Massive polling in the US showed that President Bush's popularity after the attacks of September 11th jumped immediately from a narrow band around 58% during his first 8 months in office to a record 90% high, then fell steadily to 76% since. When a US president has the ratings Bush now enjoys, he also gets approval from pundits, the mainstream media and Congress. Popularity helps him push through his programs. Heads-of-state believe that the best way to strengthen anemic public support is rallying the people to fight off a foreign threat.
The events of September 11th, 2001 has been compared to the Dec 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. Both came from out-of-the-blue, did horrible damage, and enormously increased the country's interest in politics and foreign affairs. In both cases, the U.S. public resolved to pursue victory as long as it would take and at any cost. Support for the President skyrocketed. Then evidence began to trickle out that some officials had advance knowledge of the attack. Higher-ups claimed no such information reached them and reluctantly acceded to an investigation, trying to restrict it to lower level officials. The people became suspicious that the government had orchestrated the whole thing primarily to get a big jump in public support coming even from those who suspected that the government was lying or trying to get away with something. Does it surprise you that the public might be so savvy? Look at this poll question that I and my colleagues asked the people of the U.S. in September 1990, when they knew that war with Iraq was likely as President George Bush1 assembled Gulf War troops for an invasion of Iraq.
"If a shooting war starts, do you think that the U.S. government would or would not tell us that Iraq has started it, when the U.S. had really launched the war?
Would tell us . . . . . . . . 47%
Would not tell us . . . . . .42%
Don't know, refused . . . 11%
Almost half the public knows that the U.S. government will lie to get the support it wants.
There are two big differences between the events 60 years apart. On Sept 11th, the perpetrators were quickly labeled by the US government as Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network, harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Well known to those following middle-east politics, Bin Laden and his large wealthy family had ties to the Bush family and were generally pro-U.S. After 9 months of arguably the world's greatest manhunt, Bin Laden has not been found and is deemed more-or-less dead. The reach of Al Qaida and other terrorist enemies has been described as vast (60,000 in 80 countries). Only a relative handful are identified at all, fewer still with much data.
Stories that make good copy, showing progress against Al Qaida are released by Bush's officials as needed. These often feature terrorists who, dead or locked away, cannot be questioned publicly. These stories pre-empt media attention and show the world that Bush's war tops all other priorities. They squash opposition and horror at bombing innocent civilians. After Sept 11, Bush declared the War on Terror, later elevated to a War Against Evil, asserting that other countries were "for or against the USA". It is hard to imagine victory in such a war.
In the Pearl Harbor attack the big differences were: (1) There was no doubt about the perpetrators, the armed forces of Japan and (2) The U.S. soon agreed on what would, and 45 months later did, end the war: unconditional surrender. The task was much more limited and clearer than Bush has now given the U.S. and foisted on the world.
Keeping a war going forever along with high public support is any U.S. President's dream. Keeping his plan on course is harder every day, but if he can do it, he can get his whole domestic agenda passed. Bush's agenda favors his corporate backers, centered around Big Oil, the military-industrial complex, automobiles and other early industrial sectors. Survey research has shown that U.S. people will fight valiantly, taking large casualties for years if they believe there is no other way. Research familiar to Bush's pollsters and reflected in Bush's behavior since 9/11 shows five conditions that a President must meet to get strong public approval for starting a war. He must make sure the public accepts that:
These poll results suggest that the public will not turn away from supporting Bush's war as long as the Bush team can meet these guidelines:
These guidelines predict how likely it will be for Bush to keep pursuing his war. Media can follow how well he keeps the above factors working for him. If the war becomes too costly or tough to pursue or if the U.S. people start to lose faith, Bush will have to phase out his War Against Evil.
|>>> 2.5 The Polling Critic|