As 9/11 memories fade so does Bush's luster

Support: Residents of Scranton, Pa., still praise the president, but they're worried about the economy and a possible war.

January 16, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SCRANTON, Pa. - At a booth inside Abe's deli, where Sanford Cohen and two friends gather every Wednesday morning for eggs, hash browns and bagels, a unanimous opinion was offered up a year ago: President Bush is doing a fine job.

But times are different now. Cohen, a staunch Republican, still backs the president. His two pals, once pleased by Bush's forceful response to the Sept. 11 attacks, are convinced that he is too eager to attack Iraq and to enact a tax cut favoring the wealthy. Even Cohen has doubts.

"I'll vote for him again," the 73-year-old retired businessman said. "But I'm worried he is following the footsteps of his father, who was great at foreign policy but didn't pay enough attention to the home front."

Here in Scranton, where Bush will visit a hospital today and speak about the escalating costs of medical malpractice insurance, opinions culled from about two dozen random interviews reflect trends in national polls. In a Gallup survey taken last weekend, Bush's approval rating sank to 58 percent, its lowest point in 16 months and well below 90 percent, where it had peaked soon after the terrorist attacks.

Support for Bush still remains strong compared with ratings for many of his predecessors as they entered their third year in office. For months, even as voters offered only tepid support for his agenda, Bush sustained his popularity largely because people were impressed by his response to the terrorist attacks and by his leadership style.

But in discussions with Democrats and Republicans in Scranton, the glowing praise for Bush as a commanding and reassuring figure has been replaced by concerns about the economy and fears that a war in Iraq could provoke anti-American fervor - and perhaps, more terrorist attacks at home.

Perceptions

Though far from a scientific sample, Cohen's table at a Scranton eatery helps illustrate how perceptions of Bush are evolving and why overall support for him could be fading as the Sept. 11 attacks slip further into memory.

Scranton is crucial turf for Bush and for anyone else running for president. It is heavily Catholic and blue-collar. It is also full of swing voters, especially socially conservative Democrats who sometimes favor Republican candidates opposed to abortion. This is a swing district in a swing state that Bush has visited 17 times as president and that he lost narrowly to then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

As in many areas of the country, concerns are deepening in this struggling city in the Pocono Mountains that more factory jobs will be lost without a robust economic recovery. Pennsylvania's outgoing Republican governor leaves a budget deficit, estimated to top $1 billion, that could lead to service cuts or higher state taxes.

Bush is mindful that his father's re-election was doomed in part by the view that he could not identify with economic woes of average Americans, so he has worked hard to seem fully engaged in efforts to produce a rebound.

But here, even those who voted for Bush in 2000 say they are skeptical about his new $670 billion tax-cut plan, which the president says will stimulate the economy and ensure long-term economic health. While Cohen says he still backs Bush, he says the tax cut is unlikely to lift the economy much and offers little relief to seniors like himself.

Al Kane, a member of Cohen's breakfast club and a registered Republican, backed Ralph Nader, a third-party presidential candidate, in 2000. But after the president "pulled the country together" after the terrorist attacks, Kane said, he envisioned voting for Bush the next time.

"But now I think his tax philosophy is terrible," Kane said, referring to a plan to accelerate income-tax cuts, expand the child-tax credit and abolish the tax on corporate dividends that shareholders pay. He also complained that Bush had not produced clear evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.

"I just hesitate to send American troops into a situation where they may lose their lives for reasons that are not concrete," Kane said.

Tim Slowey, the 41-year-old chef-manager at Abe's and a Democrat who voted for Bush over Gore, said he and his wife have a combined income of $44,000 and could have $1,000 more in their pockets this year if Congress enacts Bush's tax-cut plan.

Tax proposal

But Slowey said he thinks the president's plan disproportionately favors the wealthy, is unlikely to boost consumer spending as much as Bush suggests and would do little to energize the economy.

"Yeah, it's $1,000 for me, but what's that going to do?" Slowey said. "It is $10,000 for the bank president down the road, and he's going to throw the money into CDs. He's not going to go out and buy anything."

Slowey said he still admires Bush's leadership style and expects to vote for him next year, mostly "because I don't see anybody who can take charge among the Democrats - nobody has emerged."

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