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It's good to be president, for perks alone

Being the president while running for re-election has its perks, including free trips on Air Force One and a supply of Cabinet secretaries who can fan out across swing states, bearing money for local schools or hurricane relief.
/ Source: The Associated Press

No president chasing re-election runs alone.

His Cabinet secretaries fan out across swing states, bearing money for local schools or hurricane relief. White House staffers cater to key constituencies. A platoon of federal employees trumpets accomplishments, large and small.

This crowd comes courtesy of the taxpayer, a perk of the office — just like free trips on Air Force One — so long as there is a veneer of official business.

If President Bush's re-election bid differs from recent predecessors, it's a matter of degree. Some say Bush has elevated the routine milking of government resources to an art form.

"He's just better at it," said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. "Bush has a mastery of this perquisite that no previous president had, and he uses it to extreme."

Not surprisingly, Democrats grouse about the thousands of miles Bush Cabinet members have logged visiting political battlegrounds. While they travel, vice presidential candidate John Edwards asks, "Who's minding the store?"

Vice President Dick Cheney had similar complaints in 2000, when the shoe was on the other foot. As Bush's running mate, Cheney expressed outrage that then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had "jumped right in with both feet in the partisan debate" with comments supportive of Democratic nominee Al Gore.

Cheney noted that Treasury secretaries — like the leaders of the State, Defense and Justice departments — traditionally stay mostly above the election fray.

That was then.

Nowadays, Cheney isn't complaining about Treasury Secretary John Snow's frequent flights, almost exclusively to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and other states key to this year's presidential race.

Working or campaigning?
Last week, Snow visited Lancaster, Pa., and Tampa and Orlando, Fla., "to discuss the president's efforts to strengthen the economy and create jobs," according to his office. Snow says he's doing his job, not campaigning.

There are risks in sending presidential surrogates onto the field: Sometimes they fumble. In Ohio, Snow declared it a "myth" that the nation has lost jobs under Bush, and John Kerry jumped on the comment as evidence the administration was out of touch.

The Kerry camp is also criticizing Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, for a final-days spate of speeches in battleground states. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Carter, called Rice's speeches "excessive politicization of an office which is unusually sensitive."

The White House said Rice was performing her duty of explaining the administration's war policies.

More attention given to battleground states
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says his department doesn't "do politics." Yet over the past seven months, nearly three-fifths of his public events beyond the Washington area were in the 17 states considered the most hotly contested.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has asked the Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency, to investigate whether political considerations played a role in trips by Ridge, Rice or Snow.

Others among the 15-member Cabinet doing quasi-stumping include Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Like the president himself, they like to herald federal goodies — a strategy dating at least to Carter.

Chao hands out job-training money, such as $10 million for a church-based program in Jacksonville, Fla. Veneman's grants include $207 million to clean up drinking water for Columbus, Ohio. Norton announced, only weeks before Election Day, a new wildlife refuge in Minnesota and a new national park in Colorado — both projects in the works for years.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans is especially effusive. In Cincinnati, he assured a Realtors' group that "President Bush is a steady, principled, determined and decisive leader." On the other hand, "the president's critics offer higher taxes and a larger federal government."

Even career federal employees — who are forbidden by law from politicking — are drawn into work that dovetails with campaign messages.

The Treasury Department analyzed Kerry's tax proposal, and its findings were posted on a Republican Party Web site.

The Health and Human Services Department spent millions promoting Bush's prescription drug plan with what Democrats called thinly disguised campaign commercials.

Presidents increasingly set up White House outreach offices to cater to their base of support, such as Bush's office for faith-based initiatives, said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. "You can't separate the politics from the policy," she said.

Over time, such efforts may attract new supporters, Light said. But he doubts Cabinet speeches have much effect in the final weeks of a heated race.

"At this late date you could throw the entire 3,000 appointees out there on a bus tour and it wouldn't make much difference," Light said.

"The only thing that could make a difference now is if (Health and Human Services Secretary) Tommy Thompson went on the road with 10,000 doses of flu vaccine."