Predictions for 2004: Cheney out, war still on

You read it here first, two weeks ago. Vice-President Dick Cheney is history, and unless something totally unpredictable happens, he will not be on the Bush ticket in 2004: he angered Bush by upstaging him and seizing control on 11 September, and now looks set to be at the centre of the growing Enrongate scandals. Ill health, we can safely presume, will be the reason provided. And his replacement? Hot money among insiders this week is on Donald Rumsfeld, even though he will be into his eighth decade by the time the election comes around. I mention this first because Cheney made a rare and unexpected public appearance last Tuesday night at the annual State of the Union Address, the type of uniquely American event that makes you think what a bizarre country this is - until, that is, your mind turns to the opening of parliaments and the ridiculous absurdity and flummery of the Queen's Speech.

In the US case, a man who actually lost the popular vote to another candidate just over a year ago was received by Congress with monumental back-slapping, hand-shaking, foot-stomping support - much of it from people who loathe Bush and everything he stands for, but none the less feel they must do their part in this annual charade of Americana. The vice-president normally sits behind the president and alongside the Speaker, but since 11 September Bush and Cheney have avoided being together: Cheney's appearance on Tuesday, watched by probably around 60 million Americans, was meant to indicate that the Bush administration is not cowed by threats of more terrorism and that some semblance of normality has returned. Bush, with 83 per cent approval ratings, is riding such a crest of we're-right-behind-you American solidarity that he could hardly fail to rise to the pomp of the occasion (one that Thomas Jefferson so despised that he refused to do it, sending his annual message in writing - a habit that continued until 1913).

The event last Tuesday could not have been more choreographed. The speech was rewritten at least 17 times, and Bush rehearsed it over and over again in the family cinema in the White House. Human props - Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's new leader, US military heroes, firefighters, the widow of a dead serviceman, the two flight attendants who fought the British shoe-bomber Richard Reid - were liberally scattered among the members of Congress, Supreme Court judges, ambassadors, and so on.

Bush's speech-writers sought to intertwine three separate strands: that there is a combined war going on a) against terrorism, b) to create "homeland security", and c) against the mounting economic recession. Inextricably combine the three, his strategists believe, and Bush Jr will avoid the fate of his father in 1992: winning a military war, but losing an economic and ultimately political one.

So we had exactly what was planned: 47 minutes, with (unbelievably, but true) 77 separate interruptions for applause. There was brazen partisanship on the economy, several flubs in reading his teleprompter, and some questionable references to Islam - but the speech was received with the inevitable universal reverence and excitement, as the president is currently uncriticisable.

So far, for him, so good. But what if he had delivered this address without 11 September ever happening? We would have had mounting unemployment (5.8 per cent in December compared with 3.9 per cent in October 2000), a worsening recession and (with Enron) examples of what Edward Heath once called the unacceptable face of capitalism. Instead of a president who believes in narrowing ideological differences and healing rifts, we would have a man in the White House who is irredeemably partisan and controversial in his approach to domestic issues. In short, we would have had a president in big trouble after only one year in office.

And though no president in history has had such a long spell of intense support, there are worrying signs in the polls for Bush, too. One in three Americans believes he is not paying enough attention to the economy; 93 per cent say that combating terrorism is vital, but 87 per cent say the same thing about the economy, 84 per cent about education, and 80 per cent about social security and Medicare. Polls also show that there is a mounting mistrust of what the administration did vis-a-vis Enron; 75 per cent want an investigation. That is why Bush, immediately after his speech, embarked on a tour of Clintonesque "town hall" meetings around the country.

The high level of fear in senior circles here, meanwhile, continues; Bush himself wakes up every morning wondering whether this will be the day when the next major terrorist strike hits America. He spends half his working day on the war, but more like 90 per cent preoccupied with it: "This campaign may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch," said Bush in his address.

That was a barely noticed line on Tuesday night, but in it there is much significance. In 1992, to their everlasting chagrin, the Bushies learnt that the victorious Gulf war ended too soon to help George Bush I out of economic mire and political defeat. That lesson, for the ever-ruthless Bushies, has been digested and absorbed. There are mid-term elections later this year, but thoughts are already on that presidential (and Cheney-less) election in 2004.

Of one thing we can therefore be certain: the "war against terror" will still be in full cry in November 2004, amid enormous fervour, patriotic flag-waving and universally expressed solidarity of support for President Bush II. It's a dirty business, this politics.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Revealed: how Labour sees women