Bush Needs More Face Time

Posted: Jun 01, 2001 12:00 AM
"Face time" is what staffers to the powerful covet -- one-on-one encounters with the person who wields power. Especially in politics, where access is everything, face time equals power for the underling. But even for the president of the United States, a certain amount of face time is essential to success. The faces President Bush needs to encounter are those of the voters. And he needs more. This is not to suggest that Bush should emulate former President Clinton, who did not let a screen door slam on a cat's tail without rushing to unveil his administration's plan to manage the errant screen-door problem. Some have noticed with gratitude Bush's willingness to forego the limelight. But when it comes to policy, this president should step forward a bit more. He should explain himself. Why? At least two reasons. The first may seem too silly to dignify, but it is the case that millions of Americans have bought the idea -- absurd to anyone actually covering the presidency but tirelessly peddled by Democrats -- that Bush is not really running things in this administration. As this new urban legend has it, Dick Cheney is actually the puppet master making the important decisions. More formal televised speeches and evening press conferences would puncture this hot air balloon in short order. The other reason to use the bully pulpit is that any conservative president must always see his ideas pass through the distorting lens of the liberal media. Ordinary politicians find it difficult if not impossible to out-shout them, but the president has a unique capacity to speak to the people over their heads. Even President Reagan, who began his term with a working majority in both houses (conservative Democrats in the House voted with the President on key questions), nevertheless addressed the nation on television to explain his program and ask for public support. As the Jeffords defection reminds us, Bush faces a divided Congress. The combination of a divided Congress and a hostile press means that presidential persuasion is all the more necessary. Karen Hughes and Karl Rove might well reply that Bush has passed a tax cut, proof that the techniques he's been using are successful. But on other matters -- education, the environment, energy policy -- he has suffered both substantive and public-relations damage -- nearly all of it unnecessary. Concerning the California energy mess, the president, true to form, has resisted the seductive and doubtless politically popular route of "price caps." But he has not adequately explained his rationale to the public. A recent Gallup Poll shows that nine out of 10 Americans believe that energy companies are at least somewhat responsible for the nation's current energy troubles, and 52 percent believe they deserve a "great deal" of the blame. In fact, as Bush could explain to the nation, California's troubles have many roots. One is the Internet. No one anticipated, a decade ago, that people were going to spend three hours per night on their computers. Also, crunchy granola-eating Californians have consistently refused to build new power plants. Not a single new plant has come on line in the past decade. Meanwhile, the legislature mandated that utility companies purchase part of their power from expensive -- but supposedly environmentally friendly -- sources, like solar and wind, thus driving up prices. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorialized, "Far from understanding the link between their imprudent extremism and the situation they face today, Davis and other state leaders are, incredibly, calling for even more wrongheaded policies." The Bush administration has promised to ease the licensing process so that California can build new plants more quickly. And it has provided subsidies to help low-income people pay higher electricity bills. That is not the way Democrats like to handle things. They like government to appear to ease the burden of the middle class. You buy more votes that way. But price caps such as Gov. Gray Davis is demanding would only ensure more shortages and even higher prices later. (Remember wage and price controls under Nixon?) There is a lot for Bush to explain. It would be good for the nation and for his own political prospects if he did so formally