Bush on PR offensive as elections loom

Foiled UK terror attempt helps US President as he plays security card.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush is on a public relations offensive. With less than 100 days to the mid-term elections, which are being seen as a referendum on his administration, the American leader is using the bully pulpit to canvass support for his Republican Party.

Under the intense glare of the media, he cut short his holiday and made a series of high-profile visits on Monday to the Pentagon and the State Department.

For almost half a day, he held meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective aides, to discuss a range of issues including Iraq, the Middle East and the war on terror.

The message to the public was crystal clear: The President of the United States was hard at work to protect American interests.

Indeed, this very much underscored his comments after meeting Mr Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

“It’s very important for the American people to know that we’re constantly thinking about how to secure the homeland, protect our interests and use all assets available to do our jobs,” said Mr Bush.

Republican loyalists disclosed that the success in foiling the London terror plot last week gave the Bush administration a “window of opportunity” to seize the momentum to register with the voters that they should rely on Republicans rather than Democrats.

Approval ratings for Mr Bush have been hovering in the low-to-mid-30s – the lowest in his tenure since the Hurricane Katrina debacle last year. His popularity has declined further with the US caught in a quagmire in Iraq.

The British arrests, however, is being portrayed as evidence that vigilance against terrorists by the Bush government is paying off. How this will affect those basing their campaigns on anti-Iraq war sentiments is less clear.

Over the weekend, a Newsweek poll suggested that his rating had increased by three percentage points since May to stand at 38 per cent. But corresponding polls since then have indicated that it had declined again.

The Republicans are bullish that they can turn the tide from the Democrats in November. Their polls indicate that national security issues still resonate strongly with their voter base.

“The situation is ripe for increasing the President’s political standing,” Republican strategist Hank Jones told The Straits Times.

“Bush could be riding on a wave of potential support. The London episode opened the door for the party to take the advantage ahead of the mid-term election.” Mr Jones said that with the Congress in recess for the next three weeks, it gave Mr Bush the opportunity to bolster his position and that of the party.

“Rather than fading into the background, he can go on the offensive where it will be difficult for the opposition in Congress to respond in a united way,” he said.

Last year, Mr Bush was criticised for being on vacation when Hurricane Katrina struck. Since then, his administration – which has been dogged by a series of problems at home and abroad – has been trying to play to the media gallery.

Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, a leading expert on US electoral politics and voter behaviour, argues that Mr Bush has been on a public relations offensive for the last few months.

“The administration made a conscious decision in becoming more assertive and getting the message out that he is in command,” he told The Straits Times.

“They are trying to make the best of what is not really a good situation for the Republican Party. Occasionally, they are handed a golden egg like the terrorist plot. It serves their cause and they strike harder to win over the public.”

Prof Patterson said that the PR campaign would become more pronounced in the next few months for the simple reason that Mr Bush was the chief fund raiser for the Republicans.

“He will increasingly be making appearances all over the country,” he said. “One appearance can mean a lot of money in the coffers of a Republican candidate.”

The Democrats, who need to gain 15 seats in the House of Representatives to seize control, are optimistic about their chances.

The Republicans maintain that the elections for 435 districts and 33 Senate seats will be fought on local issues.

The campaign season begins in earnest on Sept 4. Mr Bush is using the bully pulpit to get a head start.

“Bush could be riding on a wave of potential support. The London episode opened the door for the party to take the advantage.”
REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST HANK JONES

“The administration made a conscious decision in becoming more assertive and getting the message out that he is in command.”
HARVARD PROFESSOR THOMAS PATTERSON

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