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At Home Abroad

This was supposed to be the "domestic issues" State of the Union address. In his January 2002 speech, President Bush dwelled on the war in Afghanistan. Last January, he dwelled on the war in Iraq. This year, his aides told reporters, he would turn to the home front, beginning the speech with national security and building to a domestic policy crescendo.

It's not hard to understand why. Since he took office, President Bush's popularity has swung largely along a single axis: When national security predominates, it goes up; when domestic policy predominates, it goes down. On September 9, 2001, Bush's approval rating, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, was 55 percent. Two days after the September 11 attacks, it had spiked to 86 percent. Throughout 2002, as the war on terrorism gradually receded as an issue, Bush's approval rating steadily dropped. By January 20, 2003, it was back down to 59 percent.

It shot back up during the Iraq war, peaking at 77 percent on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell. And, since then, with Iraq no longer dominating the headlines, it has dropped again. Since last fall, Bush's approval rating has hovered between 53 and 59 percent.

Those numbers are not bad. But, in the ten months until Election Day, national security could recede even further. In 2003, President Bush stanched his slide in popularity with a foreign policy second act: Iraq. Today, by contrast, the White House is busy getting Iraq off the front page. It is willing to compromise on almost any aspect of the occupation, it seems, except its June 30 deadline to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government, the starting gun for the withdrawal of American troops.

National security's declining political salience has already reshaped the race for the Democratic nomination. Last summer, when Iraq dominated headlines, Iowa's dovish Democrats flocked to Howard Dean—the one major candidate then making opposition to the war his central theme. But, as the war receded as a litmus test, John Kerry—whose muddled position on Iraq hurt him last year—began to rise. So did John Edwards, arguably the most domestic-policy-oriented of the major candidates. This Monday, three-fourths of caucus goers still said they opposed the war. But they were four times more likely to cite domestic issues as their top priority than to cite Iraq on national security. According to the Edison/Mitofsky Iowa Democratic Caucus poll, caucus goers who prioritized Iraq favored Dean by eight points over Kerry and 28 points over Edwards. But, among the much larger number who prioritized the economy and jobs, Dean trailed Edwards by 17 points and Kerry by 18.

This public shift toward domestic policy could cause President Bush some of the same headaches it is causing Dean. Ever since taking office, the Bush administration has labored to blunt the Democrats' traditional advantage on domestic issues. But this week's ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests those efforts have largely failed. The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to give the GOP an edge on education. But, if anything, it has done the opposite. According to ABC and the Post, the 19-point advantage on the issue that Bush enjoyed on September 9, 2001, four months before the law was signed, has now turned into a one-point Democratic advantage. The prescription-drug benefit Bush signed last December was supposed to eliminate this key Democratic talking point. But the Democrats today enjoy a 16-point lead on prescription drugs, larger than in April 2003, before the bill was passed. In June 2001, respondents were seven points more likely to trust Bush on taxes than the Democrats. Today, that has turned into a three-point Democratic lead. Even the improving economy hasn't given Bush a partisan boost. The president led by ten points on the issue in April 2003 but now trails by seven points. In fact, respondents preferred the Democrats on every domestic issue discussed in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll.

All of which brings us back to the State of the Union, which—coming two weeks after Bush's big immigration proposal—was supposed to highlight the president's domestic policy vision. It didn't. Bush began by calling the United States "a nation called to great responsibilities." And, on foreign policy, the themes were indeed large: Afghanistan and Iraq as beachheads for a transformed, democratic Middle East. But, when the president turned to the home front, the responsibilities didn't seem very great at all. Hemmed in by a conservative base suspicious of government activism and a budget deficit that leaves little room for new spending initiatives, Bush laid out proposals so trivial they made Bill Clinton's famed micro-initiatives seem bold by comparison. There was a call for associated health plans, which would allow small businesses to band together to buy health care. Bush said the country could improve medical treatment by "computerizing health records." He called for a "grassroots campaign to help inform families" about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases among teens. He offered a whopping $300 million over four years for job training among ex-prisoners. And, with Tom Brady in the audience, he denounced the use of steroids in professional sports.

The speech didn't even end with domestic policy, as advertised. Seeking some rhetorical lift, the president closed with the only topic that could provide it: the war on terrorism. "Our nation is strong and steadfast," he said in his final paragraph. "The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable, and it is not carried forward by our power alone." Summing up the reaction of a Toledo, Ohio, focus group immediately following the speech, CNN reporter Jeff Flock said, "The sense is they heard too much foreign policy stuff, too much war, too much terrorism. They want to hear about the issues that impact them."

Perhaps President Bush doesn't need a compelling domestic agenda to win a second term. In 2002, after all, the GOP won without one. The war on terrorism remains enormously politically potent, and it dramatically favors the GOP. But, if it genuinely fades as an issue and Bush is left to campaign on the domestic vision outlined in this Tuesday's State of the Union, the presidential race could change in dramatic, unexpected ways. Just ask Howard Dean. 

This article originally ran in the February 2, 2004, issue of the magazine.