The Politics of September 11th: From Agreement to Discord

Over the past ten years unity and bipartisanship in DC has eroded.

Sept. 10, 2011— -- Ten years ago, in the days, weeks, and months after Sept. 11, 2001, the country and government came together. Democrats and Republicans worked together to ease a scared nation, but also out of fear that not doing so would get them labeled unpatriotic. Bipartisan approval for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reigned. You rarely heard the word "deficit," and money was poured into not only those wars, but to build the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, the government is bitterly divided. What happened?

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, took to the Senate floor Thursday to call for a return to the bipartisanship and cooperation after Sept. 11.

"What we were able to achieve then in terms of common purpose and effective collective action provides us with a model for action that we in Washington must strive to emulate and even if just in part, even if just sporadically to re-create," Schumer said.

On issues like the $20 billion aid package to New York, the controversial Patriot Act, or approval for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both sides of the aisle gave a green light.

"To his credit, President Bush did not for one second think about the electoral map or political implication of supporting New York. He asked what we needed and he came through," Schumer said. "If, God forbid, another 9/11-like attack were to happen tomorrow, would our national political system respond with the same unity, non-recrimination, common purpose and effective policy action in the way that it did just ten years ago? Or are our politics now so petty, fanatically ideological, polarized and partisan that we would instead descend into blame and brinkmanship, and direct our fire inward, and fail to muster the collective will to act in the interests of the American people?"

From the Age of Terrorism to the Age of Austerity and Division

In what she calls a "backhanded compliment to bipartisanship," Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute says the American public gives high approval to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama on their handling of terrorism.

"What's absolutely clear is in a time so critical of Washington, the public has given high marks to the presidents of both parties -- George W. Bush for making the country safe and they gave Barack Obama high marks for keeping the country safe," Bowman said, who recently authored a study "The War on Terror: Ten Years of Polls on American Attitudes."

With the economy being the number one issue on Americans' minds, Bowman says terrorism has receded significantly as an area of concern.

"I think terrorism wouldn't recede as an issue if they didn't feel the government made them safe," Bowman said.

But what about the dynamic between the president and congress?

James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, worked at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He says the attacks of Sept. 11 "triggered a dynamic as old as the American Republic."

"When the country is under attack and facing a national crisis, power gravitates away from Congress to the president, partly because Americans believe that during times of crisis strong leadership is needed," Lindsay told ABC News. "Also, during times of crisis it's politically safe to rally behind the president. They fear any critique of the White House is taken as an unpatriotic act. That rally around the flag gives enormous power to the president and that power persists as long as the crisis persists."

"As the country returns to more normal times, or if the public is concerned with the failure of the president's policies, power drifts back to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It's a shifting pendulum of power," said Lindsay, adding that as Americans' concerns have shifted from terrorism to the economy "in a decade we've gone from the age of terror to the age of austerity."

And this age of austerity is seeing some of the more conservative members of Congress question a department they originally supported.

Department of Homeland Security: Support Turns to the Question, Does It Keep Us Safe?

Formed in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security merged 22 federal agencies -- among them the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

DHS is now one of the federal government's largest, with an annual budget more than $50 billion and the department employs over 200,000 people.

Although its size was questioned from day one - How could it possibly be efficient, people asked. Republicans now feel more free to object to it, especially since it's now under a Democratic administration.

This week the Government Accountability Office released a report assessing DHS. At a Senate committee hearing Wednesday GAO Comptroller Eugene Dodaro praised the department, but added there are still "gaps and weaknesses" that DHS needs to address.

"Has it worked? Has it made us safer as a nation?," asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Collins also criticized the "intrusive" screenings that some elderly and young passengers have to endure and expressed concern that people who present a threat to the country get through.

Juliette Kayyem , a former assistant secretary of DHS, lectures at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is the national security and foreign policy columnist for the Boston Globe. She said DHS has changed for the better over the past ten years in terms of prioritizing and interacting with the public and Congress. She points to the example of the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, in May 2010. While the bomber was called inept and inefficient, Kayyem says it was DHS and other agencies like FBI and local responders that prevented a tragedy.

"The Times Square bomber spent very little time training in Pakistan because he was concerned by the length of time spent in the country being scrutinized by immigration officials. He didn't buy more fertilizer and explosive materials because there is monitoring of large purchases of fertilizer. And the 'See Something, Say Something' campaign caused a bystander to realize something was happening," Kayyem said.

Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council of Foreign Relations, added, "I think it takes a fairly brave lawmaker to publicly advocate spending less on counterterrorism. The easy way to go is to blame the expenditures as inefficient or wasting money. The tougher argument is to say, No, we're just doing too much. It exposes political risk if there is a successful attack."

Troops and Dollars Overseas: Is It Time for Them to Come Home?

In the weeks following 9/11, Americans were for the most part united that justice against an invisible enemy with no country or uniform needed to be served. Both Democrats and Republicans voted overwhelmingly for intervention to crush Al Qaeda and paralyze and dismantle the terrorist network that wanted to destroy the country.

Within a few years, Afghanistan was largely forgotten and support for the Iraq war, which always had less unanimous support than Afghanistan publicly but began with widespread bipartisan congressional support, dwindled after it was discovered that Iraq had not been harboring weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein and that there was not a link between Hussein and al Qaeda.

During the election of 2008, says Biddle, when candidate Barack Obama promised to focus on Afghanistan, not Iraq, "people re-discovered the war after seven years" and "people didn't like what they saw.

"When Afghanistan became Obama's war and the Democratic Party owned it, which took place when the president put in place a substantial series of initiatives in waging the war which had not been the policy of George W. Bush, then a lot of Republicans started to verbalize they were uncomfortable with the war," he continued. "Republican support for the war in Afghanistan has been very soft since Obama's election."

While many Republicans remain committed to both Afghanistan and steadfast that there not be more cuts to defense spending, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., recently threatened to quit the special deficit supercommittee if there were more cuts to defense. Biddle explained that those who weren't deeply committed had privately complained that Afghanistan was a "fool's errand." Eventually those private complaints became public. Now several freshman House members openly express concern about continued engagement in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, on both side of the aisle, congressional leaders are echoing Schumer in calling for unity.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, also called on congress to remember the unity of those days. "There were not Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, red states or blue states. We were Americans," Reid said. "We need the bipartisanship of Washington."

In a video message, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, marked the tenth anniversary by praising the troops and encouraging congress to come together as they did after the attacks.

"Let's try to recapture that spirit of 9/11 to work together to solve the hard problems that face us: a mountain of debt, high unemployment, and the threats we face from radical Islam," said Graham. "There is nothing we can't accomplish if we work together."

ABC News' Sunlen Miller and Nancy Ramsey contributed to this report.