White House Warnings Aid GOP

The controversy over the Bush administration's handling of the pre-9/11 terrorism warnings has had no impact on President Bush's standing with the American public.

In the April Gallup Poll, Bush's job-approval rating was 76 percent—just as it is now. The president's rating for handling world affairs has likewise held steady—at 70 percent.

So, what has happened to the president's rating on terrorism? Nothing. Americans' approval of Bush's handling of terrorism was 83 percent in April and 83 percent in May.

A majority of Americans think that the White House did the best it could with the information available. Among people who say that the White House could have done a better job, almost half call the shortcomings understandable. Only a quarter of Americans say they think there was enough information to have prevented the September 11 attacks. And polling suggests that those people were already hostile to Bush.

Are Americans taking the Bush administration's warnings about new terrorist attacks seriously? Apparently, they are. The proportion of Americans who say that a terrorist attack is likely in the next few weeks has gone up—from just over half in March to nearly two-thirds now.

Conservatives are much more likely than liberals to be worried about new attacks, possibly because the White House has more credibility among conservatives. Moreover, some liberals may think that the White House warnings are politically motivated.

A less-cynical interpretation of the split between conservatives and liberals is that the two sorts of people have different agendas. Conservatives give top priority to the war on terrorism, while liberals are more concerned with domestic problems. Whatever the reason, the fact is that how seriously you take the terrorist threat depends on your politics.

There is no question about what kind of terrorist threat worries Americans most: suicide bombings in crowded areas, such as restaurants and shopping malls. In the May Time magazine poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans say they think that suicide bombings in the United States are very likely within the next year-far more likely than other kinds of terrorist attacks, including some threats that the government has been warning about.

Forty-two percent say they think that attacks on national landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, are very likely. Thirty-one percent think it's very likely we'll see apartment bombings. Only 27 percent think it's very likely there will be another 9/11-style attack in which hijacked airliners are crashed into large buildings.

Suicide bombings are perceived as the biggest threat because they're the most difficult to prevent and because they are happening in Israel. If Israel, with its elaborate security precautions, can't prevent suicide bombings, what can the United States do?

Most Americans continue to have at least some confidence that the U.S. government can protect its citizens from future attacks. But that confidence has slipped a little. In the March Gallup Poll, 82 percent expressed confidence that the government could protect Americans. Now 76 percent are confident. Confidence has gone up among men and down among women. That change appears to be more psychological than political: Men have more confidence in the military than women do.

Recent polls reveal another change. Today, only 7 percent of Americans consider Russia a very serious threat, down from 19 percent two years ago and from 65 percent 19 years ago. September 11 pulled the United States and Russia closer together. The old Cold War adversaries find themselves on the same side in the war against terrorism. "This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War," Bush said on May 13, when he announced his intention to sign a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

The principal perceived threats today are Iraq (59 percent of Americans) and Iran (50 percent). North Korea, the third country in Bush's "axis of evil," is viewed as a serious threat by only 19 percent. Americans no longer feel particularly threatened by communism: Just 19 percent see China as a serious threat; 13 percent see Cuba as one. But Americans do feel threatened by Islamic terrorism.

The public firmly rejects the idea that politics is behind the Bush administration's new terrorism warnings. By more than 2-to-1 in the Time poll, respondents think that the government's recent warnings were based on intelligence reports and were not issued to divert attention from the government's handling of pre-9/11 warnings.

Nevertheless, the new warnings do have a political impact. In the January Time poll, twice as many people said such domestic issues as the economy and Social Security would determine their vote for the House of Representatives this year. Now domestic issues and foreign policy are virtually tied in importance in voters' minds. The White House warnings have ratcheted up the political salience of national security—to the Republicans' advantage.

People who say their vote will depend on domestic issues plan to vote Democratic in the House contests. People who say national security is more important give Republicans the edge.