'Daddy Issues' Grab Center Stage

As he prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address, President Bush is king of the world. But as his father discovered, being king of the world doesn't necessarily mean much in American politics. Like father, like son? Maybe not, in this case.

George W. Bush's job-approval rating is holding up quite nicely. It has slipped a bit from late September's high of 90 percent, but at 83 percent in the mid-January Gallup Poll, it's still in the stratosphere.

Congressional Republicans, however, are a little nervous. Bush is not up for re-election this year, but they are. "What do Bush's high job ratings mean for us?" inquiring Republican lawmakers want to know. The answer is, plenty.

Go back to September 10. A majority of Americans (56 percent) had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, but only a minority (47 percent) thought favorably of the GOP. Now, however, the Republican Party is surging in popularity (up to 61 percent), while the Democratic numbers have not changed. That's what a popular President can do for his party.

What's happening might be called a "victory bonus" for the GOP, even though nobody has declared victory in the war on terrorism. More than three-quarters of Americans describe themselves as optimistic about the war. And—good news for the Republican Party—that optimism is spilling over to the economy. More than 70 percent of Americans say they're optimistic about the economy.

For this President, unlike his father, war and the economy are linked-and not just by September 11.

Since September 11, according to polls taken by both the Gallup Organization Inc. and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, security issues, such as national defense, the fight against terrorism, and foreign affairs, have become more important to the public. They're what some have called "daddy issues." You need Daddy around to protect you from the evildoers. Bush has filled that "Daddy" role admirably.

Both Gallup and Pew asked which party would do a better job dealing with various security issues. Republicans came out way ahead every time—35 points ahead, on average. There's only one position that Democrats can take on national security. As Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said on January 16, "It is right to stand with the President on the war front."

Then there are domestic issues, such as Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs for the elderly, and a patients' bill of rights. Because those involve the nurturing side of government, they are "mommy issues." Democrats have always owned those issues. "Future additional tax breaks for the wealthy," Sen. Kennedy declared earlier this month, "do not deserve higher priority than strengthening education, or covering prescription drugs under Medicare, or protecting Social Security."

Bush refuses to cede "mommy issues" to the Democrats. He fashions himself a "compassionate conservative," after all. But the "mommy issues" still belong to the Democrats by an average of 21 points in the two polls. So why, in both polls, do women support Bush? Because the "mommy issues" have become less important to them since September 11: The evildoers are at the door.

What about economic issues—taxes, the economy, and the deficit? Are they "mommy issues" or "daddy issues"? These days, mommies and daddies are both supposed to be providers.

Democrats have a pretty good record on the economy. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., summarized it this way on January 4: "We created more millionaires and billionaires in the '90s than at any time in our nation's history, while creating a boom that raised family incomes across the board."

Here's the surprise: Republicans are rated better than Democrats, not just on taxes, but also on the economy, and on the deficit—by an average of 8 points. The economy has become a "daddy issue."

Bush keeps trying to link his economic leadership with his war leadership, and it looks as if that's working. "The first condition, to make sure that people can find work, is to make sure our nation is secure," the President said last week. What links the two issues is management. This Administration projects the image that it knows what it's doing in the war. So shouldn't it know what it's doing on the economy, too?

Two important issues are up for grabs: energy and education. Neither party has the advantage on them.

Education has always been a "mommy issue." But Bush claims it as his issue. To prove that he and "Mommy" are partners on education, Bush went on tour with Kennedy after signing a bipartisan education bill. That worked, too. Pointing to Gallup Poll results, White House political strategist Karl Rove bragged last weekend that the GOP had "succeeded in wiping out a 51-year disadvantage" on the education issue.

Energy is supposed to be a "daddy issue," especially with a President and a Vice President who have close ties to the energy industry. But that's the problem. A lot of Americans think the Bush Administration is in bed with the energy industry, not with "Mommy."

The economy is the Democrats' best hope and biggest frustration. A lot of daddies are losing their jobs, but the mommies still believe the nation's "Daddy in chief" is a good provider.