President's task: reforge an old bond
Thursday night, he addresses the nation - and looks back on his record - in a prime-time speech.
NEW YORK — Right after Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush was a rock star.
The president's stratospheric job approval ratings - shooting above 90 percent, then settling into the 70s for many months after the attacks - now seem light-years away in a nation deeply divided over Iraq, the economy, and a host of social issues.
But when Mr. Bush addresses the Republican National Convention Thursday night, his campaign is counting on his ability to reach into American living rooms and connect once again. With approval ratings at or just below 50 percent, Bush doesn't need to win back many of those who left his side. But he needs some.
"The key thing he has to do is reestablish an emotional bond with the American people," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It was that sense of resolve and determination that people responded to."
Another important piece is Bush's ability to come across as a "regular guy," in contrast to his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, convention delegates say.
Beyond the intangible feeling Bush hopes to convey, the president has two important goals in his speech, advisers say. First, he will defend his nearly four years in the White House, an acknowledgment that presidential campaigns involving an incumbent are, foremost, a referendum on his performance. "We're running on the president's record," GOP chairman Ed Gillespie told a Monitor luncheon. At the Democratic convention, "they ran away from Kerry's record [as a senator]."
Bush's record looks like a Rorschach ink blot: To supporters, he has succeeded by aggressively fighting the war on terror, unseating hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and keeping the US free from attack since 9/11. To detractors, his invasion of Iraq was a rash and costly venture whose central rationale (weapons of mass destruction) has evaporated and which continues to take a heavy toll in American and Iraqi lives.
On the domestic front, Bush faces an uncertain economic recovery and a net loss of jobs since his term began. Gasoline prices have skyrocketed, poverty is up, and the percentage of Americans with health insurance has declined. But federal taxes are down, education spending is up, Bush won passage of a prescription-drug plan for seniors, and unemployment remains below 6 percent.
On Iraq, Bush will seek to reconnect that increasingly unpopular war with the "other" war, the battle against terrorism. The president's performance in the war on terror remains his strongest issue - now back to a solid double-digit lead over Kerry after he had crept up to near parity with the president.
"He's got to reexplain the sense in which Iraq is the main front in the war on terror," says Professor Jillson.
Bush's domestic record will be trickier for him on a range of issues that favor Kerry, including education, the environment, and healthcare.
"The president will have to put the best spin on the economy that he can," says Brad Coker, president of Mason Dixon Research, an independent polling firm. But "he should talk 70 percent about defense, about 30 percent on domestic issues, then a bit about the social agenda - red meat for the base."
After the minicontroversy early this week, when the president told a TV interviewer that the war on terror could not be won, expect him to declare forcefully for the cameras that the war can be won. His campaign argued that Bush's words were taken out of context - that he was referring to the fact that the war on terror is not a conventional war that ends with the signing of a treaty - but the Kerry campaign leapt on it as a sign of wavering resolve.
A centerpiece of the president's pitch for four more years will be an emphasis on what he calls the "ownership society" - meant to contrast sharply with the Kerry vision of government as, foremost, the provider of a safety net for strapped Americans.
The pillars of the program include promoting ownership of one's own home, small business, health insurance, and retirement plan. The president will return to aspects of his agenda he was not able to fulfill in his first term (in part, he says, because of the imperatives of the war on terror), such as private Social Security accounts.
Taxes, a staple of the Republican agenda, will also figure prominently. The president will renew his call to make permanent the temporary tax cuts from the first term. He will call for simplification of the tax code. And he will propose new types of retirement accounts that are shielded from taxes.
In the end, Bush will try to include something for everybody as he seeks to mobilize his supporters while winning over independents and undecideds.
"You look for things that touch different kinds of voters," says Stu Rothenberg, an independent analyst. 'You talk about lower taxes for the base, you talk about education for swing voters, but you also talk about leadership and the war on terror."
Many of the delegates just want to see Bush being himself. "I want him to be George W. Bush and not a TelePrompTer reader," says Linda Hellenthal of Roseburg, Ore., a wife and mother of loggers. "Forget about all that past stuff, like Vietnam, and let's focus on the future."
"We can expect the truth from him," says Barbara Deuschle of Hot Springs, Ark. "He says what he means. He's very, very clear and he's transparent."
Among the dozen delegates interviewed, the issues that came up most were the war on terror, followed by taxes. Many delegates are small-business owners, and they believe the GOP is more devoted to helping them grow, and provide jobs, than the Democrats.
"We should make the tax cuts permanent and leave more money in citizens' pockets, we also need tort reform," says Solomon Yue, an importer of medical gloves from Salem, Ore.
Mr. Yue, who immigrated from China in 1980, could also relate personally to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's tale of immigrant success. "When I arrived in America, I knew only two phrases: thank you and Coca Cola."