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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The No-Accountability Moment

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 11:10 AM

What were American voters thinking on Nov. 2?

Were they giving President Bush the thumbs-up on Iraq and a mandate to transform Social Security, as he has suggested in recent interviews?

Or did they vote for him in spite of their strong disapproval of his policies in Iraq and his handling of Social Security, as suggested in recent polls?

Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher wrote in Sunday's Washington Post about their 35 minutes with the president aboard Air Force One: "President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath.

" 'We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections,' Bush said. . . . 'The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.' "

Here's the full transcript of the interview.

But Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in today's Washington Post that when it comes to Iraq, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that "58 percent disapprove of his handling of the situation to 40 percent who approve, and 44 percent said the war was worth fighting."

Among the other results: "Those surveyed gave Bush negative marks -- 38 percent approval vs. 55 percent disapproval -- for his handling of the Social Security issue. . . . But by 54 percent to 41 percent, the public supported a plan that would include a reduction in the rate of growth of guaranteed benefits and private savings accounts financed with a portion of payroll taxes. . . .

"The president's overall job approval rating stands at 52 percent, up slightly in the past month. Of all presidents in the postwar era who won reelection, only Richard M. Nixon had a lower job approval rating at the start of his second term. The other chief executives began their second term with job ratings of 60 percent or higher."

Here are the complete poll results, and the polling trend data.

A Pew Research Center poll last week also found that Bush's second-term policy agenda differs in several key respects from the public's.

Also From The Post Interview

Bush didn't explain why Washington D.C. is having to spend $12 million from its homeland security budget to provide security for the inauguration, simply saying that he was in favor of the event being secure. That's a nonanswer.

The president expressed delight about the press coverage of his drive to restructure Social Security. Part of the challenge, he said, is "getting the issue moving forward. That's why I love when you all put it in the front page of your newspaper, the different aspects of Social Security; so and so says this, and so and so says that -- because it means people are at least talking about it. And my view is, the more it's talked about and the more it's debated, the more likely it is people will recognize that we have a problem that we need to address."

I wonder if he'll continue to like it as more and more reporters call him on his facts. (See below.)

And here's a particularly pithy exchange:

"The Post: Why do you think [Osama] bin Laden has not been caught?

"THE PRESIDENT: Because he's hiding."

Iran Watch

In an interview with NBC's David Gregory, Bush refused to rule out the potential for military action against Iran.

This comes in the wake of a Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker in which Hersh says his sources tell him that Bush's next strategic target is Iran.

"The President and his national-security advisers have consolidated control over the military and intelligence communities' strategic analyses and covert operations to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Second World War national-security state. Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda for using that control -- against the mullahs in Iran and against targets in the ongoing war on terrorism -- during his second term," Hersh writes.

Also from the NBC interview:

"Gregory: It's clear, sir, there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Do you think that the word of the United States is still good enough around the world for you or future presidents to ever again launch a preventative or pre-emptive military strike?

"Bush: Well, you might remember that the intelligence that we used was close to the intelligence that the U.N. had about Saddam Hussein and that many countries had about Saddam Hussein. But we did find out that he had the intent and the capability of making weapons, which in my judgment still made him a dangerous man, and the world understood how dangerous Saddam Hussein was.

"Gregory: Could you ever do it again, though?

"Bush: Well, hopefully we don't have to, but if we had to, to protect America, if, you know, if all else failed and we needed to use force to protect the citizens of the United States, I would do so."

But aren't American troops already overextended? Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "The strains on the volunteer military from the war in Iraq are now unsettling as many Republicans as Democrats -- and exposing an enduring contradiction in President Bush's agenda."

Social Security

John Roberts of CBS News also had a go at the president. Here's the video.

"Will private accounts by themselves fix Social Security?" Roberts asked.

"There's gonna be -- it's very important for people to put all options on the table with the exception of effecting those who have already retired like I have said and without raising the payroll tax -- other than that I'm open minded," Bush replied.

"Will you absolutely have to cut benefits for future retirees -- adjust the formula by which they're calculated -- in order to keep Social Security solvent?" Roberts asked.

"Well, we'll work with congress on all different ways to address the issue but one thing is for certain -- if we don't act, in other words if we fall for the line that nothing is wrong with the system, we'll either have to raise payroll taxes significantly or slash benefits and that's pretty clear."

"So was that a yes or a no?" Roberts asked.

"That is I'm working with Congress to come up with a solution," Bush said.

Bush also acknowledged that he's working under a deadline: "We got to get moving and get some things done before, before people kind of write me off."

It Just Ain't So

Maybe Bush won't be so delighted about these Social Security stories.

Karen Tumulty and Eric Roston write in Time magazine about Bush's repeated insistence that Social Security will be "flat bust, bankrupt" by the time workers in their 20s retire, will have to reduce benefits by 2018, and will be bankrupt by 2040.

