Reporting on terror arrests in Britain, numerous media outlets ask: Will the news help Bush?

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER & ROB MORLINO

In the wake of the recent thwarting of an alleged terrorist plot in Britain, numerous media outlets have posed the question of whether news of the event would benefit President Bush, often letting conservatives or Republican officials spin the news in favor of the administration. Many of the reports neglected to consider whether the news could actually hurt Bush politically.

Since authorities in Britain recently arrested several suspects accused of plotting to attack U.S.-bound flights using liquid explosives, numerous media outlets have posed the question of whether news of the thwarted terror plot will benefit President Bush -- and in some cases, simply made the assertion that it does. Absent from many of those reports was any consideration of whether news of these arrests could actually hurt Bush politically -- because, for example, it might serve as a reminder of what Democrats say are failures by the Bush administration and Congress to implement the 9-11 Commission's recommendations on fighting terrorism. And of course, to make the assertion that the news benefits Bush is to dismiss the alternative possibility that a plot foiled in Britain will have no impact on partisan politics in the United States.

  • During a report titled "National Insecurity: How Vulnerable Are We?" the August 15 edition of ABC's Good Morning America quoted American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman J. Ornstein, who, referring to the recently uncovered terror plot, claimed that "having a national security scare is actually good political news for the president and the White House and the Republican Party." Without noting comments from other analysts, Good Morning America weekend anchor Kate Snow added that "Ornstein and other analysts say it's a tricky time to be a Democrat," because "[t]hey want to look tough on terrorism, too."
  • During the "All Star Panel" segment on the August 14 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Washington Examiner senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon claimed: "I think you have to give him [Bush] credit when they foil a terrorist plot," adding: "I think that the fact that Bush was touting this today was testament to the notion that things may have turned in his favor."
  • On the August 14 edition of Fox News Live, anchor Bridget Quinn asked Rice University political science professor Paul Brace if the recently foiled terror plot "could [] somehow help Republicans," adding that "[p]eople might say, 'Well, all right, maybe we're a little tired of the old administration, but you know what? They've kept us safe.' " Brace claimed that the issue of terrorism is the "only area" in which Bush "gets a majority approval" and added that it "is an issue that plays well for the president and, I think, Republicans."
  • On the August 13 edition of the NBC Nightly News, NBC Washington correspondent Rosalind Jordan presented a segment examining the question of whether the arrests would provide Bush with a boost in his ratings, given that "no matter what the president's overall job-approval rating, he's always polled best when it comes to homeland security." The segment quoted former 9-11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, from his appearance that morning on NBC's Meet the Press, saying "[W]e do not think that there has been sufficient urgency, priority, resources, people put into the protection of the people here at home." Nevertheless, the report concluded: "Political experts say it could take another week or so to figure out whether the arrests in the bombing plot are going to give a lift to the president and the Republican Party." At no point during the segment was the possibility raised that the arrests could hurt Bush's standing in the polls.
  • On the August 13 edition of ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopoulos cited polling that illustrated that more Americans trust Democrats than President Bush regarding efforts to combat terrorism. However, Stephanopoulos asked ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz if "the White House believes that the London plot is enough to turn those numbers around." Raddatz answered that the unveiled terror plot in London "certainly plays well into their strategy to focus again on national security."
  • An August 11 Baltimore Sun article titled "Arrests may boost GOP, analysts say," quoted only one "analyst" supporting the headline's claim. Sun reporter Paul West opened the article by noting that "Republican efforts to portray themselves as stronger than the Democrats on national security might have gotten a real-world boost with the unraveling of an alleged terror plot in London." West then quoted Pew Research pollster Andrew Kohut's agreement, asserting that the terror plot "puts a focus on the strong suits of the Bush administration." However, while later noting that voters "trusted Bush to keep the country safe" in the 2004 presidential election, West then quoted Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who added: "I don't think most Americans believe that anymore."
  • On the August 11 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly asked Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons if "the president's poll numbers are going to rise after the arrests in London." O'Reilly later asserted that Bush "owns the terror issue, because there is no Democrat right now ... that really has articulated a strong, specific way to deal with worldwide terrorism."
  • Discussing the thwarted terror plot during the "All-Star Panel" segment on the August 10 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Washington Post columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum asserted that "President Bush will get a lot of political credit for working so closely with the British to stop" the alleged terror plot in London.

