President Bush's Reelection Challenge

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, September 2, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: President Bush may have a head start against his eventual Democratic opponent as both a popular leader and the incumbent, but it will take a lot more than that to win re-election, especially now that his poll numbers are slipping.

Deborah Orin (search) is the Washington bureau chief of the New York Post. Ms. Orin, that's today's big question. What is or what should be the Bush re-election strategy?

DEBORA ORIN, NEW YORK POST: Well, I think the Bush re-election strategy is pretty clear. It's to convince the American people that the economy is getting better and that his tax cuts and his policies are the reason why, and to convince the American people that things are going better in Iraq. And perhaps also to explain maybe a little better than he has recently his belief that fighting terrorists in Iraq makes us safer at home, since Democrats are now starting to say it makes us more at risk.

GIBSON: What difference does it make in just pure re-election terms, not any other consideration, that we're losing two or three Americans, or four or five a week in Iraq right now?

ORIN: Well, I think part of it is cable news. Every death is reported, and it's sort of the drip, drip, drip. And every death is a tragedy. There's no question about it.

On the other hand, it is also true that on Sept. 11, we lost 3,000 people. We lost 343 firemen, none of whom were enlisted in the military. So it's a very delicate balance because it is impossible to say to a family that's grieving that we're losing relatively few people, because if you are the person who lost someone, you have lost everything. And because of the immediacy of cable, we each feel those deaths in a much more personal way, even though in historic terms, the death toll is relatively small.

GIBSON: What about the issue that is getting raised by a lot of people, even some conservatives and certainly some of the retired military people, that the post-war was planned badly, is going badly, that we're cheaping out, that we're not putting enough people there?

ORIN: … something like this is a very complex situation. It cannot be perfectly managed. Things do go wrong, are going wrong. On the other hand, a lot of the things that we were bracing for — thousands of casualties, tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees, open ethnic warfare, attacks on Israel — none of that actually happened.

We look back in hindsight. There were problems in the occupation of Germany after World War II also, but we didn't have television then, and we certainly didn't have cable news. So the attacks on Americans by the Nazi underground after World War II weren't a daily drip, drip, drip in the news. It's just a different environment.

GIBSON: … I was talking to [Tony Coelho (search)] about Bush's re-election situation. And he characterized Bush's situation right now as a disaster. And he said, look, "We've got the world angry at us. All our friends are angry at us. We have no more global cooperation."

Do you think Americans care about whether or not France, Germany, to name just a couple, are with us or not?

ORIN: Well, I think maybe we don't care about France as much. And certainly after 11,000 people there died in a heat wave, I think the French have lost the right to claim the moral high ground on anything. I mean, just imagine what the French would be saying if a similar tragedy had happened in the United States.

But I think it's also true that the Bush White House has done a rather poor job of portraying the cooperation that we do have. It simply isn't true that nobody likes us around the world, that we have no allies around the world, that no one respects Bush.

We do have allies. There are a lot of world leaders who like and respect Bush. But the White House has not been doing a very good job of presenting it. The Democrats have done, I think at this point, a better job of presenting their case.

GIBSON: How does the economy play? We're seeing Howard Dean (search), who is sort of the leading Bush basher, and there is John Kerry (search). How does the economy play? There are signs that the economy is picking up, and yet we know joblessness is still a problem for those people without a job or have lost a job. How does that work for and against the president?

ORIN: I think most analysts think that the real issue is whether people are hopeful. In other words, by this time next year or by the start of next summer, people have to have a feeling that the economy is definitely on an up trend and that there's a certain amount of security. To be coldly political about it, it is also true that many of the people who are without jobs would not vote in any event. And so the concern in an election is probably more with people in the middle class who have jobs and who are afraid of losing them.

And for them, it isn't that they're out of work. It's that they worry about whether they might be out of work or whether somebody they know might be out of work. So that's why it's the trend line whether people feel optimistic that's going to matter.

GIBSON: To be coldly political, using your phrase, what if there's another terror attack? Do people say, “Ah, the President is right. We're still at war,” or do they say, “Oops, he couldn't stop this. We're going to blame him?”

ORIN: I think there's no way to know. I think it's sort of interesting. If you asked most people on Sept.12, 2001 would they feel much relieved if two years later there had not been another major terror attack against the United States, that the closest thing to an attack on an airliner — the shoe bomber — had actually been overpowered by passengers who had a new sense of how to protect themselves, I think people would have said that it would be wonderful to imagine that wouldn't happen.

We've reached just about that point. It hasn't happened, but it's interesting. We really have attention deficit disorder in this country. It's sort of, “What did you do for me lately,” and I think maybe it's a good sign, in the sense that we have come back from the trauma so much in the past two years that people now are sort of fretting in a way that you couldn't have imagined right after the 9/11 attacks.

GIBSON: Deborah Orin, Washington bureau chief of the New York Post. Deborah, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

ORIN: Thank you.

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