Bush should seek legacy of compassion

It’s not too early to begin thinking about President Bush’s legacy. How will he be remembered by historians?

It’s not too early to begin thinking about President Bush’s legacy. How will he be remembered by historians?

Today, so close to Hurricane Katrina and the anniversary of Sept. 11, some might say that his primary legacy will be crisis management. That imagery seems likely to overshadow his early and notable accomplishments in educational reform or even his prosecution of the war in Iraq.

But is that the legacy that Bush himself wants? Probably not. You can’t be entirely happy being defined by events over which you have no control. No, a president’s legacy should be one of his own making.

Unless the president does take the initiative to establish a bold new foundation for his legacy, it seems unlikely that he can avoid an average approval rating of less than 50 percent in Gallup polls, a fate that befell previous Republican Presidents Richard Nixon (49 percent average) and Gerald Ford (47 percent average). It’s certainly not too late to be rehabilitating the president’s image with the right agenda, however.

President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were well below 50 percent in September 1995, but by September 1996 his approval stood at 60 percent, even with a campaign against his reelection pointing out his faults. So numbers can change fast. But the agenda must be right.

To understand where Bush needs to go to enhance his legacy and approval numbers, you have to understand where he started and how he got elected. The American people chose Bush, I think, because of two considerations. First, he was viewed as a personally moral and ethical leader, the antithesis of his predecessor Clinton.

In presidential elections, voters always seek a candidate who seems to remedy the errors of the previous officeholder. If he was sleepy, we want go-go. If he was a policy wonk, we seek a people person. If he was corrupt, we seek guilelessness. Bush was the openly repentant sinner who stood in stark contrast to the president who denied all his sins, even the ones we all knew about.

The second consideration in Bush’s election was his standing as a “compassionate conservative.” Here again, he was an answer to something that voters found missing. The conservative cadre of congressional Republicans swept into office in 1994 seemed too cold and heartless. Voters were seeking more compassion, even conservative voters. Bush was, in a sense, perceived as a moral Clinton who truly cared for the less fortunate while still following a fiscal conservative agenda.

After Sept. 11, of course, the fight against terrorism sidetracked the Bush administration. But the president has nevertheless had time to launch new initiatives to reform Social Security and deal with immigration. In the wake of Katrina, I’d now recommend that these two issues be put on the back burner. If Republicans in Congress want to keep working on either or both issues, that’s fine, but the President needs to focus elsewhere. Bush needs to focus instead again on providing moral leadership and compassion.

The arguments for this new, focused agenda are several. First, as we have noted, this is the Bush that Americans liked most when they elected him. Second, this agenda is not necessarily expensive. At least it’s not adding to the already-out-of-control costs for Iraq and Katrina recovery.

What’s important is for the president’s administration to make certain that there are no government contracting scandals on either front. The press is already trying to suggest something unseemly in the awarding of reconstruction contracts. These suggestions must be proved wrong.

It’s also important that the president stay visible and involved in the symbolism of recovery. A large portion of compassion these days is visually symbolic. Seeing the president monitoring recovery is terribly important.

Clinton’s stock in trade was feeling the pain of ordinary Americans. Some insiders snickered at that thought, but Clinton made it work for him. Bush should do the same.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.