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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 03:23 GMT 04:23 UK
Analysis: President's private testimony

By Rob Watson
BBC Washington correspondent

George W Bush and Dick Cheney
Double act: Sceptics wonder why two are better than one
When President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney appear before the 9/11 commission on Thursday, it will be in private, with no cameras and no transcripts.

The fact that the president and vice-president will be appearing together has been a gift from heaven to political satirists, with one cartoonist depicting Dick Cheney as the ventriloquist and George W Bush as his dummy.

It has also prompted some awkward questions for the president - including the obvious: Why does Dick Cheney have to be there too?

"It's a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 commission is looking forward to asking us, and I'm looking forward to answering," President Bush said recently during a rare prime time press conference.

One of the Democrats on the commission, former Congressman Tim Roemer, told me he wasn't that bothered about the unusual double billing, but he insisted he would have some tough questions for the president.

He wants to know whether terrorism was a priority in the Bush administration and whether Mr Bush personally spent enough time on terrorism.

There has already been one witness, former counter-terrorism chief Dick Clarke, who has alleged that fighting al-Qaeda was not as big of a priority for the Bush administration as it was for the Clinton administration.

And Mr Roemer agrees with that assertion.

"I believe that this could have been a higher, more urgent priority. Could that have changed the outcome of 9/11? I don't know. I will reach that conclusion at the end of the day," he added.

Re-election worries

The president won't be going unprepared. Bush administration officials say he has been extensively briefed for his appearance by senior White House officials and lawyers.

People have become very sceptical of what the Bush administration knew before 9/11
Dottie Lynch
Senior pollster for the CBS network
But what is just as likely to save him from any awkward moments, according to Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution, is that none of it will happen in public.

"I don't really see any danger. It's a private session. There will leaks on both sides, probably neutralising one another," Mr Mann said. The commission's conclusions are what will matter and whether the commission finds the president bears any responsibility for 9/11, he said, adding: "But for now, the testimony will come and soon be forgotten."

That said, opinion polls suggest the hearings already held by the commission have started to take their toll.

Dottie Lynch, the senior pollster for the CBS network, says the American people are now decidedly less trusting.

"In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, they were very positive. It was a time of national unity," she said.

"But since then, people have become very sceptical of what the Bush administration knew before 9/11. Our recent poll show that 72% believe that they are either hiding something about what they knew or lying outright about what they knew about 9/11," she added.

Most worryingly of all perhaps for the president's re-election campaign, the same poll suggests the 9/11 hearings and the drip of bad news from Iraq are now chipping away at what until now has been the president's strongest suit with the voters - their faith in him to wage and win the war on terrorism.

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