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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Which Way Will He Go?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 4, 2004; 12:21 PM

President Bush stands before a divided nation and a fork in the road.

There's what you might call the Cheney fork.


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Vice President Cheney introduced Bush yesterday at the victory celebration and said: "This has been a consequential presidency. . . . President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."

So Bush could pursue what Cheney calls a mandate.

But in his acceptance speech, Bush himself hinted, in the most general terms possible, about what you might call the fork of healing: "So today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent.

"To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust.

"A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation."

So he could, alternately, reach out across the divide.

Today's Press Conference

Bush did not offer a lot of new insight into his plans at today's press conference.

"I'll reach out to everyone who shares our goals," he said, enigmatically. Later, he added: "I earned political capital in the campaign, and now I intend to spend it . . . on what I told the people I'd spend it on."

He was more outspoken in talking about his relations to the press corps.

"Yesterday I pledged to reach out to the whole nation, and today I'm proving that I'm willing to reach out to everybody by including the White House press corps," he said at the start of the conference.

After Associated Press reporter Terence Hunt opened the questioning with a three-parter, Bush said: "Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule. That was three."

The Big Decision

Greg Hitt and Jacob M. Schlesinger write in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Bush faces a basic decision on what his governing philosophy will be for his second term.

"He can continue, as he did often in his first term and his re-election campaign, to lean to the right, feeding off the support of a conservative base that has supported him loyally. . . . And the larger majorities Republicans won in Congress would make it easier for Mr. Bush to move this way, without much wooing of moderates in his party or Democrats.

"Yet Mr. Bush, freed of re-election worries, also could reach out more to Democrats, picking up his unfulfilled pledge of four years ago to be 'a uniter, not a divider.' "

Two possibly early tests, they write: How Bush handles the likely retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and whether he adds another Democrat to his Cabinet lineup.

The Big Questions

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "The biggest questions now may be about just what parts of that agenda Mr. Bush will choose to pursue, and just how many fights he will take on with either his liberal opponents or his conservative supporters.

"Will Mr. Bush move to create private investment accounts for Social Security, a move that would follow through on an idea he first broached four years ago, gratify free-market ideologues but discomfit fiscal conservatives worried about how he would pay for them and practical politicians fearful of simply touching such a hot issue? Will he pick confirmation fights over anti-abortion judges, or press for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage? Or neither? Or both?"

Purdum notes one sign of possible reaching out: "Mr. Cheney's daughter Mary and her longtime partner, Heather Poe, appeared together at the victory rally."

John King told Paula Zahn on CNN last night: "The president reached out rhetorically today. How does he reach out from a policy perspective? That's a big, open question, because his major initiatives, tax simplification, health care, Social Security revamping, all of the things, the details are out there and that most Democrats don't like them. So it is a major challenge.

"The president will come back with the elements of his faith-based initiative that were rejected in the last Congress, largely because Senator Tom Daschle, no longer around, told the Democrats they weren't going to give this one to the president. And there will be some other modest gestures. But that is the biggest challenge, turning this promise of bipartisanship into some action, some policy proposals that Democrats will respond to. So far, there is nothing obvious. The president will put Democrats on the Social Security Commission he wants, but that's more of a long-term project, no sense of what comes immediately."

Some Possibilities

The most likely scenario appears to be that Bush will choose to pursue a mandate, but whether he can succeed will be determined by the challenges he faces.

Jim VandeHei and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "Bush plans to pursue his campaign agenda early and aggressively, aides say."

But it's "an agenda that Republicans say will be constrained by the consequences of his first four years in office: the war in Iraq, widespread distrust of the United States abroad and yawning budget deficits back home."

Furthermore, "Bush's second term will be constrained in many ways, and not just because second terms are historically less adventurous and sometimes slowed by scandal. Bush has yet to form specific proposals for his two biggest ideas, Social Security and tax reform, and both were secondary to terrorism in his campaign."

Yet, they note: "Second terms are about legacies. And Republicans are reviving talk of the lofty ambition Bush and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, set back in 1999: a Republican 'realignment' that would give the party a broad governing majority."

Doyle McManus and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times that "although the president reached out to defeated Democrats in his brief victory remarks Wednesday afternoon, his aides and supporters were quick to suggest that his bipartisanship might not go far -- and that they expected Bush's second term to pursue even more ambitious conservative goals than the first. . . ."

Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush has made it clear, publicly and privately, that he has no intention of going out with a quiet, steady-as-she-goes second term. By his calculations, he has two years to push his ambitious domestic agenda through Congress before his power wanes and attention shifts to the next presidential election. . . .

"Over the next four years, Bush intends to set Iraq on the road to democracy, defeat global terrorism and send a wave of freedom across the Middle East. At home, he plans to extend his tax cuts to future generations, revamp the nation's legal system, bring free-market capitalism to Social Security, enact a producer-friendly energy policy and overhaul the federal tax system.

"If he succeeds, he'll leave office in January 2009 with a legacy that would rank him among America's most effective presidents. If he fails, he could be remembered as a flawed leader whose ambitions exceeded his abilities and plunged America into lasting turmoil and debt."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In his victory speech Wednesday, Bush made a nod to Democrats about the need to heal after a bitter, contentious campaign. But in reality, he doesn't need them. He has expanded Republican majorities in Congress and is in a position to put an imprint on the federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, that could last for generations."

Or Maybe He Will Try to Unite

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Aides insist the president is looking forward to burnishing his legacy and not simply positioning himself for short-term political victories.

"They say Bush will try to return to his 2000 campaign promise of being a 'uniter, not a divider' -- despite running a re-election race this year focused on core conservative issues."

The Precedent

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, his victory party delayed 12 hours instead of 36 days, as it was in 2000, claimed a broad mandate for his policies yesterday, declared 'a duty to serve all Americans' and vowed to try again to become a uniter, not a divider.

"The president's promise, coming after a presidential campaign that will be remembered for the blistering rhetoric and advertising of both candidates, echoed a declaration he made after the Florida recount battle of four years ago, when he said in the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives that he 'was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.' . . .

"Between hardball politics with Capitol Hill and the divisive decision to invade Iraq, Bush never achieved his self-description from the 2000 campaign as a uniter, not a divider. On Monday, his last full day of campaigning, he attacked Kerry by name 39 times."

The Conservatives Are Restless

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Exulting in their electoral victories, President Bush's conservative supporters immediately turned to staking out mandates for an ambitious agenda of long-cherished goals, including privatizing Social Security, banning same-sex marriage, remaking the Supreme Court and overturning the court's decisions in support of abortion rights. . . .

"Most conservatives . . . agreed that among the three arms of the right -- religious traditionalists, opponents of big government and foreign policy hawks -- it was the religious right that pulled the most weight in Mr. Bush's re-election."

The Curse of the Second Term

Susan Page and Bill Nichols in USA Today warn that "second terms can be treacherous.

"One of the few certainties of political life is that second-term presidents, constitutionally barred from running again, see their political capital quickly dwindle. Of the seven presidents elected to second terms in the 20th century, none registered historic successes. One had to resign under fire. Another was impeached."

The Plan for Iraq

Jonathan S. Landay and Hannah Allam write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush's re-election gives him greater freedom of action in Iraq, and he's expected to move quickly to try to stabilize the country, beginning with a major assault on Sunni Muslim insurgents.

"The new approach is fraught with risks, and it could take Bush a large part -- perhaps all -- of his second term, billions more taxpayers' dollars and more American lives to put Iraq on a path toward peace and begin a U.S. troop withdrawal."

Domestic Issues

Robin Toner and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's allies say they are confident he can now advance his vision of an 'ownership society' and extend his conservative, market-oriented proposals for health, economic and tax policy.

"In particular, they said he was ready and eager to tackle what many considered an extraordinarily difficult political task -- transforming Social Security so that younger workers could divert part of the taxes they pay into it to private accounts."

USA Today take a thorough look at what a second Bush term is likely to mean for business and the economy, including more oil exploration on public land, looser media ownership rules, no relief for the uninsured, more outsourcing, no world trade deals and a weaker dollar.

The Wall Street Journal also offers "a look at what the election means for individual finances in five areas: taxes, retirement, health care, college savings and energy."

More on the Challenges

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Successful in persuading voters not to change leaders in wartime, President Bush faces a second term packed with problems bred in his first, from the need for an exit strategy in Iraq to the prospect of staggering budget deficits at home."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The challenge ahead can be seen in the fiscal decline that took place between Mr. Bush's first inauguration in 2001 and his second one on Jan. 20, 2005. Federal tax revenue was $100 billion lower this year than when Mr. Bush took office, but spending is $400 billion higher.