"That sounds pretty scary -- except that it's not true. What will actually happen in 2018, according to the Social Security trustees who oversee the program, is that the money paid out in benefits will begin to exceed the amount collected in taxes. And since Social Security will run a surplus until then (and has been running one for some time), it has billions available that it can tap to fill the gap. Even under conservative estimates, the system as it stands will have enough money to pay all its promised benefits until 2042 and most of its obligations for decades after.

"What's more, even if you take the President at his word -- that a crisis and bankruptcy are fast approaching -- the introduction of private accounts does nothing to slow that process. On the contrary, it makes things worse, by diverting payroll taxes from current retiree benefits and bringing the end of surpluses that much closer."

MSNBC's Martin Wolk makes some of the same points: "Social Security is years away from anything that honestly could be described as a financial crisis. But that has not stopped President Bush from trying to whip up enthusiasm for his proposed personal retirement accounts by warning of an imminent disaster."

So what's this really all about?

"Just as Bush believes democracy has the power to transform places like Iraq, so too is he convinced that privatization of Social Security could recharge America's future," Tumulty and Roston write.

In his radio address this weekend, incidentally, Bush said: "Saving Social Security is an economic challenge. But it is also a profound moral obligation."

The Bush You (Really) Don't Know

Richard Wolffe weighs in with a Newsweek cover story about "the George Bush you don't know":

"As he starts his final four years in the White House, President Bush is by far the biggest agent of change in his own cabinet. Whether he's remaking his team or plotting his second-term policies, Bush's leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and covets his own downtime. In fact, Bush's aides and friends describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters details and reads avidly, who chews over his mistakes and the failings of those around him, and who has grown ever more comfortable pulling the levers of power. Of course, those closest to Bush have a vested interest in singing his praises. But they also make a compelling case that the president is a more complex and engaged character than his popular image suggests. And that he -- not Karl Rove, Dick Cheney or anyone else -- bears the full weight of responsibility for the ultimate successes and failures of his reign."

The Bush Dynasty

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "One of the 43rd president's achievements in winning reelection, according to Bush family friends and historians, is to ease the sting of the 41st president's failure to do so a dozen years earlier. The president's victory also establishes firmly a fact that earlier was open to dispute: The Bushes now belong in the top tier of political families in U.S. history."

Agenda Watch

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News & World Report: "His critics warn of endless perils and pitfalls, but Bush sees a world filled with opportunity, from the alleys of the Middle East to the classrooms of Middle America. In his inaugural address, he will summon America to lead a 'march of freedom' at home and abroad, U.S. News has learned. While the war on terrorism remains the central mission of his presidency, he wants to emphasize domestic policy in 2005. And he feels compelled to expand liberty, or his vision of it, at home by creating what he calls an 'ownership society' in which individuals keep more of their own money through tax cuts, control more of their retirement by investing part of their Social Security funds in private accounts, and improve their kids' education by increasing the accountability of schools.

"The question, of course, is what happens when Bush's big ideas run into some harsh realities."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As he prepares to launch his second term, President Bush is aiming for nothing less than a legacy that would rank him among America's great presidents."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "Republicans in Congress are growing increasingly vocal in their opposition to major items on President Bush's agenda, calling into question the likelihood of Bush's ambitious second-term program passing, even as he prepares to take the oath of office with an expanded majority of his own party."

Bush and the Lord, Part I

James G. Lakely writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush's declaration that he can't imagine anyone serving in the Oval Office 'without a relationship with the Lord' has pleased groups that say public expressions of faith have been discouraged for too long."

See my Jan. 12 column for more.

Bush and the Lord, Part II

Bush on Friday proclaimed Sunday to be Religious Freedom Day: "I encourage all Americans to reflect on the great blessing of religious freedom, to endeavor to preserve this freedom for future generations, and to commemorate this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.

He also proclaimed Sunday to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day: "I call upon all Americans to recognize this day with appropriate ceremonies in our homes and places of worship and to reaffirm our commitment to respecting the life and dignity of every human being."

Bush and the Lord, Part III

From the text of Bush's speech yesterday honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King: "Martin Luther King also knew that man's right to be free is rooted in something far beyond the charters of a country. He believed and he knew that the image of God we share is a source of our dignity as human beings and the basis for our equality. He believed and he knew that the teachings of Jesus stand in eternal judgment of oppression. He believed and he knew that the God who made us for freedom will bring us to freedom."

Bush and the Lord, Part IV

Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger and Nicholas Riccardi write in the Los Angeles Times that Bush's initiative to support faith-based social services and reach out to black pastors across the nation, "form a little-known chapter in the playbook of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign -- and may mark the beginning of a political realignment long sought by senior White House advisor Karl Rove and other GOP strategists....

