Incumbency proves powerful under threat

AP News Analysis

Posted: Monday, August 09, 2004

WASHINGTON The war on terrorism is a dominant issue in the campaign for the White House and has been one of President Bush's strongest issues. By acting quickly on a proposed intelligence overhaul, he signaled a determination to protect that advantage.

Bush urged Congress last Monday to create the post of national intelligence director, a recommendation in last month's Sept. 11 commission's report.

The report has gained political potency heading toward the November elections, and Bush and John Kerry have been maneuvering to gain advantage.

Bush has a huge edge. While Kerry's platform is that of the Democratic presidential nominee, Bush has the presidency and the Rose Garden.

''It's a reminder that it isn't easy to run against an incumbent president,'' said Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein. ''From the political standpoint, this is the president taking the initiative, being pre-emptive, continuing to seek to establish that he's got the high ground on national security and the war against terror.''

Never mind that Bush resisted creation of the Sept. 11 in the first place, as well as establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. His fast call to action this time was widely seen as politically adept and threw up obstacles to Kerry's nomination victory lap.

Kerry aides privately complained that terror warnings over the weekend about finance-sector threats in New York and Washington and Bush's announcement last Monday essentially sapped some of their post-convention momentum.

Kerry has struggled to keep pace with the politics of terrorism. He had considered using his acceptance address in Boston to demand that Bush call Congress into special session to implement the Sept. 11 Commission's plans, but the idea was scrapped at the last minute in part because some in the campaign feared it would look too political.

Thus, Kerry was forced to react last Monday to Bush's Rose Garden address, which included some slaps at the Democratic nominee, and to belatedly offer his proposal for a special session.

Campaigning in Michigan, Kerry was asked last Monday if he would break from campaigning to participate in such a session. ''When necessary to vote, when necessary to debate, I would,'' he said.

Instead of riding the crest of a wave from the convention in Boston, Kerry found himself on the defensive.

Bush generally holds a double-digit lead in polls on the subject of which candidate would do a better job of handling the campaign against terrorism.

In his White House remarks, Bush picked the commission words he would focus on.

''The commission on the terrorist attacks upon the United States came to a conclusion that I share: that our country is safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, yet we're still not safe,'' Bush said.

He said the new intelligence director would be appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation, but would not be a member of the Cabinet, nor work in the White House.

The Sept. 11 commission had called for a Cabinet-level intelligence director within the White House. ''I think it should be a stand-alone group to better coordinate,'' Bush said.

Currently, the CIA director not only heads his own agency but also oversees the U.S. intelligence community, which has grown to 15 agencies.

But the director has neither budgetary authority nor day-to-day operational control of the other agencies, most of which are in the Defense Department. A national intelligence director would oversee all the agencies.

Democrats complained that Bush's proposals did not go far enough. Kerry has generally endorsed the commission's report as written.

Dan Goure, a military analyst with the nonpartisan Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based public policy group, said that accepting in totality the commission's proposals would have led to an unwieldy intelligence ''czar'' in the Cabinet.

Bush's move ''is not only smart politically, it's wise in terms of governance, because these are important steps to take and he's avoiding some of the major pitfalls that could be associated with the 9/11 commission recommendations,'' Goure said.

In the end, he predicted, Congress will ''essentially give him what he wants.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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