"The ballooning budget deficits, which could total $5 trillion over the next 10 years if Mr. Bush succeeds in making his tax cuts permanent, could constrain the president's choices far more than they have in the first term."

What People Want

A post-election USA Today poll finds 51 percent of Americans pleased or very pleased by the election results and 56 percent optimistic or enthusiastic about Bush's second term.

And a quite dramatic 63 percent think Bush "should emphasize programs that both parties support," compared to only 30 percent who think that he "has a mandate to advance the Republican Party's agenda."

More Scenes From Tuesday Night at the White House

Bush called senior adviser Karl Rove the "architect" yesterday. Apparently, he was also the pep squad leader.

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "From Tuesday afternoon until the wee hours of Wednesday morning, it was Rove who kept spirits up at the White House, repeatedly telling Bush and anyone within earshot of the command center in the Old Family Dining Room that exit polls were dead wrong in pointing toward a Bush defeat.

" 'I got the first wave . . . and they didn't make sense,' Rove said. 'It was absurd.'

"Rove, who by Wednesday evening had gone more than 56 hours without sleep, spent much of Tuesday afternoon and evening contacting influential Republicans around the country, urging them to ignore the polls, recalling that the same polls four years earlier had pointed toward a Gore victory."

Richard Benedetto and Judy Keen write in USA Today about a certain point in the evening.

"His race with Kerry had come down to Ohio, which was too close to call, despite a 140,000-vote lead for Bush. Kerry, hoping that uncounted provisional ballots might make him the winner, had decided early Wednesday not to concede.

"That disturbed the Bush family, sitting around the second-floor residence in the White House and watching the returns on TV.

" 'You cannot imagine the emotion of the evening,' said former president George H.W. Bush."

Well, here's a possible hint: AFP reported that during the night, "a top campaign aide said Kerry was 'delusional' for not conceding defeat.

" 'The Kerry campaign is delusional about their chances of overturning the vote of the people of Ohio,' Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish told AFP by electronic mail.

" 'Their ploy is desperate and will do long-term damage to their party at the end of a long and grueling campaign. President Bush was re-elected tonight with the great state of Ohio in his column,' she said."

The Concession

Here's the text of press secretary Scott McClellan's gaggle yesterday, where he described the sequence of events around Kerry's concession phone call.

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "According to Mr. McClellan, Mr. Bush told Mr. Kerry in the three- or four-minute conversation that he was 'very gracious.'

" 'I think you were an admirable, worthy opponent,' Mr. Bush told Mr. Kerry. 'You waged one tough campaign. I hope you are proud of the effort you put in. You should be.' "

"Mr. Bush exchanged hugs with the others in the room, including Mr. Rove; Karen P. Hughes, his longtime communications adviser, and Mr. Bartlett. They were joined by Mr. Card; Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff; Blake Gottesman, Mr. Bush's personal assistant; and others.

"A moment later, Mr. McClellan said, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney met up just outside Mr. Cheney's office and exchanged congratulations, Mr. McClellan said.

"Mr. Bush then went back to the residence to speak to his wife, Mr. McClellan said.

"The 58-year-old president then worked out. He plans to spend the weekend at Camp David."

Campaign Redux

Lots more increasingly definitive and sometimes contradictory conclusions about how Bush won today.

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "Bush won a second term, there was general agreement yesterday, with a wave of support among conservative Republicans and like-minded independents on the issues of security against terrorism and cultural issues, including opposition to same-sex marriage. . . .

"Kerry aides acknowledged that the senator's personality and perceived values did not resonate with these voters, a fact exacerbated by Bush's attacks.

"Bush's 51 percent victory also vindicated the Republican's theory that in the current environment, appeals that resonate with the GOP base are not necessarily so different than those that would move swing voters out of the Democratic column."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Rove's relentless focus on turning out more Republican voters, many of them evangelical Christians, was the critical factor in Mr. Bush's victory, Republicans said.

"Other factors, Republicans said, were Mr. Bush's gamble to run on terrorism and his repeated use of a clear, concise message. And Bush campaign officials said they were helped by the man they called a dream opponent, Senator John Kerry, whose nuanced statements about Iraq gave them an opening, day after day, to attack him as a 'flip-flopper.' "

Kate Zernike and John M. Broder write in the New York Times: "But at heart, many Americans who made up Mr. Bush's majority said they voted not on one issue or another, but out of a less tangible sense of values. Despite misgivings about the war or unease about the economy, they said, it was Mr. Bush, not Senator John Kerry, who shared their beliefs and understood their way of life.

