The imagemakers who advise George W. Bush got what they wanted this week: a photograph, taken by the Associated Press and published in seemingly every newspaper in the country, of the President lifting a telephone pole as he "helped maintain" a nature trail in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
Back in July, when they were planning what the President should do during his monthlong vacation (as part of their effort to convince the public that he wasn't actually on vacation in the generally accepted sense of what the word means i.e., having fun and not working), the imagemakers hit upon a clever idea. Every week, they decided, they would send the President somewhere outside Texas for a day or a day and a half to hold an event of some kind in which he would mix with "real Americans."
The events would have little in common, except for the fact that they would be held far from Washington in the middle of August. But to tie them together and to make it seem as though the President were engaged in some concentrated activity of presidential purpose, they would name the series of trips together with his downtime at his ranch in Crawford, Texas the Home to the Heartland tour.
During his first week of vacation, Bush ventured all the way to Waco about 25 minutes from Crawford to "help build" a house with Habitat for Humanity. Though Bush spent just about 15 minutes helping, the print media dutifully reported his activity. More important, of course, was the fact that the images of Bush doing a good deed were carried across the nation on television and in photographs.
The same was true of this week's stop in the Rockies. Bush didn't actually help build that trail so much as he posed for the cameras while he simulated the act. While the President also gave a speech at the national park, the imagemakers shrewdly pinpointed the real value of the visit: the newsreels and photographs show the President as a regular guy who cares about the poor and the environment. It was a classic example of that much maligned but ever reliable staple of political activity: the photo op.
Now, I'm not going to feign shock by the fact that Bush is using photo ops in an attempt some might say a cynical attempt to influence public opinion. It would be news if he weren't doing that. But it is worth noting that in the same week that Bush ventured to a pristine piece of the country to help maintain a nature trail and tout the money he put in his budget to help restore national parks, the news out of Washington carried a very different message. The Washington Post ran an article about the Bush Administration's likely plan to rescind a Clinton-era Executive Order that forbids road building (and therefore logging) on 60 million acres of public land. And several newspapers published pieces about the Environmental Protection Agency's pending decision on whether to loosen the rules governing toxic emissions from factories, a move heavily favored, not surprisingly, by the industries that would be affected.
The President's most glaring weakness is the public's perception that he is pro-business and anti-environment. Given the high marks he's getting for his overall job performance and deft handling of the stem-cell-research question, some might even say it's his only weakness. The question now is whether a few photo ops will fix the problem or just make it worse.