New role: first lady on global stage

With higher approval ratings than the president, Laura Bush is emerging from a low profile in the first term.

The "new" Laura Bush - the one who comments publicly on thorny policy matters and actually enjoys giving speeches - can add another mark to her growing résumé as first lady: diplomat.

Her six-hour visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, announced just before she left Washington, marked a rare solo trip abroad for Mrs. Bush and may be a sign of increasing visibility for a first lady who started life here by keeping the lowest of profiles.

Just as her husband has grown more relaxed in his job, sticking to his promise, for example, to hold monthly press conferences, so, too, has Mrs. Bush grown into a role - presidential spouse - with its own storied past. Now, with improving the image of the US abroad identified as a central goal of the administration's second term, the popular first lady can be an important foot soldier in that quest, analysts say.

"There's no limit to what she can do to improve worldwide understanding of who Americans are and help explain her husband as more multidimensional" than he may be seen abroad, says James Rosebush, a former assistant to first lady Nancy Reagan and author of a book on first ladies. "I just really hope that she does get out there and get into these forums where people can see her, touch her, listen to her."

On her whirlwind trip to Afghanistan - the onetime base of Al Qaeda, where 17,000 US forces are still helping fight an insurgency - Mrs. Bush focused on two themes comfortable to her, women and education. She traveled as part of a delegation of the US-Afghan Women's council, which aims to help Afghan women gain educational opportunities denied them under the former Taliban regime.

In remarks at the Women's Teacher Training Institute in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Bush announced $15 million in US support toward establishment of the American University of Afghanistan, including housing and scholarships for women. She also pledged $3.5 million in US aid toward a new International School of Afghanistan.

"The United States government is wholeheartedly committed to the full participation of women in all aspects of Afghan society, not just in Kabul, but in every province," she said.

Bush also met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and had dinner with US forces at Bagram air base.

A tailor-made trip overseas

The first lady told reporters that she had long wanted to visit Afghanistan, especially after other administration women, such as presidential adviser Karen Hughes and domestic policy adviser (now Education Secretary) Margaret Spellings, had gone there. Last year Mrs. Bush was busy with the presidential campaign, she said; security considerations also played into the timing.

But this trip seems tailor-made to the White House's new emphasis on image-crafting abroad - as evidenced by Ms. Hughes's recent nomination as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.

And if Mrs. Bush's domestic popularity can translate overseas, it's probably a safe calculation that she will at least do no harm.

In the US, no one affiliated with this administration is more popular than Laura Bush: A February Gallup survey shows 80 percent of Americans approve her performance as first lady - down from her January rating of 85 percent. Compare that with her husband's current ratings in the mid-40s, and jokes about "Laura to the rescue" can't be too far away. Indeed, during last year's tight presidential race, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman declared her involvement "incredibly important," citing her ability to appeal "across the board."

Laura to the rescue

Now, say analysts of America's image overseas, the addition of more feminine attributes into US foreign policy plays into the new emphasis on diplomacy over military action.

"People in general - Americans, people around world - are drawn to the idea that there's some kind of balance of masculine and feminine qualities that are needed in any particular situation, including world diplomacy, so to the extent that [Mrs. Bush is] juxtaposed with the image of the president, that has a kind of positive effect," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.

As the president's wife, Mrs. Bush is perceived as supporting him, which pleases his supporters; to those who see his policies as too extreme, she is seen as exerting a moderating influence, Mr. Kull adds.

The new secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, also benefits to some degree from being female, but doesn't play quite the balancing role that Laura Bush does in moderating the president's image, says Kull.

Secretary Rice, of course, was a central figure during Bush's first-term foreign policy, and remains closely associated with that in her new role. Still, "Condi is to some extent perceived as taking the edges off the president, probably more in presentation and style than in content," says Kull. "She has a more harmonious quality, more diplomatic, than Bush. Clearly, the Europeans were charmed by her [on her recent visit], even if they didn't like everything that was said."

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