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Monday, 11 March, 2002, 00:45 GMT
Bush rides high in the polls
George W Bush with a NYC firefighter
Bush finds the direct approach works best
test hello test
By Paul Reynolds
BBC World Affairs correspondent in Washington
line
For all his bumbling, President George W Bush has managed to find a way of talking to the American people - still in a kind of shock six months on - which has kept his popularity ratings high.

In the last Gallup poll 77% gave him their approval, slightly lower than he has been, but - post-11 September - he remained at over 80% longer than any other president since Gallup polls started in the 1930s.


Mr Bush fought back tears and hugged a grieving mother - it was all captured on television and was very effective at a time of public need

He has largely silenced his critics at home. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle commented recently and unfavourably on the lack of an endgame in the "war on terror" but had to shut up soon afterwards when nobody agreed with him.

The coincidence of renewed fighting in Afghanistan - the closest combat yet between American troops and al-Qaeda fighters - with the six months mark after 11 September, is a sharp reminder to Americans and everyone else that this business is not finished.

Indeed, there is a sense that battle has at last been joined - a feeling that if al-Qaeda was not being engaged in the mountains of Afghanistan, it might have to be fought in the streets of New York.

Talking directly

And most Americans feel that, so far at least, Mr Bush has done pretty well and far better than many expected or feared.

B-2 stealth bomber
The Afghan campaign demonstrated the power of the US armed forces
He has done this by two means. First, he found his voice and, second, he found successful policies.

George Bush is not a good public speaker. In a prepared script, he gets wooden. But when he talks directly to people, he scores. He did that in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days after the attack when he shouted to the firefighters that he could hear them.

And he has just done it in Florida when a routine visit to support his brother Jeb, who is running to be governor of the state again, turned into an emotional public encounter with the families of two of the soldiers killed in the latest action.

Mr Bush fought back tears and hugged a grieving mother. It was all captured on television and was very effective at a time of public need. And it was genuine.

Criticism subsides

Beyond this, though, the solid platform for his popularity has been the success of his policies. The removal of the Taleban and the disruption of al-Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan went amazingly well.

Osama Bin Laden
No-one knows how and when al-Qaeda will strike back
Even the criticism of the bombing, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, has subsided. The campaign demonstrated the power of the US armed forces. The US Air Force is now like the Royal Navy in the 19th century, able to project its power anywhere it wants.

Nobody knows how and when al-Qaeda will hit back, as it surely will. But Americans now seem ready for this possibility - probability - as they were not ready for 11 September.

The mood in America remains determined. It is almost martial at times. Flags remain draped on buildings. The veteran CBS newscaster Dan Rather almost broke down at the end of one evening news as he spoke of the soldiers who had died in the fighting.

What next?

People have little time for critics abroad. This may not be an attractive feature of American public opinion, but it is a fact.

And having come through his first test, George Bush now faces another - what to do next in his war.

It is, after all, not confined to Afghanistan. There is a belief that he has decided in principle to do what his father did not do after the Gulf War - get rid of Saddam Hussein.

But such a prospect raises not just hopes among Iraqis who would love to remove Saddam - it raises fears around the world that the next phase could get out of hand.

Mr Bush has still not entirely thrown off his image of a gunfighter.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jane Standley
"Alongside the anger, the grief"
The BBC's Philippa Thomas
reports as George W Bush visits the former site of the World Trade Center
President George W Bush
"Today we express our nation's sorrow"
See also:

15 Sep 01 | Americas
Bush rallies New York
14 Sep 01 | Americas
In pictures: Bush visits ground zero
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