Tonight's speech may very well be the most important in George W. Bush's career. His overall approval rating is only 39% and he has slipped down under 50% approval among key groups that were part of his overall coalition: married voters, investors, gun owners, veterans, Red State voters and so on. His approval on the war in Iraq is only 34% -- and it includes 88% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans who oppose him on the war.
His one area of strength? The 46% who approve of his handling of the war on terrorism. But in November 2004 he was between 64% and 67% positive on this issue.
So the President is in trouble and he needs to go back to the play that has won it for him in the past: the global battle on terrorism. But even here he is in trouble. More Americans tell us they feel less safe under his watch (53%) than feel safe (43%). Nearly nine in ten expect another major attack by terrorists and a majority (53%) say it will be in the next two years. Despite all the warnings about bio- and cyber-terrorism and the US' lack of preparedness, most respondents listed "suicide bombing" as the most likely form it will take (45%).
But despite this slippage for the President, Democrats can take little solace. Only 27% of all voters tell us that the Democratic Party has adopted a "post-9-11 mentality," while 66% say the Republicans have.
No more than 10%-13% feel the federal government is "well prepared" for attacks on a major city that would come in the form of nuclear, biological, chemical, or cyber terrorism.
We learned from this poll that neither the Democrats nor Republicans are seen as leading Americans into a new relationship between the federal government and the people. In the case of a terrorist attack, Americans see the role of the federal government to be one of helping with advance planning and "taking over all disaster responses." In the case of another natural disaster, Americans told us that in addition to advance planning, they want the federal government's major role to be one of "creating bridges between government at all levels, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations."
In short, a lot of damage has been done -- and not only to buildings and lives. Clearly, there is a decline of trust in the federal government. The President will no doubt try to use what's left of the public trust he has from his own base and get his numbers up among his own constituency by playing the war on terrorism card. Or he could try over the next few weeks and months to tackle the overall problem of trust and polarization in the nation today.
His approach tonight in his State of the Union Address will be whether he decides to hit a bunt and make it just to first base or instead opts to go for the fences by tackling the broader distrust that is out there.
That will be the difference between a politician and a statesman.