Bush Woos Public Without TV Help
But some experts warn the President's lack of media strategy will hurt him during hard times. THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON — HE lacks the media mastery of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator. Yet George Bush is winning stellar public approval of his presidential performance. President Bush's approval rating of 70 percent in the June Gallup poll was 12 points higher than Mr. Reagan's was at the same point in his first term. In fact, Mr. Bush's approval has ratcheted upward at a time when Reagan's was on the way down.
This wide popularity has come without the focused appeal to the public through television that Reagan used so artfully and often.
The Bush White House has shown little inclination and little ability to use television as a finely calibrated political tool.
The news media strategy in the early months, according to David Demarest, the White House communications director, was merely to give the public a better glimpse of Bush's personal qualities and establish the rhythm of his presidency.
Meanwhile, Bush was defying the expectations of the modern presidency. He did not take office with a flurry of major initiatives to convert the momentum of his election victory and honeymoon period into a legislative program. Nor has he taken to the airwaves with public appeals.
Where Reagan's staff would carefully craft a message a day designed to win air play on the evening news, Bush's staff simply allows cameras to follow him longer to catch spontaneous moments, Mr. Demarest says.
Where Reagan spent his first year vigorously promoting his agenda to the public, Bush is slowly piecing together what Demarest calls a ``policy mosaic'' of low-key proposals and positions.
``Occasionally, a president has an opportunity to take decisive action in the first couple months of his presidency,'' Mr. Demarest says. But ``not too often.''
As the public warms to a president personally, as it has with George Bush, it tends to extend him greater benefit of the doubt on specific policy proposals, Demarest adds.
A warning is going up for the Bush administration, however. Expert observers say that Bush has yet to face a real test of his popularity.
Further, many expert observers warn that Bush's inability to wield the media tool will hurt him when harder times come and frustration builds.
``At some point, you have to mobilize public opinion,'' says Sam Kernell, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego and author of a book on presidential media strategies. ``If you're not up to it, then you're going to get caught short.''
But another school of political scientists and operatives doubts that even the most skilled use of the media to appeal directly to the public ever really achieves much.
``Presidential appeals rarely move the public,'' says George C. Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist who is a leading student of public opinion and presidential leadership. Reagan appeals succeeded once, he notes, in rallying support for his tax cut. And a tax cut, he says, is one of the easiest issues to rally support for.
This White House tends to play down the impact of media strategy, even as used by Reagan.
But Bush and his staff may now be disdaining media strategies less. The White House recently hired Bush's campaign media maven, Roger Ailes, and his pollster, Robert Teeter, as consultants.
But Bush's ability is stronger in working with members of Congress and opinion leaders than in communicating with the public. His tactics reflect this.
The Reagan administration, Demarest notes, tended to announce an initiative for maximum exposure on television news, then sell it to legislators.
Bush tries to explain his proposals to legislative leaders and interest groups in the morning, hours before it will appear on the evening news. In fact, Demarest drew complaints last month from network television correspondents over the White House release of its Clean Air Act proposals. Bush announced them in Washington with a series of briefings for reporters, congressmen and their staffs, and environmentalists and business leaders. Only the next day did he stand in Yellowstone National Park - providing a great television backdrop - and make a speech about clean air.
The correspondents complained that if the program had been announced at Yellowstone, they could have won better air play for it in their newscasts. Demarest responds that if the goal is to get the proposals through Congress, then it makes more sense to announce them directly to the members than to go around them to the public, even if they get less news exposure.
In his first hundred days, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Bush was the subject of only 43 percent as many network news stories as Reagan in the comparable period, and 37 percent as many as Carter.
Outside observers widely agree that if Bush did need to go over the heads in Congress to appeal directly for public support, he would be in serious trouble.
``No one's worse on television than George Bush,'' says Michael Robinson, a Georgetown University political scientist. ``No one in recent times has less charisma.''
If Bush is ever tempted to take to the airwaves as Reagan did, he says, ``I don't even think he should try, except in the most unusual circumstances. It just doesn't work.''
Dr. Kernell compares Bush to President Eisenhower. Like Mr. Eisenhower, Bush trades highly in personal regard, rather than political leadership. Eisenhower remained highly popular for two terms, but made little mark on the presidency or the country. The question for Bush, he says, is whether he will have an eight-year period of relative calm that Eisenhower had.
Bush, says Kernell, is cultivating personal support and generating goodwill, but is unlikely to be able to rally that support on issues. ``He's going to get rolled if he doesn't watch out,'' he says.
Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, and a presidential scholar, sees a parallel between Bush and Carter. Both presidents developed images of nice, decent, low-key, and likable men in their first year in office, he says, but did not cultivate images of strength or leadership.
``That stuff doesn't play very long,'' Dr. Miroff says. ``People raved at Carter as a breath of fresh air, but when he ran into trouble, he needed leadership qualities.''
Demarest responds that Bush has plenty of time to build a strong leadership profile on his policy decisions. ``I would be concerned if that was the situation four years from now.''