one key question is whether the 2002 elections are now headed in an entirely new direction or are simply off on a temporary detour. President George W. Bush has seen his job approval ratings soar by 40 percentage points to 91 percent in some polls, and a majority of U.S. citizens now feel that the country is headed in the right direction, an increased level of optimism from early September. At the same time, any doubts about whether the United States would slip into a recession are now largely gone. What is not so clear is what has ultimately changed politically and if that change will be permanent.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the "rally 'round the flag" phenomenon predictably kicked in as it usually does during times of major international crisis. Americans always unify and pull together and stand behind their president at such times, right or wrong. President John F. Kennedy's boost in the polls after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco is a classic example of this phenomenon. During a crisis, it is seen as almost unpatriotic to criticize the president or cast doubt on the country's future.

After two awkward appearances earlier on the day of the September 11 attacks, Bush appeared more confident and comfortable--in short, much more impressive--in a nationally televised Oval Office speech that evening. During the course of the next week, in a national prayer service on September 14 and in an extraordinary address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush gave dynamic and effective performances that few thought he was capable of delivering. [End Page 237]

Gaining Legitimacy

In many ways, ironically, the terrorist attacks gave Bush and his presidency the sense of purpose it was lacking. During the 2000 campaign, Bush's twin issues were education and tax cuts. The tax cut was simple: Republicans cut taxes; that is why they are Republicans. Besides, that emphasis made sense because Bush feared the well-funded threat of Steve Forbes from the right, and although the Forbes juggernaut turned out to be less formidable than expected, the issue did help bind Bush to conservatives in a way that his father was never able to do. For better or worse, once the Bush tax plan was enacted, the administration lost a central reason for its existence.

Bush's focus on education made a great deal of sense as well; polls showed that until recently it was the top priority for voters. During the campaign, whenever Bush talked about education, his numbers rose. When he talked about almost anything else, his numbers fell. Education is a universal issue that resonated with voters, but despite Bush's plan having passed the House and Senate and awaiting a conference committee to work out differences, it had received little attention and the president was getting little credit for his efforts. Indeed, the issue that had done the most to help Bush reach out to moderates has been, by and large, lost since his election. In any case, a strong, proactive federal education program was contradictory to the Republican doctrine that holds that education is a state and local responsibility.

The Bush presidency seemed to be adrift until the tragedies of September 11. A wave of patriotism and national unity, along with the president's greatly improved performances in the days following the attacks, propelled his job approval rating to as high as 91 percent, as high as his father's numbers were just after the Persian Gulf War and higher than any other president in polling history.

As Bush declares war on terrorists around the globe, he cannot ignore that he is in fact fighting two wars. Not only must he fight a war against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, he is fighting an equally daunting enemy--a national recession. Just as Americans had to fight the...


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