In Florida this week, the film footage may have shown a president concerned with Everglades renewal and housing for the poor, but the subtitles told a different theme: election politics.
This latest two-day trip of George W. Bush is his fourth to Florida, a state critical to his re-election. It is becoming to this Republican president what California was to Bill Clinton - acquiring a most-favored-state status as the White House looks ahead two, and, more important, four years from now.
Of course, all presidents have their eye on the next election from the day they take office, and heavy use of Air Force One is a key component of re-election strategy. But so far, President Bush is out-flying even his peripatetic predecessor, visiting 30 states (not counting Maryland, home of Camp David) in less than five months.
"You're seeing a White House with a strong strategic sense of where they want to go, laying over an electoral map on some states," says GOP consultant Scott Reed.
The travel is part of a double-barreled strategy of targeting important swing states like Florida, Michigan, and Missouri, as well as pushing the president's agenda. Much of the president's travel, in fact, has been to the home turf of moderate Democrats in an effort to build pressure for his tax cut. Indeed, of the 12 Democratic senators who voted for the tax cut, 11 came from states visited by Mr. Bush.
Now that the Senate is no longer in Republican control, the White House views this regional use of the bully pulpit as more important than ever. It plans to send the president out to stump for his next round of issues, including energy, military reorganization, his faith-based initiative, and a patients' bill of rights. "The proof is in the pudding," says one administration official of the regional strategy. "It seems to have worked."
In the course of that travel, expect to see plenty more trips to Florida, which will probably turn out to be the most-courted state in the nation in 2004, says GOP state party chairman Al Cardenas. With the nation still closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, Florida's 27 electoral votes are likely to be prized once again.
The state also holds special significance for this president, who is trying to help his brother keep his governor's chair in 2002, and to soothe the raw feelings still left over from November.
All that puts Florida in a good position to receive the items on its wish list: everglades funding, transportation dollars, and support for the state's military and space installations. "We're confident we'll fare much better with President Bush than we did with the prior administration," says Mr. Cardenas. Interestingly, the Bush spending plan for Everglades renewal - $219 million next year, and an increase of 36 percent from this year - is far less than what President Clinton proposed.
Analysts acknowledge the wisdom of homing in on critical swing states for election purposes. "We might sue him for political malpractice" if he didn't, quips Norman Ornstein, at the American Enterprise Institute.
But Mr. Ornstein and others are skeptical that the president's heavy schedule outside of Washington is still the best way to move his agenda through a Congress now run in part by the Democrats.
For starters, it's far from clear that presidential pressure from the hinterlands has any effect on senators in Washington. Nearly every Senate Democrat who voted for the $1.35 trillion tax cut, which Bush plans to sign into law tomorrow, came from a state that went for Bush in the election and was already inclined to favor a sizable tax cut, say Hill aides.
"Going to senators' states and trying to intimidate them and frame the argument to force them to adopt a position is usually a loser," says Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst here.
At the same time, the political landscape has changed. White House officials may insist that it's still the same 100 senators they have to deal with, it's Democrats who will set the Senate's agenda and chair its committees. With that in mind, says Mr. Ornstein, the president should spend more time in town working with Democrats on a centrist approach, as he did on education, instead of jetting around the country to sell an often conservative plan.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll seems to bear that out. The president's job-approval rating has slipped 8 percentage points in the last five weeks, to 55 percent. Only Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton had a lower rating at a similar time. The erosion stems from people's concern over Bush's energy and environmental policies and over the general direction of the country, the poll shows. Significantly, 68 percent of Americans say Bush should try "mainly to compromise" with Democrats instead of pushing his own agenda.
Some GOP strategists, though, aren't convinced he should throttle down his travel. "He doesn't want to spend all the time answering his in-box," says Mr. Reed. "Unlike Clinton, who took teeny-tiny steps driven by polls, Bush is actually taking bold steps, so he still needs to move the country on [issues like] missile defense and privatizing Social Security."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor