Think the store carries PR tools?

December 05, 2003|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Most people who stop at a Home Depot do so to buy. But when the president of the United States breezes into the chain's store in Halethorpe today, he won't be comparing prices on duct tape or Poulan Pro chain saws.

George W. Bush will be selling - himself, mainly, hoping the public accepts him as focused on ensuring an economic recovery and compassionate about the millions of workers who have lost their jobs during his presidency. He tried the same thing earlier this month when he told a business group in Dearborn, Mich.:

"That's tough when there's a recession. That means negative growth. It means businesses, in order to survive, sometimes lay people off, which, worse, means that some of our fellow citizens are looking for work and are having trouble feeding their family."

Bush has had something to crow about lately, as economic reports finally suggest a turnaround, and today's employment report is expected to show that the country added jobs in November for the fourth straight month.

By talking to employees at the Home Depot, there may be another benefit, say those who follow every utterance and flinch made by politicians, particularly the president.

"He's trying to show that he's a regular guy," says Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "They're saying, `OK, maybe he did order the bombing of Iraq, but he's a nice guy. He hangs out at Home Depot just like other folks.'"

It's the same motivation when Bush's advisers permit him to be photographed by the press chopping cedars or hauling brush when he's home in Crawford, Texas.

Most "regular guys," of course, don't own a 1,600-acre ranch, or manage to turn a $600,000 investment in a baseball team into an estimated $14.9 million payoff, or are president of the United States, or have a father who was one as well.

President Bush, of course, is not unique in manipulating public opinion.

"Almost anything a president does publicly is well scripted in advance, and is done for public relations and symbolic politics," says Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis & Research, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

And the stunts often work, notes Crenson, because "voters operate with very limited information. ... They will construct images of candidates based upon very few fragments of information." What better place to do a little construction than a home-improvement store?

Richard E. Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, says the president's Home Depot stop today is certainly about conveying that he's in touch with the people.

"Home Depot is, metaphorically, the average person," he notes.

But, Vatz adds, there may be more to Bush's visit than transparent PR fluff.

"It tells us that Maryland is no longer an automatic Democratic state," he says. "I think the voting positions of Marylanders are sufficiently unstable that the state may be up for grabs."

And who knows - maybe the president will get really lucky and find, amid The Home Depot's vast stacks of merchandise, those elusive weapons of mass destruction he's been looking for.

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