Home Front Still Key to Bush's Reelection

April 08, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Over the last week, it's been difficult to say which has been more dramatic: the gains of the American military in Iraq or the losses in the job market at home.

For now, the drive into Baghdad has overshadowed the signs of continuing trouble in the economy, highlighted by last week's report that employers shed an additional 108,000 net jobs in March. But both of these dynamics are likely to shape President Bush's hopes of a second term.

Indeed, the key to the 2004 election may be whether voters put more weight on Bush's performance in protecting the country against foreign threats or his record on managing the domestic economy, many analysts believe.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush has received sky-high ratings on national security -- a trend likely to be reinforced if the war in Iraq continues to go well. But he's received much weaker grades from the public on the economy and other domestic issues, such as health care -- a trend likely to be reinforced if economic growth doesn't resume quickly.

For Bush, the gulf in public perceptions about his performance carries ominous echoes of the mixed public verdict that led to the defeat of his father after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The younger Bush may be in a stronger position than his father to benefit politically from military success. Most experts in both parties agree that the current war in Iraq may carry more lasting relevance for voters than the Gulf War did, because the new conflict is linked to an ongoing concern about terrorism.

"The Gulf War was over in the public's mind; it was over in the president's mind; that is not the case here," said one Republican strategist close to the White House. "This is of a piece with the war on terrorism and will also have ramifications in the Middle East. That is an important distinction."

Yet the economy always casts a large shadow on presidential elections. Even in the weeks before the current war, economic anxiety steadily eroded Bush's approval rating and the share of Americans who said they intended to support him for reelection.

"One thing we know is that presidential elections are performance-based, and the economy is a very, very big factor in that," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. "Whether it is going to be different after Sept. 11 is the real question."

The Bush family history points to the power of economic discontent to overwhelm foreign policy triumphs.

Even as the first President Bush was sliding toward defeat in 1992, he retained huge advantages over Democrat Bill Clinton when voters were asked who could better handle foreign policy; in one Gallup Poll only a month before Clinton's victory, 3 in 4 American respondents said they preferred Bush on international affairs.

Clinton, though, consistently led Bush when Americans were asked who could better handle the economy. That advantage led James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, to coin the famous maxim "It's the economy, stupid" to describe how voters would make their choice.

"People thought that economic and domestic policies were the most important, and they perceived that [Bush] didn't have any aggressive economic or domestic policy and that he wasn't very interested in it," said GOP pollster Bob Teeter, the president's campaign chairman in 1992.

The younger Bush finds himself in a similar position in one respect: Like his father, he is drawing much stronger ratings for his handling of security issues and foreign affairs than he is on bread-and-butter domestic concerns.

In a Times poll a few weeks before the Iraq war began, 74% of Americans said they approved of Bush's response to the threat of terrorism. But just 45% gave him positive marks for his handling of the economy.

Amid the wartime tendency to rally around the commander in chief, Bush's economic approval rating rose in the latest Times poll, to 55%. But like most experts, Susan Pinkus, the Times polling director, said that unless the economy revives, she expects Bush's ratings on the issue to slip after the war.

"Once the war is over and people are not as centered on the fighting, it's going to revert back to the pre-war levels in all likelihood," she said.

Still, there are key differences in the political situations of the two Bushes. The key one is that the Gulf War occurred against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War, which enormously increased Americans' sense of security. The current war is taking place in the context of Sept. 11, which created an open-ended sense of insecurity unmatched since the height of the Cold War, most experts believe.

In that environment, if the war in Iraq ends well, George W. Bush could benefit more than his father from perceived success as commander in chief.

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