Most Americans accept Richard Clarke’s key criticisms of President Bush’s anti-terrorism record, but a majority also thinks that politics influenced the timing of the charges by the former White House aide, a Los Angeles Times poll has found.
Nearly three-fifths of those surveyed echoed the contention by Clarke that Bush placed a higher priority on invading Iraq than combating terrorism. And a smaller majority agreed with the charge by the onetime White House counterterrorism chief that Bush did not focus enough on the terrorist threat before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yet nearly three-fifths agreed that Clarke’s new book on the subject was “politically motivated” and intended to influence the presidential election. And despite the attention Clarke’s charges have received, almost three-fifths of Americans said Bush’s anti-terrorism and defense policies had made the nation more secure.
“With the warnings [the administration] had before [Sept. 11], if they would have taken it seriously it wouldn’t have gone this far,” said Connie Star, a nurse in Gainesville, Ga., who responded to the poll. “But since it’s happened, the president has done the appropriate things.”
Indeed, while the new questions about Bush’s initial response to the terrorist threat could pose a long-term problem for him, the poll suggests the controversy has not significantly changed the dynamics propelling the country toward another close presidential race.
The survey found presumed Democratic nominee John F. Kerry holding a 49% to 46% advantage over Bush among registered voters, a difference within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Adding independent candidate Ralph Nader to the mix resulted in little change. In the three-man race, Kerry drew 47%, Bush 44% and Nader 4%.
The survey also found that Bush could be hurt by attitudes about his handling of the economy, while impressions about Kerry remained somewhat unformed.
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,616 adults, including 1,415 registered voters, from Saturday through Tuesday.
Clarke, who served as counterterrorism chief for both Bush and President Clinton, has attracted enormous media attention the last two weeks with publication of his book, “Against All Enemies,” and dramatic public testimony before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House and its allies have fiercely denied Clarke’s charges that the Bush administration failed to sufficiently recognize the terrorist threat before Sept. 11, and then weakened the fight against Al Qaeda by shifting attention and resources to Iraq. Administration officials questioned Clarke’s credibility and motivation.
Clarke’s accusations, not surprisingly, have divided the country largely across partisan lines. In the Times poll, 52% said they agreed with Clarke’s charge that “President Bush failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously enough” before the 2001 attacks, while 40% disagreed.
Seven in 10 voters who call themselves Democrats said they agreed with Clarke.
“The Bush administration came into the White House thinking they had another agenda; they were concentrating on the big superpowers like China,” said Una, a Democrat and stay-at-home mother in New York who declined to disclose her last name. “And they did not hear the drumbeat of terrorism as clearly as they should have.”
But two-thirds of voters who call themselves Republicans rejected the charge, while only about one-fourth agreed.
“I think President Bush was totally aware of the threat,” said Sandra Paul, a retired financial consultant in Wilmington, Del. “I don’t know what he was expected to do about it until he had been in office for a while.”
By 57% to 37%, those polled agreed with Clarke’s contention that “President Bush was more focused on attacking Iraq than dealing with terrorism.”
Almost four in five Democrats agreed with the claim, while two-thirds of Republicans disagreed.
In a potentially ominous sign for the White House, most independents agreed with Clarke on both questions. Over three-fifths of independents said Iraq had been a higher priority for Bush than fighting terrorism, while just less than three-fifths said he did not pay enough attention at first to the terrorist threat.
By 42% to 28%, those polled rejected the charge from some Republicans that Clarke was criticizing Bush because he was rejected for a job at the new Department of Homeland Security.
But 58% polled said they thought Clarke’s book was politically motivated and was released now to affect the presidential election; 27% disagreed. Republicans endorsed that charge by more than seven to one, while independents seconded it by almost two to one.
“I think Mr. Clarke has an ax to grind,” said Paul, the Delaware retiree. “I don’t have a lot of respect for people who write these tell-all books. He is going to make a lot of money.”
Bush won more support for his policies on terrorism than any other issue measured. In the poll, 56% said they approved of his handling of the war on terrorism; 39% disapproved.
That is similar to the ratings Bush received in two other national surveys conducted since Clarke’s charges, and only a slight decline on the issue from a Times poll in November.
Also, 59% in the new survey said Bush’s national defense and anti-terrorism policies had made the country more secure, a figure virtually unchanged since November. Just 18% said Bush’s policies had made the country less secure, while 20% said they had made little difference.
A solid majority of independents said Bush had made the country more secure.
