WASHINGTON — The president has made some sizable political gains in the past few days. One can conclude this from the mostly laudatory response coming from the public and political leaders of both parties following Mr. Bush's Sept. 11 activities and his speech the next day to the UN General Assembly.
As a check on my own assessment of how Bush has comported himself during those important public events, I called up a man I consider just about the smartest observer of the political scene in Washington: Robert Strauss, the Democratic national chairman back in the 1970s and a holder of a number of high administration offices, including ambassador to Russia under the first President Bush.
Mr. Strauss is looked upon as "Mr. Democrat" by many Democrats. Even when he accepted the ambassadorship under the elder Bush, a Republican, he made it clear that this in no way would affect his political views: He would continue to vote Democratic.
Strauss spoke first of the current President Bush's Sept. 11 performance, his speeches and his mingling with those who were mourning. "What Bush did that day," he said, "moved the ball in his direction far. It was a big political day for him and his party. People everywhere were moved by the president's compassion, which was clearly genuine."
Strauss was also high on the Bush speech to the UN: "He made his case beautifully. He laid down the markers to Saddam Hussein, to members of the UN assembly, and to the American people."
Besides Strauss's words which carry the ring of objectivity, because his political ideology certainly isn't that of George Bush I've seen several quickly taken polls indicating that the public, too, was giving the president high grades for the way he came up to those big challenges last week.
Here's my conclusion: That in 48 hours, Bush may well have so focused the public's attention on our war on terrorism and on the danger in Iraq that he has reshaped the issue agenda in the midterm campaign, which is just getting under way.
How far that reshaping will go, I do not know. But it seems that when the Democrats want to talk about the economy or trade or agriculture or Social Security, they now may find their listeners' eyes glaze over. They will want to hear how their candidates think about the prospective war.
Said Strauss on this point: "I think people of this country will support Bush despite their concern about going to war."
Actually, it seems a certainty now that the Democrats will join the Republicans in providing Bush with backing from Congress. But, as Strauss pointed out, "It will be hard to get the Democrats on board for a vote before the election."
The Democrats will have to be careful. If they drag their feet too much on that vote, the voters might hold them accountable.
Strauss, known for his canny ability to predict the outcome of elections, said he found it most difficult to do so this time: "It's the most confusing year I have ever seen."
Before talking to Strauss, I had talked to some of my colleagues who cover politics and asked them what they see in this election. "What's the mood out there?" I asked one veteran political writer, who said: "I can't figure it out yet. I'm going out now on the campaign trail for a couple of weeks. Call me back then maybe I'll know then." The other reporters were also unable to answer my question yet.
But Strauss did venture what he called simply a "guess": "I think that the election result will be split that the Republicans will hold the House and the Democrats will hold the Senate."
I have to say that Strauss's predicted outcome would be viewed as a Republican victory a Bush victory. History shows that the party that just lost the White House (the Democrats, in this case) always picks up a good number of seats in Congress in the midterm election. A standoff is certainly not what the Democrats want or, until last week, have been expecting. Now, with Bush putting the spotlight on war, Democratic hopes of taking over both houses may have been dashed.