Three major polls have been conducted and released since British authorities revealed the terror plot on August 10. An August 12 Newsweek poll found that 55 percent of those polled approve of Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security, which was, as Newsweek noted, "an 11-point boost since May." The poll also found that Bush's overall approval rating had increased 3 percentage points from 35 percent to 38 percent (his disapproval is at 55 percent). The poll's margin of error was 3 percentage points. The Newsweek poll also found that 51 percent of registered voters polled said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their own congressional district, while 39 percent said they would vote Republican, results that, according to Newsweek, remained "basically unchanged from an 11-point Democratic advantage in March and May." A CBS News poll conducted August 11-13 showed no change in the percentage of respondents who approved of Bush's performance on terrorism, with an increase of 1 percentage point among those who disapprove of his job on terrorism -- within the 3-percentage-point margin of error -- since CBS' last poll in July. The August CBS poll found that 51 percent of those polled approve of Bush's handling of terrorism, while 43 percent disapprove; the poll's figures from July were 51 percent and 42 percent, respectively. Finally, a Gallup poll conducted August 7-10 and released August 15 found that Bush's approval rating had remained essentially unchanged at 37 percent; the Gallup poll has shown Bush's approval alternating between 37 percent and 40 percent in its five most recent polls. The Gallup organization also noted: "It is unclear what impact the recent terrorism developments will have on Bush's public support, though the initial indications are that it will not help much."

From the August 15 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

ORNSTEIN: Right now, having a national security scare is actually good political news for the president and the White House and the Republican Party.

SNOW: Ornstein and other analysts say it's a tricky time to be a Democrat. They want to look tough on terrorism, too. Of course, Robin, congressional elections just weeks away now

From the August 14 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

JIM ANGLE (guest host): Well, Bill, even if you don't like the war in Iraq, one thing that was sort of odd about this is that a lot of critics jumped past the fact that we foiled this plot -- that intelligence was able to disrupt it -- and immediately looked for some other lesson in this thing. The president seems to be saying, "The lesson is that good intelligence works, and that things like the terrorist surveillance program and the terrorist financing program, and all of those things seem to work for disrupting terrorist plots."

SAMMON: Yeah. In fact, President Bush today, unprompted, brought up the terrorist surveillance program and the Patriot Act. Now, that tells you that that's a political winner for him, at least in his perception. And you know, we all beat up on President Bush when he made miscalculations about Iraq and when things go badly in Iraq, but I think you have to give him credit when they foil a terrorist plot and that's actually a good thing. I mean, Bush and Blair must feel sometimes like they can't win for losing. You know, you foil a plot and, "Oh, it's because you started the chain of events that caused the plot," you know.

So I think that the fact that Bush was touting this today was testament to the notion that things may have turned in his favor. And that coupled with the -- when he talked about the events of the last week, he's also alluding to the Lamont victory which clarified the choice between Republicans and Democrats by making Democrats look more like the anti-war party.

From the August 14 edition of Fox News Live:

QUINN: But about the terror plot, could that somehow help Republicans? People might say, "Well, all right, maybe we're a little tired of the old administration, but you know what? They've kept us safe."

BRACE: Well, the only area where President Bush gets a majority approval is in his handling of terrorism, and that jumped 11 percent in one poll after the uncovering of the terror plot. So this is an issue that plays well for the president, and I think the Republicans were quick to become unified behind the president after that terror plot was uncovered. Specifically, there is an effort to try to equate being tough in Iraq with being tough on terrorism, and if you're not tough on Iraq, perhaps you're not tough on terrorism and Americans are concerned about terrorism. But I'd also add, that the Iraq war still comes out as the number one issue in most polls when people are asked what's the most important thing to them right now.

From the August 13 broadcast of the NBC Nightly News:

JOHN SEIGENTHALER (anchor): Turning now to the politics of terror and the renewed focus on national security issues here at home since last week's arrests in Great Britain. With more now we go to the White House and NBC's Rosalind Jordan. Good evening, Ros.

JORDAN: Good evening, John. You know, no matter what the president's overall job-approval rating, he's always polled best when it comes to homeland security. But will that be enough to help him and his party in the midterm elections?

