At Home Abroad

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FEBRUARY 2, 2004

At Home Abroad

This was supposed to be the "domestic issues" State of the Union
address. In his January 2002 speech, President Bush dwelled on the
war in Afghanistan. Last January, he dwelled on the war in Iraq.
This year, his aides told reporters, he would turn to the home
front, beginning the speech with national security and building to
a domestic policy crescendo.It's not hard to understand why. Since he took office, President
Bush's popularity has swung largely along a single axis: When
national security predominates, it goes up; when domestic policy
predominates, it goes down. On September 9, 2001, Bush's approval
rating, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, was 55
percent. Two days after the September 11 attacks, it had spiked to
86 percent. Throughout 2002, as the war on terrorism gradually
receded as an issue, Bush's approval rating steadily dropped. By
January 20, 2003, it was back down to 59 percent.

It shot back up during the Iraq war, peaking at 77 percent on April
9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell. And, since then, with Iraq no longer
dominating the headlines, it has dropped again. Since last fall,
Bush's approval rating has hovered between 53 and 59 percent.

Those numbers are not bad. But, in the ten months until Election
Day, national security could recede even further. In 2003,
President Bush stanched his slide in popularity with a foreign
policy second act: Iraq. Today, by contrast, the White House is
busy getting Iraq off the front page. It is willing to compromise
on almost any aspect of the occupation, it seems, except its June
30 deadline to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government, the
starting gun for the withdrawal of American troops.

National security's declining political salience has already
reshaped the race for the Democratic nomination. Last summer, when
Iraq dominated headlines, Iowa's dovish Democrats flocked to Howard
Dean--the one major candidate then making opposition to the war his
central theme. But, as the war receded as a litmus test, John
Kerry--whose muddled position on Iraq hurt him last year-- began to
rise. So did John Edwards, arguably the most
domestic-policy-oriented of the major candidates. This Monday,
three-fourths of caucusgoers still said they opposed the war. But
they were four times more likely to cite domestic issues as their
top priority than to cite Iraq on national security. According to
the Edison/Mitofsky Iowa Democratic Caucus poll, caucusgoers who
prioritized Iraq favored Dean by eight points over Kerry and 28
points over Edwards. But, among the much larger number who
prioritized the economy and jobs, Dean trailed Edwards by 17 points
and Kerry by 18.

This public shift toward domestic policy could cause President Bush
some of the same headaches it is causing Dean. Ever since taking
office, the Bush administration has labored to blunt the Democrats'
traditional advantage on domestic issues. But this week's ABC News/
Washington Post poll suggests those efforts have largely failed.
The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to give the GOP an edge
on education. But, if anything, it has done the opposite. According
to ABC and the Post, the 19-point advantage on the issue that Bush
enjoyed on September 9, 2001, four months before the law was signed,
has now turned into a one-point Democratic advantage. The
prescription-drug benefit Bush signed last December was supposed to
eliminate this key Democratic talking point. But the Democrats
today enjoy a 16-point lead on prescription drugs, larger than in
April 2003, before the bill was passed. In June 2001, respondents
were seven points more likely to trust Bush on taxes than the
Democrats. Today, that has turned into a three-point Democratic
lead. Even the improving economy hasn't given Bush a partisan
boost. The president led by ten points on the issue in April 2003
but now trails by seven points. In fact, respondents preferred the
Democrats on every domestic issue discussed in the latest
ABC/Washington Post poll.

All of which brings us back to the State of the Union, which--coming
two weeks after Bush's big immigration proposal--was supposed to
highlight the president's domestic policy vision. It didn't. Bush
began by calling the United States "a nation called to great
responsibilities." And, on foreign policy, the themes were indeed
large: Afghanistan and Iraq as beachheads for a transformed,
democratic Middle East. But, when the president turned to the home
front, the responsibilities didn't seem very great at all. Hemmed
in by a conservative base suspicious of government activism and a
budget deficit that leaves little room for new spending
initiatives, Bush laid out proposals so trivial they made Bill
Clinton's famed micro-initiatives seem bold by comparison. There was
a call for associated health plans, which would allow small
businesses to band together to buy health care. Bush said the
country could improve medical treatment by "computerizing health
records." He called for a "grassroots campaign to help inform
families" about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases among
teens. He offered a whopping $300 million over four years for job
training among ex-prisoners. And, with Tom Brady in the audience,
he denounced the use of steroids in professional sports.

The speech didn't even end with domestic policy, as advertised.
Seeking some rhetorical lift, the president closed with the only
topic that could provide it: the war on terrorism. "Our nation is
strong and steadfast," he said in his final paragraph. "The cause
we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The
momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable, and it is not
carried forward by our power alone." Summing up the reaction of a
Toledo, Ohio, focus group immediately following the speech, CNN
reporter Jeff Flock said, "The sense is they heard too much foreign
policy stuff, too much war, too much terrorism. They want to hear
about the issues that impact them."

Perhaps President Bush doesn't need a compelling domestic agenda to
win a second term. In 2002, after all, the GOP won without one. The
war on terrorism remains enormously politically potent, and it
dramatically favors the GOP. But, if it genuinely fades as an issue
and Bush is left to campaign on the domestic vision outlined in
this Tuesday's State of the Union, the presidential race could
change in dramatic, unexpected ways. Just ask Howard Dean.

By Peter Beinart

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