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Interview with Allen Lichtman - 2002-01-31


DAVID BORGIDA: Many Americans watched President Bush's speech - I know I did - and you can be sure our guest today also did. He is American University Professor Allen Lichtman, a regular on our program and a keen observer of the Washington political scene. Professor Lichtman, thanks for joining us.

PROF. LICHTMAN: My pleasure.

DAVID BORGIDA: The President was interrupted some 74 times, I think, last night, a sure demonstration that members on both sides seemed to like what he was saying. What was the key to the successful style and treatment of this speech, do you think?

PROF. LICHTMAN: The key to this speech was his emphasis on the war against terrorism and the protection of the homeland. Those are goals around which all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, can rally. George Bush delivered this speech with a bang, not with a whimper. He was very forceful, and he told the American people and the world that we are going to resolutely pursue the fight against terrorism, no matter how long it's going to take and no matter where it's going to take us. And he named names. He singled out North Korea, he singled out Iran, and, most forcefully, he singled out Iraq, as part of an axis of evil, kind of reminiscent of Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." And the big question before America and the world today, the day after the speech is: Is he preparing us for an extension of the war, perhaps to Iraq, or is he simply keeping his options open and putting pressure on these nations?

DAVID BORGIDA: Well, it certainly sounded like that. Because at one point he said, I will not wait on events while dangers gather. It sounded a bit scary for the average American, don't you think?

PROF. LICHTMAN: It was a very chilling and somber speech, and a very significant one. He told the American people, we are still quite vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and perhaps attacks that could be even more devastating than the September 11th attack, attacks that could involve biological, even nuclear, weapons. And he has indicated quite forcefully that he is going to follow his own course here. He is not necessarily going to be swayed by international public opinion or international pressures. And I think the American people right now are ready to follow the President wherever this war might lead. And of course an attack on Iraq would involve far greater implications, militarily and diplomatically, than what went on in Afghanistan.
DAVID BORGIDA: And he is calling for a very substantial increase in homeland defense spending and defense spending in general. Do the Democrats and Republicans, in your view, agree to this or, with the congressional election year coming up, is this going to be a problem?

PROF. LICHTMAN: Look, Washington runs on two things: fear and greed. And right now everyone in Washington is fearful of a President whose approval ratings have stayed pretty steadily over 80 percent. They're not going to be able to challenge the President on defense spending or spending for homeland security, even though he really didn't tell us where the money is going to come from. Where the real political battles lie is on tax policy, on policy towards welfare programs and social programs, like Medicare and Social Security, not on homeland defense or the military.

DAVID BORGIDA: Let's talk about that a little bit also, because in the speech he spoke much about terrorism but also about the economy. We are indeed in a recession, and members on both sides, and indeed the average American citizen, are concerned about the economy. Is that a potential political vulnerability for him in the months ahead?

PROF. LICHTMAN: The economy always matters. Bill Clinton had a sign on his 1992 campaign office "It's the economy, stupid," and it always is. His father went from 90 percent approval ratings down to 40 and below because of a sour economy. No President has ever been reelected in a recessionary economy. George Bush knows that. The big question is: Does he have the right remedies for the economy? He is counting a great deal on tax cuts. Democrats are stoutly resisting the idea of additional tax cuts. They would prefer more money to be spent on social programs. But neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, in this time of budget deficits as opposed to surpluses, really have the answer as to where the money is going to come from for defense, homeland security and vital domestic needs.

DAVID BORGIDA: Let's talk for about the minute that we have left - we've gotten a little bit of your views on domestic issues and the economy - the President, though, in terms of style and just getting across his message to Americans, it seems to really be resonating. What in your view is the heart of his success in making his case to the American people?

PROF. LICHTMAN: It's very simple. This is a new George Bush. You can see it in his eyes. At times before September 11th, his eyes were like window panes. Now they're clearly focused. He has found the mission and he has found the purpose of his presidency. And that is to protect us from terror and to pursue the war against terror. And those are goals around which everyone can unite. And he is forceful in saying that. Look, he has said the war is beginning, it's going to last through my entire first term and maybe beyond. This is a President who knows how to focus. He's now focused.
DAVID BORGIDA: A President who knows how to focus, George W. Bush, the views of Professor Allen Lichtman, of American University. Thank you, Professor, for joining us.

PROF. LICHTMAN: Thanks, David.

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