Post-terror, Americans moving on


It was bound to happen: the loosening of America's rivet-tight preoccupation with terrorism and a return to the usual concerns about the economy - layoffs, deficits, and ways to get America moving again.

While the rearrangement of the national consciousness has been gradual and remains incomplete, it is nonetheless perceptible. Coming even before the three-month observance of the worst terrorist attack in history, the shift is apparent both in polls and in everyday conversations at the gym and the supper table.

The drift toward "normal" doesn't mean people have forgotten. What happened is too searing for that. But it does speak to a certain pragmatic, get-on-with-it facet of the American character - and to the success of the war effort itself. It also suggests that official Washington will need to heed the public's diversifying agenda.

America's focus on issues besides terrorism is borne out in recent polls by both Democrats and Republicans. This week, Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling and research group, released a survey showing the economy and jobs have eclipsed terrorism and security as the nation's No. 1 concern. It's close, though, at 37 percent to 35 percent. Other issues are back on the national radar screen, the poll found, particularly health and education.

A Republican poll last month found the economy to be the top concern in every part of the country except the eastern seaboard from Maine to Virginia, where terrorism still comes first.

"Gradually, people are getting back to normal," says Bill McInturff, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the GOP survey.

Two things seem to be at play in this shift. First, the tragedy grows more distant with each passing day, and no new attacks linked to Al Qaeda have occurred on US soil. (The source of the anthrax attacks remains a mystery.)

The second is the successful and unexpectedly swift prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. "There is a sense that the administration is handling this well," says Stanley Greenberg, pollster to former presidential candidate Al Gore and a founder of Democracy Corps.

To the degree that Americans see this as an urgent time of war, it stands to bolster President Bush as their standard-bearer. The president plans to mark the three-month anniversary by playing the National Anthem at the White House at precisely 8:46 a.m. Tuesday. He has asked other nations to play their anthems at the same time to signal to terrorists that "we won't forget what took place."

But Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, sees "perils" for Mr. Bush as the nation's focus on terrorism fades. Some issues now back in vogue - such as helping the unemployed - play to the Democrats' strengths, he says. With joblessness jumping to 5.7 percent, the highest rate in six years, politics are "moving to territory that is much more conducive to Democrats' issues."

With that shift, partisan differences are again appearing on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers, once confident that Sept. 11 could bring them together on an economic stimulus package, are at loggerheads. Unable to agree on whether the package should stress help for the unemployed or growth through business and individual tax cuts, passage looks doubtful before Christmas - if ever.

Indeed, while Bush wants to accelerate his tax cuts to stimulate the economy, some Democrats are talking about postponing them to avoid deficits.

"Given where we are now with the recession, with the war on terrorism, I just don't think it's in our best interests to go forward with the tax cuts," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York said Sunday.

"It's essentially a return to the politics of 50-50 government. That period in which we had a 100-zip government in dealing with terrorism is over," says Charles Jones, a government expert at the University of Wisconsin. "It's almost inevitable that as the president's [war] effort is successful, then other issues emerge."

But Republican strategists believe Bush is in a better position than some might expect to deal with both the recession and a divided, contentious Congress. Unlike his father, the explosions of war do not appear to have blinded George Jr. to the economy at home. Last week, he flew to Florida to meet with laid-off workers and hold a town-hall meeting on job issues. In his weekend radio address, he used the issue to pressure Congress to get on with his stalled initiatives on the economy, education, and energy.

Democrats like Mr. Greenberg describe these overtures as largely "symbolic," but they seem to resonate somewhat with the public. A just-concluded Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found that a slim majority of Americans - 52 percent - disagree with the statement that the president is spending too much time on the war and not enough time on the economy.

At the same time, the war is still a powerful tool for Bush. Just look at last week's House vote on trading authority - which cleared by just one vote - in part by appeals to support the war president. It was arguably Bush's most important victory since the tax cut in June.

Ann, a retiree in Texas, is part of that wide swath of Americans who are starting to think about other things. A respondent to the Monitor/Tipp poll, she says Afghanistan is still all that's playing on her cable news. She's also anxious about the safety of her son, who must fly regularly between New York and St. Louis.

But, being on a limited income, she's also watching the economy - and now some movies for fun. "Life does go on," she says, "and you have to look ahead."

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