Air Force One: Now It's Bush's Weapon

With Dems attacking him on domestic issues, the President is jetting around America to counter his rivals -- just like Clinton did

By Richard S. Dunham

Another day, another trip by President Bush to a battleground state. On May 13, the "George W. Bush domestic politics tour" has a twin-bill scheduled in Chicago, where the President will promote his welfare-to-work initiative and raise money for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan, who faces a tough battle this fall.

It's getting to be a familiar routine. So far this year, Bush has hobnobbed in 28 states -- 19 of them sure to be pivotal in the 2004 Presidential election. The only potential battlegrounds he hasn't visited are Washington and Nevada. He has had public events in every state where locals expect a close U.S. Senate race (the only exception is Arkansas), and 15 states with top-tier governor's contests.

Remember how Republican partisans howled when President Clinton revved up Air Force One and courted voters from coast to coast. Now, GOP strategists think that's just fine. Hypocrisy aside, what Bush is doing is smart politics.

POCKETBOOK PAIN.

  Republicans feel they need to regain control of the issues agenda. The war on terrorism, which caused Bush's job-approval ratings to skyrocket last fall, is losing saliency as the nation's No. 1 priority. Polls show that voters are beginning to care more about pocketbook issues, like jobs and the economy's future, as the November midterm elections approach. Voters seem to be responding to questions about exploding health-insurance prices and the lack of a prescription-drug benefit for seniors.

That's good news for Democrats, who trail the GOP by a wide margin on military matters and terrorism but maintain an edge over Republicans on issues ranging from job creation to health care.

With the public focus shifting to domestic issues, Democrats are positioning themselves as the mainstream alternative to "this right-wing, extreme crowd that runs your House of Representatives," in the words of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). A bit hyperbolic, yes, but catchy rhetoric. Gephardt is trying to move the focus from a popular President with a broad domestic agenda to an alleged right-wing cabal bent on destroying the environment and Social Security. Better to run against Tom DeLay than George W. Bush.

POUNDING THE PULPIT.

  However, the President is capable of using the loudest political megaphone in the land to reframe the debate. And he's doing just that. Two weeks ago, to counter the Democratic offensive, Bush spent several days focusing on his brand of New Republican "compassionate conservatism." Last week, he reminded Wisconsin residents of his accomplishments as a bipartisan education reformer -- and of the further changes needed to improve public schools.

These speeches, ostensibly apolitical, serve a vital political purpose: to remind voters that the GOP is the party of George Bush, not Newt Gingrich and the government-bashing revolutionaries of yore.

Thus far, the President has been effective at preventing the Democrats from focusing public debate on their twin targets, Social Security and health care. "This is a very, very, very political White House -- which, you know, in my world, is not a negative," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "They are very nimble. They react. They adjust."

NARROWING GAP.

  More important, the White House can dominate the airwaves. A recent review by the Democratic Party found that President Bush and other Administration officials were featured in more than 90% of live political news reports on cable news. After all, a Presidential speech on educational accountability in LaCrosse, Wis., is more newsworthy than another Gephardt press conference on Capitol Hill.

Polls show that Bush's recent policy offensive has yielded some results. A Gallup survey found both the President's job approval blipping up (from 75% to 77%) and Republicans closing the Democrats' lead among registered voters from 7 percentage points to 4 percentage points in a generic congressional matchup.

Now, Bush is sure to take heat for politicizing Air Force One: By combining policy events with political fund-raisers, he's able to bill taxpayers for a portion of the flight costs. But it's worth every negative editorial. As Republicans learned through eight years of complaining during the Clinton Presidency, it's tough to steal the limelight from the man in the White House.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht