WASHINGTON — GEORGE BUSH'S staff has been working for more than two weeks framing his first significant prime-time address to the nation, which is still a week away. He has been slow to resort to this kind of public appeal, an important tactic for recent presidents. For Mr. Bush, it is loaded with political risks.
At drug-policy director William Bennett's request, Bush will use the speech to lay out the administration's proposals for the war on drugs.
The White House is still deciding exactly what it wants from this speech - to appeal for legislative action to get the initiatives through Congress or to call for community service among citizens, according to a senior White House aide.
The speech offers Bush a way of showing leadership on an issue that surveys indicate is at the top of public concerns. Presidential approval ratings often record brief increases after such appeals.
But it can also set up some difficult tests:
When he exhorts the nation on the drug issue over prime-time television, he becomes more accountable for a war very difficult to win.
``He'll come to be judged on this issue. The speech invites that,'' says Samuel Kernell, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and a scholar of presidential public appeals.
Bush has not been adept at this sort of speaking, and he follows a president who was superb at it. His speech writers are hard at work trying to find the right rhetorical note for him to strike. ``The speechwriters and Bush have not yet found a public-speaking persona,'' says Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.
Bush's public approval is broad but fragile. People have seen little of him as a public president and have not formed clear-cut views yet. This will be a much-examined performance as national leader that may sharpen public perceptions.
Bush has made a sharp break in governing style with the Reagan administration, and rhetoric is at the heart of it.
Recent American presidents have increasingly used broadcast appeals to lobby the public directly for programs, usually to pressure Congress into voting for them.
Reagan brought this to a fine art, shaping public debate and raising the stakes on issues such as the tax cut of 1981 and tax reform in 1986.
``Reagan is the exemplar of tradition that everybody back to [John F. Kennedy] aspired to,'' says Jeffrey Tulis, a University of Texas political scientist and author of ``The Rhetorical Presidency.''
Bush is playing to his own strengths and avoiding - so far - apparent weaknesses.
The consensus among expert observers: Bush's style is unlikely to rally and inspire an audience. He made a successful rallying speech at last summer's Republican National Convention, exceeding very low expectations, but since then he has reverted to form.
``Bush is pioneering a very plain style that in some ways is like the extemporaneous Harry Truman. But it's not effective at influencing people and making an extended argument as a public president,'' Dr. Jamieson says.
The communications strategy at the Bush White House has been to convey a favorable impression of his personal qualities, such as his warm spontaneity and earnestness.
Bush has done well on those terms.
A true politician, he enjoys the personal give and take of brokering deals with congressmen and interest groups. He also performs competently in extemporaneous exchanges such as press conferences. He lacks the flashy wit of Kennedy, but he also lacks the garbled syntax of Eisenhower or Reagan.
``He's not afraid of conversation with the public,'' says Roderick Hart of the University of Texas. Despite Reagan's folksy style, his exchanges with reporters tended to be scripted and theatrical or one-liners, Dr. Hart says.
Hart describes Bush speech-making as ``businesslike, workmanlike, certainly not poetic.'' His speech writers have tailored their work well to the president's style, he says.
The problem, as Dr. Jamieson sees it, is this: ``If you listen to George Bush for 25 minutes, can you stay awake?''
Bush's convention speech last summer was largely crafted by former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan. It was packed with the flights of literary imagery that Reagan was nonpareil at delivering.
She wrote Bush's inaugural address before leaving to write a book. But even with the Noonan touch, the lofty rhetorical style of Reagan is counterfeit for Bush, Jamieson says. He is more plainspoken.
Presidential speeches offer an important opportunity to shape the agenda on an issue, says Dr. Tulis. And that is exactly what the White House intends.
But few modern presidents ever achieve that, he adds.
Mr. Bennett's National Drug Control Policy office is looking for Bush to use his full weight as commander in chief to put the drug war at the top of the national agenda this fall.
``We expect the stress to be on citizen involvement,'' he says, but the message is still in a state of flux.