As his reelection bid kicks into gear, President Bush is offering a catchall explanation designed to inoculate himself against potential vulnerabilities -- from a weak economy and massive budget deficits to the growth of government and a curtailment of civil rights.
In a phrase, it’s 9/11.
As Bush tells it, the anemic economy he inherited was just coming out of the doldrums when the terrorists struck New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. And the nation only now is recovering from the severe dislocations those attacks wrought.
“The attack hurt our economy,” Bush said in Bakersfield last week.
Few would dispute that. But far from clear is whether voters will buy his view of the far-reaching effect of Sept. 11 and its aftermath on the economy.
Barry P. Bosworth, an economist who served in the administrations of presidents Nixon and Carter, said Bush was exaggerating the extent to which the war on terrorism had contributed to the annual budget deficits, which this year could top $500 billion. Bosworth said the president was also minimizing the role played by pushing into law across-the-board tax cuts.
It is hardly surprising for Bush to invoke Sept. 11; the tragedy has defined his presidency.
“It’s a time-tested tactic in American politics to recall for people some horror as a voting cue,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Using a phrase invoked for decades by Republicans after the Civil War, he added: “It’s important for presidents to wave the bloody shirt.”
But Bush’s gambit also looms as a double-edged sword, as became evident last week. Some relatives of victims of the terror attacks and a firefighters union condemned him for using images of the World Trade Center tragedy in his reelection campaign’s first television ads. The critics called the spots insensitive and offensive.
Top Bush aides politely but vehemently disagreed. “The ad is a reminder of our shared experience. Sept. 11 is not some distant event in the past. It’s a defining event for our future,” Karen P. Hughes, one of the president’s closest advisors, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Bush personally defended the imagery Saturday, saying, “I will continue to speak about the effects of Sept. 11 on our country and my presidency.”
“How this administration handled that day, as well as the war on terror, is worthy of discussion. And I look forward to discussing that with the American people,” Bush told reporters at his ranch outside Crawford, Texas, after a summit meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox. “And I look forward to the debate about who is best to lead this country in the war on terror.”
In New York, relatives of some of those who died in the attack released a letter Saturday supporting Bush and his use of Sept. 11 images in his TV ads.
Three of the ads show the ruins of a World Trade Center tower; two ads show firefighters carrying the flag-draped remains of a victim from ground zero.
Families of some of the Sept. 11 victims have been at odds with the administration over its level of cooperation with the commission investigating the attacks, and the firefighters union is backing Bush’s presumptive Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. But if a wider swath of voters concludes that Bush is exploiting a national tragedy for political gain, they may punish him on Nov. 2, analysts said.
“He can hit a nerve where people resent that he’s trying to use something so tragic -- something that was such a special moment in the country’s history -- as a political protection shield,” said Harvard University pollster Robert Blendon.
David Gergen, an advisor to Republican and Democratic presidents alike, agreed. “There are no bright lines on this kind of issue,” he said.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate and time-honored tradition to recall the defining moment of your first term. And if Bush is reelected, it will be because of the way he responded,” Gergen said. “But there are limits on how far he should go in drawing upon it.”
This is not the first time Bush has drawn criticism over the use of images from the day of the attacks. In May 2002, he was criticized for allowing Republican fundraisers to sell a photograph of him taken aboard Air Force One that day.
In the unfolding presidential campaign, Bush has been arguing that the attacks not only sapped consumer confidence and delayed an economic recovery, but necessitated massive spending at home and abroad for the war on terrorism.
In speeches around the country, Bush has specifically cited Sept. 11 as one factor that plunged the federal budget back into red ink.
As he put it in Indianapolis in early September: “About half of the deficit is caused by the recession that we’re trying to get out of. A quarter of the deficit is caused by the fact that we’re spending money to defend America.... And about a quarter of the deficit was caused by the tax relief.”
But Bosworth, the Nixon economic aide who directed the Council of Wage and Price Stability during the Carter administration, took issue with Bush’s assertions.
Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, Bosworth said Bush’s tax cuts accounted for about 40% of the deficit and that spending for the war had contributed less to the red ink than Bush has said.
“He’s putting too small a weight on his own tax reductions and trying to blame the war too much for the deficit,” Bosworth said.
He said he believed the recession contributed no more than a third of the deficit -- largely by cutting into federal tax receipts -- not the approximately 50% Bush has cited.
Bush has called on Congress to make the tax cuts permanent. Some of them are due to expire as soon as the end of this year. The president has argued that the cuts averted deeper economic problems and over the long term will spur significant economic growth.
He also contends that his new budget, if adopted by Congress, would chart a course to halve the deficit in five years, in part by virtually flat-lining all discretionary spending outside of defense and homeland security.
Bush also cites Sept. 11 as justification for the curtailment of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. That law has drawn strong criticism from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
“For years, we’ve used similar provisions to catch embezzlers or drug traffickers,” Bush noted this month as he observed the first anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. “If these methods are good enough for hunting criminals, they’re even more important for hunting terrorists,” he said.
In keeping alive memories of Sept. 11, Bush is attempting to create a framework for the presidential campaign, said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.
“If the context is 9/11, then the disappointing results on a number of fronts -- the deficit, the economy, the failure to find [weapons of mass destruction in Iraq], the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan -- are seen as a cost of fighting an external threat,” Jacobs said.
“In that framework or context, the president will probably win the election,” he said. “But if George Bush has to run on the classic question of a presidential reelection campaign -- are you better off now than four years ago? -- then he may well lose.”
The flap over Bush’s TV ads, Jacobs said, is symptomatic of the ongoing struggle to control “the defining question of this election.”
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report from Crawford, Texas.