After Flagging Support, a Second Wind for Bush
The bombs exploded in London, but the repercussions are still rippling across Washington.
A surge in public concern about terrorism means a probable boost in support for President Bush and the war in Iraq.
Renewed fear of terrorist sleeper cells will probably spur increased support for tough law enforcement measures such as the Patriot Act, which is up for renewal. And there’s new enthusiasm in Congress for increased spending on domestic security, especially mass transit -- an area in which legislators were cutting budgets three weeks ago.
There’s no telling how long the wave of concern will last. If the London attack gives way to months of calm, the increased fear -- and any gain in popularity for Bush -- may well be short-lived. But for the moment, Washington is back in 9/11 mode.
“The bombings will give both Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair a boost,” said Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University who studies public opinion in times of war. “I think the attacks may help slow the ebbing of [public] support over Iraq, because the bombings make [Bush’s] point about linking Iraq and terrorism.”
Bush wasted no time in citing the London attack to support his central argument for U.S. military operations in Iraq. In his weekly radio address Saturday, the president said the bombings were part of a single terrorist offensive that included the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon as well as this year’s attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq.
“We are now waging a global war on terror, from the mountains of Afghanistan ... to the plains of Iraq,” Bush said. “We will stay on the offense, fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home.”
War on terrorism has largely been Bush’s main focus since Sept. 11, and when the public has been attentive to the issue he has benefited politically. Polls have found that most Americans believe Bush has done a good job in battling terrorism, even though increasing majorities disapprove of his handling of other issues, such as Iraq and the economy.
“All our data show that Bush’s greatest strength is on terrorism, as opposed to other parts of his job,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. “These attacks will remind people ... of what Bush’s strength is. The most probable effect is that support for the president and his policies will go up in the short term.”
Over the long term, Newport said, that effect is likely to wane, at least until terrorists strike again. Public concern over terrorism has fluctuated widely depending on how imminent the threat has seemed. A month after 9/11, almost half of all Americans said terrorism was the most important problem facing the country; last month, 9% did.
But in the short run, pollsters and political practitioners said, the echo of the London bombings will be heard in debates on several major issues.
“This changes the dynamic on the Patriot Act,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the post-9/11 law that gave federal agencies new powers to investigate suspected terrorist activities. “It strengthens the argument that diluting the Patriot Act would weaken our ability to infiltrate sleeper cells.”
The law is up for renewal this year, and several of its provisions have been controversial. Bush has urged Congress to make the law permanent. And the administration has supported a measure that would broaden the FBI’s ability to subpoena records and documents in national security cases without permission from a judge.
But Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have said some provisions should be kept subject to periodic review. And last month, an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals in the House voted to limit the FBI’s power under the law to seize library and bookstore records.
The terrorism issue could well come up in confirmation hearings for a new Supreme Court justice to replace retiring Sandra Day O’Connor, Ornstein and others noted.
“In the questioning of whoever is nominated, the Patriot Act, the question of the federal government’s power to detain terrorism suspects and related issues are likely to come up -- but after [the London bombings], senators may ask those questions in a slightly different way,” Ornstein said.
The Supreme Court has already limited the Bush administration’s powers in fighting terrorism, ruling against the president and granting detainees access to lawyers and legal process. In one such ruling, O’Connor rebuked the administration directly: “A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.”
A similar case could come before the Supreme Court later this year: Lawyers for Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in 2002 for allegedly plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb,” have asked the justices to rule that the government cannot continue holding him in a military brig without trial.
Some Republicans speculated that the London attack could make it easier for Bush to nominate his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, for a Supreme Court seat. As White House counsel, Gonzales played a leading role in drafting policies that allowed the military to detain suspected terrorists without a trial and to waive anti-torture laws in their interrogation.
“This might help Gonzales should Bush nominate him,” said one Republican operative who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of deliberations over Bush’s choice. Democrats might hesitate to “attack [Gonzales] too severely” on those issues now, he said.
White House aides refused to comment.
The bombings might also spur Congress to consider new counter-terrorism measures, including possible limits to the State Department’s “visa waiver” program, which allows citizens of 27 countries to enter the United States without visas or interviews, congressional aides said. The waiver countries include Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain -- all nations where Islamic extremists have been active.
The attacks have already prompted new calls in Congress for increased spending on security at home, especially on measures to protect trains, subways and buses. That would mark a reversal: Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $50 million from the Homeland Security Department’s current $150-million budget for subways and surface transportation -- although the $100 million it approved was considerably more than the $32 million requested by Bush.
Since 2001, the federal government has focused most of its domestic security spending on air transportation and measures to guard against nuclear, chemical and biological attacks. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff indicated last week that he didn’t intend to change course radically because of the London attack: “I wouldn’t make a policy decision driven by a single event,” he said.
Indeed, anyone who hopes to move policies in a new direction because of the bombings should move fast, pollsters say. The effect of a single event on public opinion -- even a major terrorist attack -- is usually temporary.
“People are worried about terrorism, but the edge comes off their concern as time passes,” said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.
Terrorist events that involve the United States or its close allies prompt more public concern than attacks in distant countries, he added. The major terrorist attacks since 9/11 -- the bombing of a nightclub in Bali in 2002, the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid in 2004 and the seizure of a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004 -- had only a modest impact on American public opinion.
“The question people ask themselves is, ‘How threatened do I feel by this?’ ” he said. “If it were here, it would be different.”
The impact on issues beyond foreign policy and law enforcement is likely to be modest as well, Kohut said.
“I don’t think people are going to rethink their views on Social Security or on how things are going in the United States because Bush looks strong in response to bombs in London,” he said.