The Other Great Empathizer


By Richard Dunham When she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton wrote a book entitled It Takes a Village, touting the virtues of communities pulling together for a common good. Now George W. Bush realizes it may take a village to raise his popularity rating.

Word is, after a monthlong respite at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, the President is going to focus more on themes that "unite Americans." That's a switch from focusing on issues that divide Americans, like drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and funneling federal funds to religious groups that provide social services. Internal memos say the plan will be called "Communities of Character" and it'll emphasize universal values and positive images for impressionable youngsters. According to one insider quoted by The Washington Post, it'll be "Clinton without Clinton."

SMALL ISSUES, BIG RESONANCE. Geez. Partisans will quickly note the delicious irony of this all (remember how Candidate Bush mocked Hillary's book?). But we should all give at least two cheers to the White House. This communitarian approach is likely to be a political and policy winner for the President.

Yes, it's small bore. But so was Bill Clinton's push for the return of school uniforms. Policy mavens snickered, but ordinary Americans responded. The bottom line is that it helps Bush stake out the political center after spending most of his Presidency on the right flank. All the while, it allows Bush do what he does best: preach about values. The President is at his most articulate when he's talking about the issues facing American families in modern society, from school safety to teen pregnancy to drug and alcohol abuse. And this strategy emphasizes Bush's strongest attribute: character. In a July 30 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 68% of Americans said Bush had strong personal character.

Though he hasn't been very effective to date at using the bully pulpit, Bush is sure to be more comfortable when he's asking Hollywood to avoid racial and ethnic stereotypes in movies. Or when he's asking American newspapers to write about more "good news" involving volunteers working in local communities. Who can object to this? Even the Republicans who ridiculed Clinton's mini-initiatives will applaud Bush's version.

A THOUSAND SIMILARITIES. You can think of it as the lite version of "a thousand points of light," which was the community-service initiative promoted by Bush's father when he was President. And though W's plans may be "less filling" than other meaty matters in the nation's capital, they're likely to "taste great" when it comes to public opinion.

Here's why. Bush has a problem with the perception that he's in the bag to business and campaign contributors. According to the ABC/Post poll, 67% of Americans believe that large corporations have too much influence over Bush. And 72% say wealthy people have too much sway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When it comes to "people like you," 67% of the American people say they have too little influence in Bushland. "Communities of Character" can't possibly hurt Bush as he tries to change these perceptions in time for the 2004 Presidential election.

When he crusades across the country, Bush will be standing up to big media corporations that invade our homes with sleazy entertainment. He'll lecture tobacco and alcohol companies that try to cleverly market their products to underage users. He'll tell corporations that it's time to jettison those old cultural stereotypes that have created glass ceilings for women and Hispanics and African Americans and Asian Americans.

LIP-BITING TIME? These are exactly the kinds of cultural initiatives that worked so well for Bill Clinton as he sought to stake out the political center. George W. Bush may be no Bill Clinton -- personally, or as a communicator -- but it's clear that he's learned a few lessons from the master of empathy. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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