There was a time when the White House considered Osama bin Laden so contemptible and so radioactive that it would rarely mention his name in any presidential speech. President Bush’s aides didn’t want to dignify the Al Qaeda leader by suggesting he was worthy of a presidential response. Moreover, they thought there was some danger in propagating the views of a figure who wanted to reach the widest audience—and possibly even send coded messages to his followers.
So when bin Laden released a tape late in the last election—in October 2004—the White House handled it delicately. In the final days of the closely fought campaign, Bush’s aides preferred to focus not on bin Laden but on how John Kerry was handling the tape. Bush challenged Kerry for what he called “Monday morning quarterbacking” on the war in Iraq, saying his criticism was “especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America’s enemy.”
Even earlier this year, after another audiotape from bin Laden, the White House dismissed the Al Qaeda leader’s words as irrelevant. When bin Laden offered a truce to the United States, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said simply, “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”
That was the old rhetoric of the war on terror. In the latest version of the war of words, the White House has elevated bin Laden to a mixture of foreign leader, historical icon and political adversary. Bin Laden’s words (and those of his henchmen) provided the backbone for Bush’s speech to military officers on Tuesday. Far from brushing aside bin Laden’s rants, Bush insisted they were a modern-day Mein Kampf, a guide to Al Qaeda’s global strategy. The White House now finds itself in the extraordinary position of selling the war on terror by citing the very man it ranks as public enemy No. 1.
Why the turnaround? Bush’s aides acknowledge that voters have become confused about who the enemy is and what they represent—in part because Iraq has muddied the concept of the war. How muddy is the picture? According to the latest CNN poll, terrorism ranks as a distant third in voters’ priorities in the congressional campaigns currently underway. Top of the list is the economy (28 percent), followed by the situation in Iraq (25 percent), with terrorism languishing at 18 percent, just a few points ahead of moral issues (like same-sex marriage) and immigration.
Moreover, Iraq has soured attitudes as to whether the United States is winning the broader war on terror. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 35 percent think the United States and its allies are winning—down from highs in the mid-60s after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
However, there is one bright spot politically for the White House in its latest push on Iraq and national security. After months of party squabbling over everything from immigration to the federal budget, congressional Republicans, for the most part, seem to be on board with the White House’s attempt to make security and terrorism their primary platform heading into the midterms.
With just under three weeks before Congress is scheduled to recess for the elections, House and Senate Republicans have announced they will make national security issues the centerpiece of their final legislative push. Among other things, members of Congress are expected to take up bills that would legalize military tribunals for terrorism suspects and Bush’s terrorist surveillance program—both of which were struck down as unconstitutional in federal courts over the summer.
Like Bush, congressional Republicans are hoping to regain political momentum by playing up their strengths on an issue that has been crucial to party victories over the last two election cycles. “Now is not the time for a weak and indecisive approach that has been offered by Capitol Hill Democrats,” House Majority Leader John Boehner said in a statement. While Republicans have distanced themselves from Bush amid the unpopularity of the Iraq war, House and Senate GOP leadership are now working closely with administration officials to piggyback their security themes in tandem with Bush’s latest PR offensive on the war.
It’s a notable partnership, as many Capitol Hill Republicans have been critical of the Bush team’s communications efforts on Iraq. “Every time the White House puts out a story that the president will be talking about the war and the new strategy behind it, it’s the same speech,” a senior GOP leadership aide told The Oval last spring. Now, with a little more then eight weeks to go until Election Day, a senior House GOP aide tells NEWSWEEK that many in the party feel they have “no other choice” but to stand with Bush and embrace the war as the defining issue of the campaign. “It’s all we’ve got,” the aide said.
Just hours before Bush was set to deliver his second speech in the PR offensive, House Republicans issued a blistering attack on Democrats’ handling of security issues, quoting Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid speaking out against the Patriot Act and military tribunals. The press release headline: “Why Americans Don’t Trust Dems with the Global War on Terror.”
The problem for the GOP: It’s unclear if many Americans agree. While Bush enjoyed a slight boost in the polls for his handling of national security in the wake of the London airline terror arrests, congressional Republicans continue to trail Democrats on questions of security. The latest Associated Press/Ipsos poll released last week found 47 percent of those surveyed favored Democrats over Republicans when asked who would do a “better job protecting the country.”
Yet a recent Quinnipac University poll found that Americans aren’t completely opposed to Bush’s handling of terrorism. The poll found that 53 percent of those approved of Bush’s handling of terrorism at home, while 63 percent of those surveyed believed wiretaps had prevented “some terrorist attacks.” Asked if they were worried about a terrorist attack in the United States in coming months, 62 percent of those polled said yes—a fear that Republicans could play upon in the march toward Election Day.