"The White House adamantly denies that the faith initiative is a political tool. But the program has provoked criticism that the GOP is seeking to influence new supporters, especially African Americans, with taxpayer funds."

Bush and the Lord, Part V

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about the man who's really writing Bush's inaugural speech: Michael Gerson.

"Mr. Gerson would not preview the substance of the speech, which is certain to include the kind of religious language that Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, is known for. But he did say the president would set out the big themes of his foreign and domestic policies in Thursday's Inaugural Address and follow up with details in his State of Union address early next month. . . .

"Mr. Bush has often talked about that struggle in the context of religion, and has included religious rhetoric in the major speeches of his first term. The language has angered many of Mr. Bush's critics and unsettled some religious leaders, who say that Mr. Bush sounds more like a preacher than the president of a secular nation. Mr. Gerson is behind much of that prose, although it is speechwriters' etiquette never to claim authorship."

Bumiller notes that Gerson's role in the White House is about to get even greater.

"Mr. Gerson is now in the process of leaving speechwriting for what is expected to be a promotion to a larger policy role on the president's staff. William McGurn, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer, has moved into Mr. Gerson's old job as chief speechwriter."

Inauguration Watch

Here's another finding from the latest Washington Post poll: Two out of three Americans favor a more subdued inauguration, including nearly half of those who voted for Bush and eight out of 10 supporters of Democrat John F. Kerry.

Nevertheless, the festivities begin today.

Timothy Dwyer and Michael Laris write in The Washington Post: "About 2 p.m., President Bush is expected to be at MCI Center for 'Saluting Those Who Serve,' part of a program that includes the swearing-in and inaugural speech, a youth concert hosted by the Bush twins, fireworks, and black-tie balls and private lunches and dinners for donors who are underwriting the cost of the week. . . .

"The MCI event, to be hosted by actor Kelsey Grammer and expected to feature 7,000 military personnel in the audience, will draw on letters from members of the armed forces past and present as a way to link the war in Iraq -- and America's commander in chief -- with historic military struggles."

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "Disaffected voters can protest President Bush's second inauguration Thursday from the comfort of their own homes. Anger at Bush has inspired national calls to fast, pray, skip work, buy nothing and wear black."

She offers up a list of protest Web sites.

Mark Phelan notes in the Detroit Free Press that Bush's brand-new Cadillac limousine makes its public debut Thursday.

Cheney Watch

Richard W. Stevenson and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney is playing a potentially pivotal role in shaping the Bush administration's ambitious domestic agenda, supporting larger personal investment accounts for Social Security than many other Republicans and helping gauge how the White House should proceed on Capitol Hill, administration officials and associates of Mr. Cheney say. . . .

"Although Mr. Cheney is most identified in the public mind with foreign policy, he has also begun assertively rebutting administration critics on domestic issues, as he did in a speech last week on Social Security, while he works behind the scenes to hold together an increasingly fractious Republican Party.

"As on Iraq and other foreign policy issues, Mr. Cheney's views on domestic matters tend to favor bold action even at the risk of short-term political backlash -- what his critics would consider overreaching, reinforcing President Bush's own instincts."

Rice Testimony

National security adviser-for-now Condoleezza Rice takes center stage today.

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Condoleezza Rice's televised job interview to be the next secretary of state presents a rare opportunity for senators to ask President Bush's most trusted foreign policy confidante to explain her views and her role combating terrorism and waging war in Iraq.

"Tuesday's daylong question and answer session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considered a formality -- both Republican and Democratic senators say she will easily win enough votes for Senate confirmation."

Bush Quiz

The Associated Press presents a George W. Bush quiz.

Among the questions:

• If you hooked up headphones to Bush's iPod, what music would you hear?

• What has Bush banned from the Oval Office?

• What does the president consider one of his hidden talents?

Answers:

• Bush's iPod contains the songs of Irish-born, folk-rock singer Van Morrison, whose hits include "Moondance" and "Domino," and country singer Linda Gail Lewis, little sister of rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis. Morrison and Lewis recently united their musical talents on the album, "You Win Again."

• The president has banned jeans in the Oval Office, but he often wears cowboy boots with his suits when meeting with foreign leaders.

• Bush considers his knowledge of baseball trivia a hidden talent.

Goodbye Altoid Boy

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "Longtime George W. Bush aide Israel Hernandez, who worked his way from trusted travel aide to the lofty title of deputy assistant to the president, is leaving the White House and ending an 11-year relationship with Bush.

"Hernandez, dubbed 'Altoid boy' by Bush when his duties included dispensing breath mints, worked on his resume early Friday morning in the West Wing office where his prime task is assistant to Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser."


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