"In interviews around the country, people returned frequently to words like faith, family, integrity and trust. Experts will gnaw for years on the question of why Mr. Bush won and Mr. Kerry lost. But the voices of American voters the day after the election fairly shouted that the outcome was not about electoral tactics or issues, but about a fundamental question of character."

Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "President Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry for three fundamental reasons:

"He had a more resonant message.

"He was a more effective candidate.

"His team was better at getting out the vote."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "In the end, terrorism trumped everything."

The Moral Issues

Exit polls showed 21 percent of voters said moral values were the most important issue -- and 78 percent of them voted for Bush.

But what are "moral values"?

Joel Achenbach writes in The Washington Post: "The term wasn't defined, and Democrats spent much of yesterday protesting that they have morals and values, too. The term is basically a code phrase for abortion and gays. For some people, particularly religious evangelicals, these issues are even more important than Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, the environment and education. Moral issues gnaw at the guts of people who think they know right from wrong and normal from sick. The reelection of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States appears to be at least in part because of a fear that liberals favor marital unions among sodomites."

David S. Broder writes in The Washington Post: "The Democratic Party and allied groups waged an expensive and largely effective effort to increase the turnout of urban and minority voters, but Republicans trumped them by finding even more support among white voters outside the cities and inner-ring suburbs -- many of them people for whom religion is a central element.

"That yielded a quickly emerging consensus yesterday across the Democrats' ideological spectrum that they 'have to take the time to understand the concerns of rural families and Christian families,' as Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta put it."

Cabinet Watch

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush has begun preparing a second-term Cabinet that will likely lose a few well-known faces but will retain many key players and continue to be dominated by its most conservative members, say administration aides and GOP insiders.

"The expected departure of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a relative moderate, will calm the internal debates that have raged between conservatives and moderates since the beginning of Bush's first term.

"And the new appointments are expected to consolidate the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney in the national security arena, aides say."

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "With a contentious election behind them, Bush and his aides are now turning their attention to a transition process that probably began weeks ago and will undoubtedly involve departures, additions and other changes in the ranks of political appointees for months to come."

He writes that "there probably will be substantial turnover as some Cabinet members are replaced or reshuffled, and various deputies and assistants weigh whether to stay put, jockey for a better job or head to the private sector."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's re-election produced a scramble that administration officials said Wednesday could reshape the cabinet, with Attorney General John Ashcroft and the secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, considered the most likely to relinquish their posts."

W2?

So what will the shorthand be for referring to George W. Bush's second term? You can't really call it the second Bush term, on account of Bush 41. W2 has a certain panache -- it captivated the headline writers at the New York Post yesterday. Or is this 43(b)?

The Future of the Press Corps

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Now a press corps that might have been expecting a Kerry administration is grappling with the prospect of four more years of Bush.

" 'I don't know a single journalist who voted for Bush, not one,' said [Tucker] Carlson, a conservative commentator. 'The consensus in journalism is that he is not a good president.' But ideology aside, Carlson said, 'new is always better -- new story, new sources. Maybe an easier time getting through to significant people in the White House.'

"USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro sees a more fundamental problem. 'We're really worried that the message will be that total lack of access, message discipline and information processed through the blandest possible official spokesmen is the way to get reelected and succeed in American politics. I worry about a second-term climate of even more secrecy.' "

Press critic Jay Rosen, writing in his influential blog, wonders if Bush's victory will lead to the rise of an "opposition press."

"Big Journalism cannot respond as it would in previous years: with bland vows to cover the Administration fairly and a firm intention to make no changes whatsoever in its basic approach to politics and news. The situation is too unstable, the world is changing too rapidly, and the press has been pretending for too long that its old operating system will last forever. It won't."

One big factor is that, in the administration's view, "the press is weak, and almost passe," Rosen writes. "There is no need to deal with it most of the time. It can be denied access with impunity. It can be attacked for bias relentlessly, which charges up Bush supporters. It can be fed gruel in plush surroundings and will come back the next day. The Bush crowd has completely changed the game on journalists, knowing that journalists are unlikely to respond with action nearly as bold. For example, would the press ever pull out of Iraq as a signal to the Bush White House? Never, and this is why it is seen as weak."


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