[begin video clip]

JORDAN: President Bush, back at the White House today after a 10-day working vacation in Texas, now facing three immediate security issues: fallout from the foiled London terror plot, and continued violence in Lebanon and Iraq. But the security challenges may also present a political opening for Mr. Bush.

STUART ROTHENBERG (editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report): It gives the president and his party an opportunity to broaden the discussion about the war against terror and that could benefit to their advantage.

JORDAN: NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook says the president has already paid a heavy political price for the Iraq war.

COOK: The biggest thing is that there was a time when President Bush had an enormous amount of credibility on national security issues, and bit by bit by bit, the war in Iraq has eroded that credibility.

JORDAN: The debate played out on the Sunday-morning talk shows.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-KS): We passed an intelligence reform bill about a year or two ago. I think the DNI's [director of national intelligence] doing a good job. As I say, FBI, CIA, DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], NSA [National Security Agency], they're all working much better together and jointly with our allies.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): The focus and the resources are for doing all we can for homeland protection has been diverted.

JORDAN: Politics aside, the former chairmen of the 9-11 Commission, appearing exclusively today on NBC's Meet The Press, said the nation needs to do more to defend the homeland.

LEE HAMILTON (former vice chairman, 9-11 Commission): And we do not think that there has been sufficient urgency, priority, resources, people put into the protection of the people here at home.

JORDAN: NBC's David Gregory asked, are we safer five years after 9-11?

THOMAS KEAN (former chairman, 9-11 Commission): I think we're safer, but we're not safe. Still a number of things we should be doing that we're not doing. And this should be a wake-up call.

[end video clip]

JORDAN: Political experts say it could take another week or so to figure out whether the arrests in the bombing plot are going to give a lift to the president and the Republican Party. But as one expert put it today, John, "You know, something else could happen that could make everyone forget about last week's arrests." John.

From the August 13 edition of ABC's This Week:

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get back to the politics of all this. We saw two big political events this week. Obviously, the primary in Connecticut and then the political implications of the London terror plot, and clearly it seemed that the White House thought that this could be a turning point, the London terror plot. You saw Vice President [Dick] Cheney. You saw Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman going straight out and really hitting this point hard on national security. Yet, in the two days before this came out we had an ABC poll that showed actually that more Americans disapprove than approved of President Bush in the fight against terrorism, and trusted Democrats to handle the war on terror. And the question I have, Martha, is do you believe and do you think the White House believes that the London plot is enough to turn those numbers around?

RADDATZ: Well, I think they certainly hope it's enough to turn them around, and that -- and I think you'll hear for weeks and weeks and weeks the focus on terrorism, the focus on the fact that this plot was interrupted and as you said just before that, they were very worried about this, this certainly plays well into their strategy to focus again on national security.

From the August 11 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: "Back of the Book" segment tonight, at the top of the program White House spokesman Tony Snow forcefully said that his party has the right formula to protect Americans against terror. Of course, Democrats disagree. Joining us from Jacksonville, Florida, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. Do you think the president's poll numbers are going to rise after the arrests in London? Dick Morris said they're going to go up 10 points next week. He's usually pretty accurate. Do you believe that?

[...]

O'REILLY: But you have basically the Democrats who are saying that the Bush administration is encouraging terrorism by the Iraq situation, that it doesn't know how to deal with it. And then you have the Republicans who say, "Look, Democrats don't have any plan at all. And the president's forceful cooperation and forceful anti-terror rhetoric is what is needed." You know, I'm going to be really fascinated to see those polls next week. I think he's going to go above 40. I don't know if it's going to be 10. But I do think that the president owns the terror -- he owns the terror issue, because there is no Democrat right now, and you can point to one if you'd like, that really has articulated a strong, specific way to deal with worldwide terrorism.

From the August 10 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BIRNBAUM: Well, I think that we would have figured it out after a little while, but it is astonishing and scary what might have happened. Clearly there'll be a lot of kudos to go around, the British in particular. I think President Bush will get a lot of political credit for working so closely with the British to stop this. And it -- but it also points out what we don't know. How many more of these plots are there out there? And it does show how vulnerable we are to international terrorism. Separate completely from the issue of the war in Iraq, I think.

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