Almost exactly 20 years ago, an American president once ridiculed as a “wimp” stood triumphant, having vanquished a Middle Eastern villain. Crowds flocked to Lower Manhattan, their hands caressing incomprehensibly oversized American flags that waved patriotic good feelings over the country and lifted the president’s approval rating to 88 per cent. Two years later, he was out of a job.
Few of the students who crowded the streets around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death were alive in 1991. But those inside the White House can remember, and in their post-champagne sobering the cautionary tale of George HW Bush, celebrated commander-in-chief of the first Persian Gulf War turned one-term president, will likely be recalled with great clarity.
Bush lost his re-election to Bill Clinton not because Americans changed their opinion about his Gulf War success but because urgent domestic concerns pushed Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait out of their minds. Then, as now, a lingering recession carried the day, and the fact that the president seemed short on solutions — and often appeared detached from the challenges of those out of work — was the issue that mattered most by the time voters went to the polls in November 1992.
Voters don’t have short memories as much as they tend to reward past success only when it is a useful indicator of future performance. In 2004, Bush’s son benefited from having toppled Saddam Hussein because it attested to a tough-nosed foreign policy at a time when Americans were worried about their security. Terrorism is today ever more an abstraction to voters — it’s been a decade since the last large-scale attack within the United States — and public opinion had started to rally around the idea that US commitment to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan had become a waste of lives and resources.
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