It's the summer right before the presidential election. The president's approval numbers have sunk, and he finds himself in the midst of a dangerous international crisis. Many pundits have written him and his policies off, when he says with the straight talk that has become his trademark, "We will stay in Berlin."
It was June 1948 and the president was Harry S. Truman, who bucked conventional wisdom, the Russians, the French and some of his closest advisers to begin a historic airlift of food and supplies to the embattled German city. By September, pollster Elmo Roper had announced that Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was so far ahead, any more polling was a waste of time and money. You know the rest of the story.
Now, substitute Baghdad for Berlin, and you'll see that the summer of 2004 has both striking similarities to 1948 and some big differences that put President Bush in a far better position than many might think. Like Truman, Bush is being criticized by the media and political elites for his lack of sophistication and for some very difficult military decisions. Bush would no doubt have differed with his predecessor on some issues, but he shares with him a penchant for plain talk, a stiff backbone -- and a tough reelection battle.
To listen to Democrats and various talking heads over the past few weeks, you might conclude that Bush, like Truman in '48, is on the political ropes, with his campaign reeling and his reelection hopes in serious doubt. Independent pollster John Zogby has gone so far as to declare flatly on his Web site that "John Kerry will win the election."
But that pronouncement ignores the fact that the race today is, for all practical purposes, a statistical dead heat. Kerry has stalled when he should be surging. This is a remarkable development given the events of the past two months, highlighted by Bush's slipping numbers and a veritable wall of bad news from Iraq through which no positive message or news -- economic or otherwise -- has been able to penetrate.
As voters are bombarded 24-7 with disgusting prisoner abuse photos and endless stories of chaos in Iraq, as Democratic invective reaches new lows and gas prices new highs, Bush hangs tough in the polls. The lesson in this should be sobering to Kerry supporters. If Kerry can't get himself solidly ahead in what is likely the most unfavorable political environment Bush has faced since taking office, he's got a problem -- potentially a big one.
Moreover, while this is the most difficult moment in Bush's presidency, it is also probably his low-water mark. Kerry's inability to take commanding advantage of Bush's troubles at this critical moment spells trouble for him down the road and opportunity for Bush, starting with the economy.
Even with the war in Iraq dominating both print and television news, the economy remains voters' number one concern. The media focus on negative news from Iraq, however, has buried the remarkably good economic news of the past eight months: some 288,000 more jobs created in April, and more than 1.1 million since last August; the unemployment rate down over the year in 47 of 50 states; and manufacturing jobs up.
Despite this historic economic turnaround, voters have yet to get the message. In a recent Gallup poll, respondents said by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent that the economy has gotten worse. But Democrats are making a monumental miscalculation if they think that view will last.
If job creation has been a lagging indicator of an improving U.S. economy, people's underrating of the economy is a lagging indicator of Bush's political strength. Once the focus returns to the economy as a campaign issue, which it will as the election nears, Bush is poised to rebound with a positive economic story. When the public catches up to economic reality, his numbers will rise and, I suspect, rise quickly. And the Democrats will lose their most potent issue.
The war on terrorism makes the stakes in this election enormously high, and its outcome will potentially determine not only the future security of this nation but the course of freedom in the world. That's big stuff even for a presidential campaign, so it's no surprise that national defense/terrorism ranks as the second most important voter concern in national surveys.
Despite some slippage in support for the war in Iraq, Bush still gets high marks from voters for his handling of the war against terrorism. The Washington Post's May 20-23 survey showed 58 percent approval. Strengthening people's understanding that the war in Iraq is one battle in a larger war against terrorism is the challenge the president faces today. As critics grow more shrill, the political peril of the war grows. But like Truman, Bush has chosen the course he believes is best for the nation's security and is willing to risk his presidency on that decision. If the June 30 transfer of sovereignty succeeds and a new Iraqi government, with help from coalition forces, can keep Iraq on the path to a free and democratic society, then Bush's leadership against an evil and murderous enemy will be an asset in November. It is now.
Another factor in this year's election is Congress itself. Truman won his reelection battle by tagging the Republican-controlled Congress of his day a "do-nothing Congress." A similar obstructionist record cost Democrats the Senate in 2002. In contrast, this Congress, working with the president, has in the past two years passed a prescription drug bill that will soon give seniors discounts at the drugstore, created a Department of Homeland Security to address the emerging threat of terrorism, and enacted a jobs creation bill that is generating jobs at a record pace.
Bush and the Republican-led Congress have succeeded in providing solutions for the Big Middle -- that nearly 30 percent of voters who swing from party to party in election after election. The economy, health care, and personal safety and security, along with education, drive the vote of this all-important bloc, and the "solutionist" Congress has helped Bush put together a domestic record that appeals to conservative and moderate voters who want real solutions to problems, not partisan sniping.
Meanwhile, the Democrats continue to offer voters little more than tirades and tantrums. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the president of the United States "incompetent." Al Gore unleashed some of the campaign's most vicious invective when he said last week that the Bush administration has subjected the nation to "disgrace" and "dishonor." Sen. Edward Kennedy, reacting to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, has equated the U.S. military with Saddam Hussein. And Kerry sniped, "Did the training wheels fall off?" after the president was recently bruised in a bicycle accident. Harsh personal and partisan attacks are not the solutions to problems that voters want to hear, especially in a time of war.
Finally, we are left with the "unknowables" -- the unpredictable factors that can significantly change the outcome of a campaign. Usually, it's scandal or a political blunder. This election year, the unknowables could have potentially far more serious consequences.
What happens if al Qaeda tries to alter the course of our elections after their political "success" in Spain with a major terrorist attack on the United States? What effect will the outcome of the Iraq war and transition have on domestic politics? What happens if Osama bin Laden is captured?
As we learned on Sept. 11, 2001, the world can change completely in minutes. And so could this campaign. Regardless of the potential for unexpected events, Bush is positioned for victory in November. His resolve and determination to win the war against terrorism, his strong economic record and his commitment to education and health care reform will resonate with an electorate looking for leadership and straight talk.
In April 1948, with a job approval rating of 36 percent, Harry Truman wrote to his sister about the many difficult decisions he had made during his presidency, telling her, "I still have a long way to go . . . and it will be a rough road." Then he added, "It can't be any worse than the trail left behind. So don't worry about it."
Winning the war against terrorism is what drives George W. Bush -- not winning in November. In the end, that focus will reelect him.
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