"The president, much like members of Congress -- although for a shorter period of time, I might add -- believes it's important to come back home."
-- Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan, explaining the dozens of days Bush has taken off during his first six months as president
Bush may be relaxing at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, but his aides seem increasingly worried that the monthlong break is making him look like a loafer, especially when contrasted with the frenetic and poll-tested breaks of the Clinton administration. So they're busy trying to make Bush look busy, reminding reporters of his daily national security briefings, arranging short trips to "the heartland" and having him photographed wearing his reading glasses and looking studious.
But a new poll suggests most Americans don't believe that enough working will be going on during what White House staffers like to refer to as a "working vacation." The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of Americans think that Bush's 30-day break is just too long, compared with 42 percent who think it's fine.
Another of the survey's findings may give the Bush team some cause for worry. The president's approval rating slipped a single point from July and now stands at 55 percent. That's a fine number, and a statistically insignificant dip. However, the poll was conducted Aug. 3 to 5, in the midst of the first tax rebate checks being cashed and in the wake of Bush's big House wins on the patients' bill of rights and energy.
At the end of last week and through the weekend -- when the pollsters were collecting their data -- reporters from across the political spectrum were talking about how the president was on a roll, and declaring that he had been mightily underestimated and had a lot to brag about after his first six months. Yet if this survey is any indication, the American people seem to be shrugging off Bush's last-minute legislative blitz and the glowing six-month progress reports.
Furthermore, depending on how determined the president is to relax during his vacation, the public will be treated to a series of stories about Bush walking around his ranch, reading novels and doing a lot of nothing for the rest of the month. Republicans have to wonder whether all this might play into Democratic hands, making it easy to depict Bush as out of touch with regular working folks for whom a month off is an unattainable luxury. With his father's legacy in mind, surely Bush must remember how pictures of the elder Bush's Maine vacations in times of economic instability reinforced the idea that he lacked empathy.
Many of the president's allies among the nation's governors are openly questioning whether he has lost his empathy for their struggles with federal mandates. At a governors gathering in Rhode Island, several attendees cited Bush's education and energy plans as full of opportunities for the federal government to meddle in local and state affairs. They were particularly concerned about new aggressive requirements for standardized testing in schools and the energy plan's provisions allowing the federal government to override state and local preferences about land use.
Bush is suffering other fallout from his energy plan. With Vice President Cheney continuing to resist demands from the General Accounting Office that he release documents relating to the formation of White House policy on the issue, citing concerns about the constitutional separation of powers, the matter could end up in court. GAO officials are refusing to rule out a lawsuit against the administration to force the White House to turn over the records.
Meanwhile, the administration has lost a member of its energy team to burnout. Curt Hébert, whom Bush appointed to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January, announced Monday that he was resigning from the post. Democratic legislators -- particularly those from California -- have accused Hébert and other FERC members of letting the power industry swindle their constituents by inflating fuel prices. At the same time, representatives of energy companies have accused the FERC of caving to political pressure for implementing modest price controls in California and other Western states.
Bush has already picked a replacement for Hébert, so that's one item he can't claim to be working on during his days in Crawford. But he'll still have plenty of work to do, even if his aides have to spend all their time coming up with it.
And don't miss the White House staff giving Tina Brown's Talk magazine the silent treatment. The Bush team is reportedly furious over a fashion spread in this month's issue depicting twins Jenna and Barbara Bush as party girls who end up in jail. Talk representatives counter that the magazine is nonpartisan, frequently takes shots at Democrats and sometimes includes flattering pieces about Republicans.
If the White House wants to keep the twins out of the limelight, Jenna and Barbara aren't helping. According to the New York Post, the "Twin Terrors" are partying hard in Los Angeles, where Jenna has an internship with Hollywood talent firm Brillstein-Grey. They recently attended a rowdy bash to mark the opening of the movie "American Pie 2," as well as another Hollywood party at which Jenna was allegedly photographed with an alcoholic drink in her hand.
Tuesday schedule: On the fourth day of his Texas vacation, Bush will venture into the town of Crawford.
This day in Bush history
Aug. 7, 1992: President Bush started a five-day "working vacation" at his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The five-day break was the shortest summer vacation of the Bush presidency. He kept it quick in part to quiet Democratic critics who suggested a long vacation was inappropriate during a national economic slump and Republican critics who claimed that a long vacation would create the impression that Bush didn't take his upcoming election fight seriously.
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