One day, President Bush is praising the wild beauty of the Everglades, while a curious alligator peers from a slow-moving slough perhaps 50 feet away. The next, he will be pounding nails at a volunteer home-building work site.
Day by day, with visual props at the ready, Bush is trying to drive home the theme that his personal and presidential interests reach beyond tax-cutting to encompass the environment and the needs of the poor.
With the fight over his signature tax cut behind him, and a second big battle involving education policy going largely his way, the president is entering the summer casting a softer shadow.
On Monday, he spent the morning in Everglades National Park, his second visit to a national park in five days. Today, at a Habitat for Humanity site in Tampa, he will turn the spotlight of the presidency on volunteer efforts and the importance of home ownership.
The president’s helicopter set him down near an area of the Everglades that was farmed from 1909 to 1975 and is undergoing reclamation in a program Congress approved late last year.
“Growth and progress are desirable, and environmental destruction is not inevitable. We must build and plan with respect for nature’s prior claims,” Bush said.
Bush also announced his appointment of Fran P. Mainella, long-time director of Florida’s state park system, to head the National Park Service.
The president, reaching out to new audiences, is sending a message that echoes one used by his father during the 1992 primary election campaign, when the elder Bush told a New Hampshire audience, “Message: I care.”
The previous President Bush took the theme of compassion to a state struggling in the grips of recession, to demonstrate to a skeptical electorate that he was concerned about the economic hardship they faced.
The second President Bush faces no such political pain today. But his travels nevertheless suggest a desire to demonstrate concern for issues other than taxes.
And so he is in Florida, a state that was crucial to last year’s victor and would likely be just as important in a presidential race three years from now, paying homage to the nation’s largest subtropical wilderness.
More is at stake than the environment and volunteerism in the trips this week and last, when he wound up his California visit with a stop at Sequoia National Park.
In the end, Bush’s standing on the environment could drag down his overall poll ratings, making it more difficult to win approval of a variety of policy initiatives.
Bush began his tenure by blocking the Clinton administration’s effort to reduce arsenic in drinking water and discarding a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Both moves left an “initial bad impression” that will be hard to overcome, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
“Almost all polls show he makes lower grades on the environment than on other aspects of his agenda,” Kohut said. “Public opinion of his energy policy was very affected by his bad image on the environment. It’s something he has to work on.”
And it will take more than picture-perfect visits to national parks. “He’s going to have to take some strong environmental stands in order for people to think differently about him,” Kohut said.
Environmentalists contend that Bush’s recent trips amount to little more than posturing.
“Frankly, what we’re seeing is an effort to try and repair the damage that his actions in the first four months in the presidency have done. He dramatically underestimated the power of environmental issues with the voting public,” said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
Callahan said Bush has put a positive gloss on his limited support of the national parks. While pledging to increase funding for roads and buildings, she said, Bush has only slightly increased money available to protect valuable historic and natural resources.
In Sequoia, the president emphasized efforts to reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance, rather than spending money to purchase more park land.
On Monday, the president outlined what he is calling “a new environmentalism for the 21st century.”
It does not necessarily mean less of a role for the federal government, he said. Rather, it would increase the authority of state and local governments “to do more to protect the environment.”
“We mean that the federal government will work more closely and effectively with people closest to the problem and, therefore, best-equipped to solve it,” he said, citing the combined federal and state effort to restore the Everglades.
The nearly 1.4-million-acre park at Florida’s southern tip has been struggling against years of development to the north, which has restricted the crucial flow of clean, fresh water.
Speaking to about 100 park workers and others, Bush drew attention to the $58-million increase he is seeking for the park’s restoration budget this year, bringing it to $219 million.
That is part of a 35-year, $8-billion federal-state project launched a year ago.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this story.
Preserving ocean: Bush wants to create marine protected areas. B1