Its amazing how quickly an American President insensitive to the needs of ordinary Americans and the principle of fairness can lose the massive outward popular support that flows to the White House in times of war.
At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in March 1991, multi-millionaire George H.W. Bush enjoyed extraordinarily high war-induced approval ratings of 87 percent. By the Fall of 1992, he was humiliated in his quest for a second term by a relatively undistinguished former governor of Arkansas. He was victimized by an ill-timed economic recession and a reputation for elitist indifference to the plight of everyday working people.
It is premature to predict the same fate for Bush junior. “Dubya’s” wartime approval ratings are as high as his father’s, reflecting the special “national unity” engendered by an horrific, televised, and explicitly evil attack that killed thousands of innocent civilians on American soil.
The Bush team, moreover, has successfully defined the new war in advance as a long-term struggle against a hideous global Evil Other on the model of the Cold War enemy. Early post-Cold War “evil-doers” like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein could not fill the Soviet Union’s shoes like bin-Laden and his fellow terrorists can.
Before assuming that Bush junior is invulnerable to the same domestic demons that undid his father, however, we should contemplate five interrelated sources of potential vulnerability.
First, despite media claims that 9-11-01 has made him more “presidential,” Bush junior remains considerably less articulate than even his stumbling father. His currently high ratings depend significantly on the perception that the key people around him are considerably more intelligent than their “chief.”
Second, while Bush senior hardly rode a wave of massive popular enthusiasm into the White House, Bush junior came to Presidential power without either winning the popular vote or clearly attaining victory even in the Electoral College. Neither war nor the recent national media campaign to hopelessly muddle the unpleasant findings of their latest Florida recount will permanently delete historical memories of how he got to be president.
Third, the economy may well be moving into a considerably deeper and/or longer downturn than the one that undid Bush senior. Thanks to a combination of depressive factors, including the White House’s regressive economic non-”stimulus” package, the current recession should go well beyond the one of 1990-91.
In a time when the federal government needs to spend more and put more purchasing power in the hands of those most likely to use it, the Bush team is advancing irresponsible and counterproductive economic policies — mainly tax cuts — to shrink government and make the rich richer. Unlike his father’s recession, moreover, junior’s follows in the wake of a record- setting nine-year boom that occurred with the other party in Presidential power and led (after 1996) to reductions in inequality.
Fourth, Bush junior’s obsession with ramming through tax cuts and other giveaways for the super-rich stands in perilous conflict with the equality of sacrifice that the American people have always demanded in times of “global war.”
The contradiction between slashing rates for the super rich and making analogies between the current crisis and World War II (the progressively financed “good war”) is remarkable. As polling data already suggests, Americans are not going to let the anti-terrorist campaign become an excuse for policymakers to forget about the health and fairness of a homeland economy that is already the most unequal in the industrialized world.
Fifth, despite recent highly advertised ‘”victories” in Afghanistan, the new US “war on terror” is certain to be a much more difficult campaign than the senior Bush’s more tangibly and easily winnable “war” to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The difficulty of attaining easily demonstrable wins may combine with the aforementioned difficulties to increase Bush junior’s vulnerability.
Those who possess the political backbone to resist Bush and his fellow Republicans’ regressive domestic agenda should take some heart. The Republicans will experience well-deserved political backlash from their contemptible determination to use our national crisis to promote elitist policies. Following in his father’s well-heeled footsteps, Bush junior is less invincible than he may seem.