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Gallup Poll: Homeland department draws poll skepticism

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The first national opinion poll regarding the newly created Department of Homeland Security since President Bush signed the law establishing it last week indicates that former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has been tapped to head the massive new bureaucracy, has his work cut out for him.

Only 13 percent of Americans polled by the Gallup Organization say they have confidence that the new department will make them "a lot" safer. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans expect that the new department will not make the country any safer.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said in an interview that from a public relations standpoint, Ridge "has two strikes against him. As the war [against terrorism] has gone on without Osama bin Laden being caught, there's been a growing cynicism that anything will be effective against terrorism. And there has always been a healthy skepticism about the effectiveness of government bureaucracy. [Ridge] has a tough row to hoe."

The Cabinet-level department is to be composed of 170,000 employees culled from 22 different federal agencies, with a beginning budget of $40 billion. Now that it's been created, Americans' skepticism that it will have an effect against terrorism is growing, not diminishing. While some critics have suggested that the department would offer Americans a false sense of security, the Gallup pollsters found no such delusion so far.

In June, 20 percent of Americans said they thought a homeland security department would be "very effective" in making the country safer, but since then, that opinion has declined to 11 percent.

The Gallup polling reported yesterday found that even though Democrats originated the proposal for a permanent homeland security department and President Bush initially opposed the concept, he was later successful in convincing a majority of Americans that it was a White House idea.

Three-fourths of Republicans polled say the new department will be at least somewhat effective and approve of it. Little more than half of all Democrats said they think it will be somewhat effective. One in 10 Democrats said they expect that the department "will not be effective at all."

Newport said it is possible that national sentiment about the new department will become more positive if it proves effective in blocking another terrorist attack of some magnitude. But it is also possible that, because the department may not be at full strength for several years, public skepticism about its effectiveness will grow.

"We can ask what-if questions, but we can't predict what will happen," Newport said.

Bush argues that the new department will not become a costly behemoth because it is supposed to prevent duplication in the war on terrorism. But critics note that Ridge will have responsibility for literally hundreds of government functions -- from border security to assessing the nature of terrorist threats to protecting the nation's crops from dangerous insects and animal diseases deliberately introduced for terroristic purposes.

Public perception of the department, Newport said, "doesn't reflect careful scrutiny about putting all these entities together [in one department]. It's just general cynicism that anything will be effective."

Such a sentiment is being expressed by doubters such as Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.

"In Congress, we have just passed a law that will bring about the largest restructuring of our government since World War II. We are telling the American people that a new Department of Homeland Security will protect them," he said. "But Americans are losing their jobs and their ability to support their families. In less than two years, more than 2 million private sector jobs have been lost, while our economic growth is the weakest it has been in 50 years. We should be addressing that homeland security issue."

Even strong backers of the new department say they don't envy Ridge for his challenge. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the first in Congress to propose a Cabinet-level new department, said when Bush signed the bill creating it that Ridge's task would be "monumental, ... like asking Noah to build the ark after the rain has started to fall."

Ann McFeatters can be reached at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7071.

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