Values, Depoliticized

With his "communities of character" theme, debuted this week, George Bush would like to show that compassionate conservatism is, indeed, more than a slogan. And his aides would like to show that this president is more than an orthodox Republican who looks out for big business.

Doubtless, there's some long-range political planning at work here, but value-laden themes and the presidency are a venerable, and honorable, mix. Many occupants of the White House have striven to define their terms in office by articulating values related to family, community, and national purpose. Teddy Roosevelt, after all, dubbed the job a "bully pulpit."

Still, presidential words about values and character always run the risk of being dismissed as political ploys. It's fine to urge youngsters at a summer camp in Colorado to be willing to help others and thus build communities of character. But how does that appeal relate to what the president himself does in office?

As Mr. Bush avers, Government certainly can't address all of society's needs. But its actions affect nearly everyone's sense of community.

The goal of Bush and his team should be to illustrate that this president bases decisions not just on political calculation, but also on heart and conscience. Take last week's stem-cell announcement. It was politically astute, but it also sought a conscientious middle ground, recognizing the values-based arguments on both sides of the debate.

He'll face similarly tough decisions on other issues, such as how to deal with illegal immigrants. If millions of them are given a fast track toward US citizenship, is that fair to millions of others dutifully waiting to immigrate legally?

Values like fairness, justice, honesty, and compassion should figure strongly in decisions about school reform, healthcare, and Social Security. Welfare reform will be back on the agenda, as time limits run out for many still on the rolls. A housing crisis could loom, as federal rent-subsidy programs end.

In the months ahead, Bush will have no shortage of both domestic and international opportunities to make his own contributions to a national community of character.

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