Bush returns to domestic politics

After success in Europe, relaxed president blocks Fla. drilling, eyes election

May 30, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After nation-hopping across Europe, President Bush returned home and immediately narrowed the scope of his focus from world affairs to Florida (and Bush family) politics.

The president handed his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, a boost yesterday by announcing that the administration had agreed to pay $235 million to block several oil companies from drilling off the Panhandle and in the Everglades.

About half the money, $115 million, would buy out nine oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The additional $120 million, if approved by Congress, would buy back drilling rights in part of the Everglades.

The decision is sure to help the younger Bush - who is up for re-election - fend off attacks from his state's potent environmental lobby.

The president's decision marked a clear exception to his determination to boost oil and natural gas drilling across the country. In a brief statement, he said his administration would "take seriously the views of local communities." Florida, he said, is "known for its strong commitment to preserving these extraordinary natural resources, and the federal government is a strong partner in those efforts."

Environmental groups, which tend to rail against Bush's policies, applauded his announcement. Some said, though, that they hoped the president would do the same for states that are not as politically crucial.

"The Bush administration has finally realized that jeopardizing Florida's spectacular coastline for a few weeks' worth of oil and gas makes no sense," said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We hope the administration will apply the same logic to other sensitive public lands."

Opinion polls show that 75 percent of Florida residents oppose drilling off their coast. After paying a visit to his brother in the White House, the Florida governor was asked whether he stood to reap political benefits from the president's actions.

He replied: "I hope so. But more importantly, it is good public policy. And when there's a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it."

In making his announcement, a president who prizes both his personal and political routines reclaimed a comfort level yesterday after being largely out of his element in Europe.

Consider: Bush, who cherishes sleeping in his own bed, was forced to sleep in hotels and elsewhere for six days. He often prefers to be in bed by 10 p.m., yet he found himself eating Euro-style until almost midnight and being shortchanged on sleep on several occasions.

And the president showed yesterday just how eager he was to return to domestic politics. Given the midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress, Bush is likely to be an aggressive campaigner in chief in coming months.

"From now on, it will be all politics," said Stephen Hess, who served two Republican presidents and is now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Hess compared Bush with his father, who was considered a master at foreign policy but appeared shaky as a campaigner or when talking directly to Americans about everyday concerns. The younger Bush connects with many Americans and Republican donors, but is still unproven on the world stage. Yet Hess deemed the president's European tour a success.

"This is a person whose strength is how very domestic he is and how he is an untraveled American," Hess said. "Every time he goes abroad and doesn't slip on a banana peel and gets the respect a head of state from the United States should get, it is - politically and otherwise - a success."

Other presidents have suffered the kinds of humiliations that Bush avoided. President Ronald Reagan was so exhausted on one European tour that he fell asleep during a meeting at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II. The elder Bush once threw up in the Japanese prime minister's lap at a state dinner in Tokyo.

The centerpiece of the trip was the signing of an arms treaty between Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Equally important, perhaps, was that Bush helped formalize a new relationship between Russia and the NATO alliance. The arrangement should further Russia's growing ties to the West, which both Bush and Putin are trying to solidify.

Throughout the trip, Bush was in all ways himself. He constantly tried to charm other world leaders, occasionally to the point of awkward informality. He called the president of Russia "Vladimir." The President of France was "Jacques."

Some Russian observers were appalled to see images of Bush chewing gum while entering an event with Putin. (Bush removed the gum from his mouth before the event - a move also caught on television).

The president tried to charm the pope, who, while meeting with Bush at the Vatican, put his hands to his ears when photographers began loudly snapping their cameras. "They'll make you look good, your Holy Father," said Bush, ever the comforter.

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