Suddenly, A Kinder, Gentler Bush?

The President is planning a revamped compassion agenda aimed at swing voters

Last fall, President George W. Bush issued orders allowing religious groups to apply for federal grants to perform a wide variety of social services. Today, Fresh Ministries is putting $1 million of this manna from Washington to good use in inner-city Jacksonville, Fla., offering job training and counseling to teenagers, substance abusers, and newly released prisoners. The new money will show them "that there's a different door they can go through and make a real success of their lives," says Reverend Robert V. Lee III, an Episcopal priest who runs the program.

Get ready for many more such stories in the runup to the Nov. 2 election. While his first campaign ads sound the theme of strong leadership, the self-proclaimed War President plans to resurrect his 2000 campaign theme of "compassion- ate conservatism," say White House aides. They reason that a compassion agenda, Round 2, will appeal to swing voters and independents wary of Bush's attack strategy in the culture wars against gay marriage and abortion. That's why Bush, speaking on Mar. 3 at a White House-sponsored convention of religious leaders in Los Angeles, promised to expand the federal dollars available to church groups to include nutrition, foreign aid, and veterans grants.

Boosting his compassion quotient will be a challenge for a President accused by Democrats of favoring big tax breaks for the rich at the expense of regular folks buffeted by an unforgiving global economy. To show a softer side, the White House plans to roll out a host of small programs to appeal to targeted groups that are often inclined to vote Democratic, including Hispanics, the unemployed, and even AIDS victims. Among the proposals: the guest-worker program for illegal aliens Bush advanced in January, a restructuring of the federal housing program, and tax credits for families to buy health care (table).

Despite their potential election-year appeal to independents and moderates, most of these moves will require a delicate balancing act. A number of the programs the President plans to highlight in coming months have track records that generate controversy even among conservatives, such as the No Child Left Behind education law, which many see as an unfunded mandate. Many conservatives, for example, believe that it's morally wrong to give partial amnesty to immigrants who sneak into the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, Hispanic leaders criticize Bush's proposal for not offering a path to citizenship. Even the idea of giving federal dollars to religious institutions rubs some conservatives the wrong way. Private-sector charities should not be "spending time in Washington lobbying and writing grant proposals," says Cato Institute policy analyst Chris Edwards.

Still, the White House hopes the accumulation of gestures will help win over even a small portion of undecided voters. Take the red-hot issue of job losses. To counter criticism that Bush has done little to slow the offshore exodus of white-collar work, his campaign plans to trumpet a $250 million proposal in the Administration's 2005 budget to fund job retraining in community colleges. The Administration is also pushing a pilot program to create employment accounts -- $3,000 grants to unemployed workers to be used for tuition, health insurance, or even child care.

Bush also plans to talk up his efforts to funnel federal funds to religious groups aimed at helping the homeless, drug addicts, and former prisoners. Since he took office, Bush has sponsored 11 conferences like the one in Los Angeles to reach out to community and religious activists anxious for Washington's help. Last fall's executive order allowed them to qualify for federal funds to offer job training to newly released prisoners and tutoring to their children. Bush also has set up related programs, such as $100 million in vouchers to allow addicts to pay for treatment centers, some operated by churches. Says Jim Towey, a Florida Democrat who now heads the White House office of faith-based initiatives: "When I see the appeal of this initiative in the urban communities, it gives people a different image of the President."

GIVE AND TAKE. Similarly, the President's reelection campaign hopes his initiatives on AIDS and Africa may marginally help his standing with groups such as gays and blacks. Last year, he surprised even his most ardent critics by proposing a 5-year, $15 billion global assault on AIDS. Despite widespread skepticism that he would fund it, the Administration's new budget calls for $2.8 billion next year on top of $2.4 billion this year. Bush has also come up with $2.5 billion for the Millennium Challenge Account he proposed last year to give aid and debt relief to mostly poor nations willing to fight corruption and increase social welfare.

Critics point out that even after adding up all the items in Bush's compassion agenda, overall social spending isn't rising. In fact, while he has come up with new money in some areas, his new budget finds offsetting cuts in everything from dropout prevention to a school counselor program. White House aides insist that cuts are made only in underperforming programs. "We are going to measure outcomes, not just outlays, and we are going to have high expectations instead of just annual funding increases," says Kristen L. Silverberg, a domestic White House policy aide.

Four years ago, Bush convinced many middle Americans that he was different from former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich's cut-school-lunch brand of Republican. But he has governed since as a staunch, Reagan-style conservative. Unless he can win back a relatively small group of swing voters who want an empathetic President, the road to reelection could be rocky.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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