TOPICS > Politics

9/11′s Fading Role in Political Conversation

BY Quinn Bowman  September 9, 2011 at 4:19 PM EDT

Articles about the death of Osama bin Laden are seen near the World Trade Center site. Getty

There are ways that 9/11 has plays an obvious role in our politics: President George W. Bush’s presidency was largely engulfed by his administration’s foreign and domestic policy responses to the death of nearly 3,000 Americans on that clear September day.

The United States soon invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and would later launch an invasion of Iraq. A bipartisan majority in Congress gave the Bush administration the authority to also invade Iraq in part because of  intelligence — which was later proven faulty — that suggested Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and also posed a threat.

Indeed, the 9/11 attacks played a prominent role in the 2004 presidential campaign that earned President Bush a second term. Images from the attacks were used in campaign ads and the war on terror was among the top issues on the minds of voters.

And later, frustrations over the Iraq war helped sink President Bush’s approval ratings and propel a little-known Senator named Barack Obama, who started his underdog presidential campaign in 2007 fueled by antiwar sentiment in the Democratic Party.

But beyond what policymakers decided to do to respond to the deadliest attack on the American mainland in the country’s history, was there a larger impact on how U.S. politics is conducted, or a lasting impact on how politicians campaign?

Richard Norton Smith, history professor at George Mason University and regular NewsHour guest, said that while the response to the attacks caused some division, domestic unrest over war policy today pales in comparison to the political climate during the Vietnam War era.

“Clearly (the attacks) have changed our budget priorities, changed in many ways how we conduct ourselves when going to airport. When you ask a question in context of running for president…it seems to me there’s been a remarkable consensus of acceptance of the wars that grew out of the attacks,” Smith said.

Public backlash against the wars, Smith added, seems to not have affected the political process in the long term.

“Barack Obama has been feeling it. There is clearly unhappiness within his own party and more unhappiness during the Bush presidency. The remarkable thing is how little that has affected policy makers, or for that matter campaigners,” he said.

In May, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that two-thirds of Americans oppose to occupation of Afghanistan, but the U.S. military role there continues. Although some 30,000 troops will return from Afghanistan in 2012, 70,000 will remain there.

President Obama has declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, but 46,000 troops remain there, and the White House wants to keep 3,000-5,000 troops there in 2012.

Still, the war issue played little visible role in the 2010 midterm elections, which brought Republicans back into control of the House of Representatives.

Among the 2012 GOP contenders, only Ron Paul, who is polling in the low double-digits, has advocated ending the wars. The policy debate has instead been consumed by how to improve an economy stuck with higher than 9 percent unemployment and possibly headed toward a second recession.

A TIME magazine survey conducted in June found that 83 percent of adult Americans think it is more important for policymakers to focus on domestic issues. Just 12 percent chose international issues.

The same poll found that a variety of economic and fiscal issues dominate the list of what Americans told TIME pollsters were the greatest threat to the stability of the United States. “Rising national debt,” “the budget deficit” and “American jobs being sent overseas” scored about 20 percentage points higher as major threats in the poll compared to “Al Qaeda” and “the Taliban.”

But while foreign policy scores low in public opinion, domestic security remains a top concern. The same TIME survey found that four out of five people believe a major terrorist attack is somewhat likely in the United States in the next decade.

And while President Obama ordered the U.S. Special Forces raid that killed the man held most responsible for the attacks, Osama bin Laden, there appears to be little lasting political impact. President Obama received a positive bump in public opinion after bin Laden’s death in May, and then attention turned quickly to the debt ceiling drama in Congress.

While many of the policy issues and political fights surrounding the 2001 attacks have largely faded out of focus, there’s also the dimming idea that 9/11 would bring American politicians to a more peaceful, united style of politics.

Smith said that there was a hope that 9/11 “would change our politics…make us serious…take a more bipartisan approach. It would shock us into a different kind of political culture. Clearly, that is not happening,” Smith said.