The Have-A-Nice-Day President
Before Congress let out for summer recess, George W. Bush's political lieutenants were fretting. The chief was having trouble controlling the agenda of Washington. Sure, earlier in the year he had passed a relieve-the-rich tax cut that gobbled up the available surplus. (Of the trillions of dollars in surpluses projected over the next nine years, the Bush tax cut will leave untouched only $14 billion.) But what, his advisers worried, had he done lately?
His faith-based initiative has been battered. And the politicians on the Hill had been wrangling over the patients bill of rights and campaign finance reform -- neither one a priority for Bush and his millionaire funders. The President did manage to finagle a deal in the House on patients bill of rights and win the approval of that body for his energy plan -- which showers Big Oil with tax cuts and gives a go-ahead for drilling in the Alaskan wilderness -- but both pieces of legislation are on a collision course with Democrats (and a few Republicans) in the Senate. Whatever happens on these fronts, Bush still needs what he might call a "strategery" for remaining the top dog in town.
Have no fear, his handlers have this problem licked. To define his presidency they are not going to rely on Bush's calls for privatizing Social Security and building a costly and still unproven missile defense system. Instead, according to White House planning documents, Bush will stress themes that "unite Americans by focusing on children, quality of life and universally appreciated values."
Before deciding on specifics, the Bushies want to "conduct market research to validate existing public data and further explore American views on value and community," say the documents, which were obtained by The Washington Post. (Remember, last year on the campaign trail Bush repeatedly blasted the Clinton White House for governing-by-polls.) But here are some of their preliminary ideas: promote movies that break with racial stereotypes, foster email communication between grandparents and grandchildren, encourage news organizations to "increase reporting of good news."
It's "Clinton without Clinton," Bush's planners note. As part of this effort, Bush will push such noncontroversial fare as adoption, school safety, and prison ministries, and the White House will consider encouraging public service announcements that hail the community work of movie stars. No scripts are yet available, but those spots are not too hard to envision: "If Chuck Norris can spend a day picking up litter, so can you! Chuck, the President salutes you."
The plan is called "Bush to the Nation: Have A Nice Day." Actually, that's not true. The real name is "Communities of Characters." But for the right amount of money, I'd gladly lease Bush the rights to the "Have A Nice Day" title. After all, in putting together this program, Bush aides have consulted for-profit marketing experts at MTV, Nickelodeon, and AOL Time Warner. As one document explains, the point is to "use creative media tactics to create a buzz."
Here's a suggestion for one buzzful tactic: Bush should ask Americans to send him their own ideas on how to bolster his standing by pitching "universally appreciated values." (Coming soon: the abbreviation UAVs.) This would be the first interactive White House propaganda campaign. "Hi, I'm President Bush. Tell me how you'd like to see me lead this great nation of ours." To kickstart this exercise in bottom-up image-manipulation, I'm happy to toss out a few ideas that might have yet not occurred to the Bush gang.
* Tax credits for neighborhood cookouts. Such gatherings bring together people and foster goodwill. Let's encourage more of these community-stregthening events by allowing the hosts to write off the costs of burgers, hot dogs, ribs, and Chilean sea bass. One upside: great photo ops for Bush. Imagine him wearing a "Don't You Dare Bother Me When I'm Bar-B-Qing" apron. A cautionary note: remember Gary Bauer at the pancake flipping during the New Hampshire primary last year.
* Thank an Employee. Admittedly, it's tough for the government to impose and enforce safety regulations at workplaces across the country -- especially when so much campaign money comes from employers. But even if Bush cancelled workplace ergonomic rules designed to prevent 1.8 million injuries a year, that doesn't mean he can't otherwise foster respect and concern for American workers.
By using his bully pulpit, he should encourage employers to thank their employees at least once a week. This can be done by having managers stand at entrances and issue personal expressions of gratitude, or perhaps these thank-yous can be delivered by email. (But, please, no automatic thank-you notes.) You can hear the President addressing the national convention of the Chamber of Commerce: "Just say, 'thank you.' C'mon, just tell 'em, 'thanks.' Hey, it's not like it costs you anything."
* Drugs That Help After Death. Access to expensive prescription drugs remains a problem for many Americans, particularly the elderly. Expanding Medicare to provide drug coverage is an expensive proposition -- especially when the Bush tax cuts gut the surplus. And big-government programs are not how this White House likes to do business. But every day, a good many Americans who are taking various medications die. What happens to their pills? They are thrown out.
Bush could ask the relatives of these deceased people to donate those pills to an American who needs that same medication but cannot afford it. Sure, the prescription could not be refilled. But at least for a few days or weeks an American would have medication otherwise beyond his or her financial reach. A registry could be established that posts possible recipients on the Internet. You go to it, punch in the name of the medication and out pops a list of names of people who need that medication and their addresses.
Potential soundbite for the President: "At a time of the death of a loved one, you can give the gift of life -- for a while." Possible downside: will the pharmaceutical lobby oppose?
* Sunny-side news. Every front page should remind us that life in America is not so bad and that we ought to keep the negative stuff in perspective. Once a week, Bush should appear before the press and hold up a mock-up of a newspaper front page that follows this philosophy. Sample headlines: "Four-Hundred and Thirty-four Members of U.S House Not Implicated in Any Intern-Sex Scandal," or "Almost Six Out of Seven Children in United States Live Above the Poverty Line," or "Another Day Passes Without Nuclear War," or "HMO Negligence Kills Only A Few Unlucky Americans a Year."
Sharing, thanking, grilling, and overlooking fundamental social ills. Those all qualify as UAVs. So I am eagerly anticipating Bush's embrace of these modest proposals. And I do hope he turns to the public for help in defining himself. As he could easily say, "Hey, you know, me is we."