“Basically I just liked his attitude ... that we were going to go [into Afghanistan and Iraq] no matter what,” said Rodney J. Scheel, an independent and small-business owner in New Prague, Minn.
Backing for Bush’s policies toward Iraq was more equivocal than for the broader war against terrorism. Just 49% said they approved of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, while 46% -- including a slight majority of independents -- disapproved.
Americans also divided almost in half on whether the threat from Iraq justified war, with 48% saying yes, 45% no. Independents split almost exactly in half on the question.
Bush benefits from positive assessments of personal qualities associated with leadership in wartime. Asked whether Bush or Kerry was more likely to be a strong leader for the country, 46% picked the president, 38% chose Kerry. Asked which candidate “has good judgment in a crisis,” those polled tabbed the president by about two to one.
The share of poll respondents who cited economic issues as their top concern equaled the number who picked security matters. And on the economic front, attitudes toward Bush are less positive.
Just 43% said they approved of his handling of the economy, while 53% disapproved, a slight deterioration since November.
More strikingly, just one-fourth of those polled said Bush’s policies had made the country more prosperous.
His overall approval rating -- a key measure -- stands at 51%, with 44% disapproving. That’s down slightly since November. And in recent presidential contests, incumbents who have lost have been those whose approval ratings dipped below 50% as the November election approached.
In another troubling measure for Bush, 55% of Americans said the country was on the wrong track, a 5-percentage point increase since last fall. Such levels of concern traditionally have spelled political trouble for the party holding the White House.
Kerry was viewed favorably by 48% of those polled, unfavorably by 29%. But tellingly, almost one-fourth of Americans said they did not know enough him about him to give an answer.
While the Bush campaign has worked to portray Kerry as an unprincipled politician who shifts his views with the prevailing mood, only 38% said the Massachusetts senator was most likely to flip-flop on issues, while 35% picked Bush.
The poll also found that Kerry led Bush by 5 percentage points among independents, and by 25 points among those describing themselves as political moderates.
Bush hopes to use cultural and national security issues to appeal to working-class families, but that strategy has suffered from disenchantment with his economic record. While the president holds a solid lead among voters earning more than $40,000 annually, Kerry attracts nearly three-fifths of those earning less.
According to the poll, Bush is running slightly better among women than he did against Democrat Al Gore in 2000. On the other hand, Kerry is performing better than Gore among men, who overwhelmingly preferred Bush four years ago.
Rural voters, who gave Bush a big margin in 2000, prefer him only narrowly now, perhaps because twice as many think his policies have hurt rather than helped the economy.
With the country so precariously divided over the president’s performance and priorities, the advantage in the campaign may ebb and flow many times before November, as some voters assess and reassess their choices.
“From the things I’ve heard about Kerry, I would have to say I would go more for Bush right now,” said Star, the Gainesville nurse. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vote for Kerry if I find out different things later on.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Asked of registered voters
Q: If the November general election for president were being held today and the candidates were George W. Bush, the Republican, and John F. Kerry, the Democrat, for whom would you vote, Bush or Kerry? (includes leaners)
Don’t know 5%
Q: If the November general election for president were being held today and the candidates were George W. Bush, the Republican, John F. Kerry, the Democrat, and Ralph Nader running as an independent, for whom would you vote: Bush, Kerry or Nader?(includes leaners)
Don’t know 5%
Asked of everyone
Q: Do you think these qualities apply more to George W. Bush or John F. Kerry:
‘He cares about people like me.’
Both equal 3%
Don’t know 8%
‘He will be a strong leader for the country.’
Both equal 3%
Don’t know 7%
‘He has the honesty and integrity to serve as president.’
Both equal 6%
Don’t know 6%
‘He has good judgment in a crisis.’
Both equal 2%
Don’t know 14%
‘He flip-flops on the issues.’
Both equal 8%
Don’t know 12%
Q: Do you agree or disagree with the following statements that have been made by the Bush administration and Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism advisor in the Bush administration:
‘President Bush failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before the Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.’
‘President Bush was more focused on attacking Iraq than dealing with terrorism as his top priority.’
‘Richard Clarke is attacking the Bush administration because he was turned down for the job of deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.’
‘Richard Clarke’s book is politically motivated and released at this time to impact the presidential election.’
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll contacted 1,616 adults nationwide, including 1,415 registered voters by telephone March 27 through March 30, 2004. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation and random digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. The entire sample of adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all adults and registered voters is 3 percentage points in either direction. For certain subgroups the margin of error may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Source: Times Poll