President Bush sounded a bit like Bill Clinton yesterday, telling Americans who are out of work, short on cash or frustrated by the rapidly changing economy that he feels their pain.
Speaking at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Lusby, Md., Bush delivered his standard call for a national energy policy with a new rhetorical twist -- an appeal to the millions of people not cashing in on global trade, the recent rounds of tax cuts or the business-friendly environment fostered by the president.
"I know some workers are concerned about jobs going overseas," Bush said. "I know some are concerned about gaining the skills necessary to compete in the global market that we live in. I know that families are worried about health care and retirement, and I know moms and dads are worried about their children finding good jobs."
But Bush did not promise new policies. Instead, a top aide said, the president was reviving a strategy first tested in 2002 to present his agenda as one aimed at the working man and woman. "It's a familiar message . . . but one we have turned to again because we want people to consider the legislative priorities . . . in the context of a larger strategic goal of creating economic security for working families," said a senior White House aide, who demanded anonymity to discuss the tactical shift.
With recent polls showing Bush's popularity sagging, the White House is searching for a new way of connecting with the American people on economic issues and the war in Iraq. Bush aides had forecast that the president would begin speaking more forthrightly about problems in both areas, trying to disabuse some Republicans of concerns that he risks seeming indifferent or out of touch. Yesterday's event reflected the shift in tone, but it also made it clear that the president is not altering in any fundamental way his policies or arguments for them.
The event also highlighted a contrast between Bush and his predecessor. In general, Bush aides have been disdainful of what they regarded as Clinton's overly reactive and insincere politics of empathy. In times of trouble, however, the current president has tried to match Clinton's empathetic notes -- though usually not his practice of proposing scores of narrowly focused policies to target constituencies. Bush, aides said, thinks Clinton downsized the presidency and does not think his own policies need to be changed.
In the case of Iraq, Bush is getting a series of private briefings from military officials this week in preparation for Friday's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and a speech next Tuesday. One Republican official who discussed Iraq with Bush said the president is as confident as ever that significant progress is being made training Iraqi troops and setting the stage for some troops to come home next year. Still, Bush assured GOP senators this week that he plans to speak as candidly as possible about the troubles ahead.
Bush said one solution to economic problems is to enact his national energy policy -- which provides a mix of new spending and tax breaks to promote conservation, oil drilling and new sources of fuel -- and reduce taxes, regulation and the threat of lawsuits to create a more predictable business climate.
The president visited Calvert Cliffs to tout nuclear energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. Calvert Cliffs, which produces enough megawatts per hour to meet about one-third of Maryland's energy needs, is a possible site for the first new nuclear energy reactor to be built in the United States in 30 years. "There is a growing consensus that more nuclear power will lead to a cleaner, safer nation," Bush said. "It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again."
Nuclear power is gaining in popularity among policymakers and even some environmentalists almost two decades after the disaster at Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union, illuminated the dangers of that technology. Since then, China, France and other nations have moved aggressively to build new and safer plants while construction of nuclear facilities came to a standstill in the United States. Bush said nuclear power meets about 20 percent of the United States' energy needs, compared with 80 percent of France's. The Bush energy plan would ease the licensing process and provide more than $1 billion to expedite new construction.