Support for Bush's Anti-Terror Policy Slipping

In his relationship with the American public, President Bush has had one pillar of support that has been reliable in smooth times and rough: Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have had confidence in his handling of terrorism.

The president's job approval ratings have risen and fallen. The situation in Iraq has looked at times optimistic, at times bleak. Interest in various issues — taxes, education, stem cells, immigration, Medicare, Social Security — has ebbed and flowed.

But Mr. Bush could at any time talk about his "war on terror" — as he did at the Republican National Convention last fall — knowing that he was tapping into a seemingly bottomless well of public favor. It was a political resource without limit.

The clearest example came in months before and after the invasion of Iraq. During the build-up to war, the president and his allies co-mingled references to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction with references to Osama bin Laden and the war on terror.

It wasn't hard to figure out why. A solid majority of Americans believed in Mr. Bush's leadership when it came to combating terrorism. And so long as that majority could be made to view Iraq as a battleground in that war, they would support the White House policy.

Indeed, even as support for the war in Iraq slipped, Mr. Bush's standing as a leader in a war against terrorism remained strong. But is the pillar beginning to crumble? Consider some recent poll numbers.

A survey taken this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only 49 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's handling of terrorist threats — and 40 percent disapprove.

Just six months ago, as the president was preparing for his second inaugural, 62 percent of Americans approved of his handling of terrorist threats according to the Pew poll. In June 2002, that number was 74 percent.

A growing number of Americans also seem to be doubting not only Mr. Bush's leadership on specific issues, but also his truthfulness. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll this month, for the first time a majority — 51 percent — said the president and his administration "deliberately misled" the public about whether Iraq possessed WMD.

Perhaps even more telling than poll numbers, though, are the changing tone and language heard from administration officials. Can the war on terror really be won? And if it by nature cannot truly be ended, does it make sense to keep using that phrase? Is it still a helpful public relations tool?

Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's longtime confidante awaiting Senate confirmation as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, had this to say at a recent confirmation hearing:

"In the long run, the only way we're going to win the war against terror is to have little boys and little girls across the world grow up with a greater sense of tolerance and understanding of each other and of our country. And it's very troubling to me, my fellow Americans — I know it is to you and members of this committee — this rise that some of the polls are showing in some anti-Americanism."

In a similar vein, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers stressed in a recent speech at the National Press Club that the war on terrorism "is not easy business."

"I've... I've objected to the use of the term 'war on terrorism' before," Myers added. "If you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution. And it's more than terrorism.... Violent extremists [are] the real enemy here, and terror is the method they use."

That's why we now hear the administration substituting a new phrase, the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, for war on terror. In an administration that typically designs a public message and then sticks to it fanatically, it's extraordinary to hear even hints of public soul-searching, or to hear officials express worry about the path ahead.

Last August, in the heat of the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush was asked in an NBC interview whether the war on terror was winnable. "I don't think you can win it," he replied. "But I think you can create conditions so that... those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world, let's put it that way."

The words had hardly left his mouth and the White House was crafting a way to clear up any doubt about the commander in chief's confidence. The next day, Mr. Bush said in Nashville, "Make no mistake about it, we are winning, and we will win. We will win by staying on the offensive. We will win by spreading liberty."

At that time, the president was preparing for the Republican National Convention in New York, an event that would be drenched in his terrorism theme. The White House clearly believed if there was any chink in the armor, the ultimate political weapon could be undermined.

But now, a year later, the administration seems to be acknowledging a new reality: Support for the president's anti-terrorism policy may not be the political trump card it once was.

The landscape can of course change quickly. If bin Laden were captured, for example, the president's poll numbers might change dramatically. Yet for now, it's becoming more acceptable for administration officials to convey how tough it would be to actually win a global campaign to defeat terrorism.

The question will be whether Americans give the White House credit for being honest on this subject, or whether the president loses the pillar he has leaned on most.

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