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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Gas Tanking

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 8, 2005; 12:36 PM

More and more polls are telling the same story: Americans no longer approve of the way President Bush is doing his job.

What's gone wrong? Polling experts say it's not so much a flat-out rejection of the president, his values and his policies -- although that may be part of it.

They say it looks like the sudden tanking in Bush's job approval ratings may have more to do with the skyrocketing price of gas.

If true, that could be as bad a reason as any, as far as Bush is concerned. Because in reality there's very little the White House can do to directly affect gas prices, which are in large part a function of international supply and demand.

And forecasters see prices headed up, not down, for the foreseeable future.

Ask Bush or other administration officials about gas prices and they will, to a fault, suggest that Congress should pass Bush's energy bill. But that's almost a non sequitur.

When pushed, administration officials will sometimes acknowledge that the bill would not have any direct short-term effects on gas prices. And the Energy Department's own study of the energy bill said its effect on gas prices, even years into the future, would be negligible.

Bush and Vice President Cheney's oil-industry backgrounds may make them susceptible to the charge that they aren't necessarily on the consumer's side.

And if anything besides the laws of supply and demand can be blamed for the recent run-up in prices, hindsight suggests that the increased instability in the Middle East has created a hefty "risk premium" in crude oil prices, while America's SUV culture, which the White House has taken no steps to check, has only made the country more voracious in its appetite for foreign oil.

The Latest Polls

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press on the AP's latest poll: "Bush's job approval is at 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. . . .

"Record high gasoline prices, nervousness about the future of Social Security, the ongoing Iraq war and the Terri Schiavo case are all contributing, political analysts said."

Matthew Dowd, who was a strategist and pollster for Bush in the 2004 presidential campaign, tells Lester: "The president being at the lower end of his normal range has more to do with the price of gasoline and thus, economic confidence, than anything else."

But it's not just generic unease in the poll. "The number supporting Bush's handling of some domestic issues dipped between March and April, to 42 percent for the economy and 38 percent for issues like education and health care. . . .

"Support for the president's approach to his top domestic priority, Social Security, remained at 36 percent, while 58 percent oppose it."

Republican political adviser Ed Rollins tells Lester that Bush is taking a chance pushing on Social Security: " 'If he wants to make Social Security his legacy,' Rollins said, he faces the risk that 'there will be no legacy.' "

Richard W. Stevenson and Matthew L. Wald write in the New York Times: "The government projected on Thursday that gasoline prices would surge even higher in coming weeks and remain high through the summer, a forecast underscoring both the economic effect of the sharp rise in energy costs and growing political risks for President Bush. . . .

"With crude oil prices at record highs in recent weeks and still close to them, the White House is casting itself as immersed in addressing the problem. It is using the increase in oil and gasoline prices to raise the pressure on Congress to pass Mr. Bush's stalled energy bill, which the administration says would encourage domestic oil exploration and production, support alternative energy sources and improve conservation. . . .

"But Democrats say they intend to use the renewed focus on energy issues to revive their case that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom worked in the oil business, are more interested in helping oil companies than in helping consumers. And several recent polls suggest that the spike in oil prices and the resulting rise in gasoline prices have undermined Mr. Bush's political standing."

Sounds like it's time to take another look at Stuart Eugene Thiel's chart showing how Bush's approval tracks pretty closely to gas prices (inversely of course). Thiel, who teaches economics at DePaul University, maintains the Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls Web site.

A Divisive Presidency

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "After 100 days of his second term, increasing numbers of Americans believe President Bush's policies are dividing the nation, a new poll released yesterday found.

(Although it's actually only been 78 days.)

"A Westhill Partners national survey conducted for The Hotline political newsletter found that 53% of registered voters say Bush has done more to divide the country as President, while 33% believe he's done more to unite America."

Here are some more numbers from the results of the Westhill/Hotline poll:

Bush's job approval is down to 45 percent, with 51 percent disapproving.

Specifically on the economy, 38 percent approve of the job he's doing, compared to 56 percent who disapprove.

Only 41 percent would be likely to vote for him again, if the election were held today.

And here's something maybe reporters should be asking about a bit more. By a 2-1 margin (59 percent to 29 percent), respondents said they don't think Bush has a clear plan for eventually withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq. A vast majority (69 percent) said he ought to.

About Those Gas Prices

Jonathan Peterson writes on the front page of the Los Angeles Times: "On a day when California gasoline prices set a new high, the Energy Department forecast Thursday that record pump prices will not only rule the road this summer, they'll stick around through 2006 as motorists' thirst for fuel shows no sign of abating."

Kevin G. Hall, writing for Knight Ridder Newspapers, asks: "Who's getting rich off you, how'd prices get so high, who's to blame? . . .

"The most obvious villains are the giant oil companies and rich oil countries such as Saudi Arabia. But they're just two pieces of a complicated answer to why the price at the pump is so high.

"Other villains include, in no particular order: you, environmentalists, the weak dollar, government regulators, Wall Street investors, China and other developing nations. All played a role in creating today's high gas prices."

And, he notes, "the perception of risk can be as much a factor as the underlying supply-demand fundamentals in determining the value of oil."

In any case, it's nice to see reporters asking the sorts of questions I wrote about last week in a NiemanWatchdog.org item.

The President and the Pope

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush joined throngs of the faithful on Friday in paying final respects to Pope John Paul II, the pontiff whose stands on abortion and other social issues meshed with his but who criticized both him and his father for waging war with Iraq.

"Not only was Bush the first U.S. president to attend a papal funeral; he also headed a delegation to the 2 1/2-hour funeral Mass that included the first President Bush and President Clinton.

"Bush was close to the front of the section reserved for world leaders, who are being seated in alphabetical order -- in French. The United States in French is Etats-Unis. . . .

"Bush rode to Vatican City in a limousine displaying two flags, the customary American flag on the right fender and, as a tribute to the pope, the white and yellow Vatican banner on the left."

This Reuters photo shows Bush and the first lady seated next to the French and the Belgians at the pope's funeral. This other Reuters photo shows Bush with a funny look on his face, greeting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The Bush-Clinton Comparison

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush, determined not to upstage the funeral of Pope John Paul II, kept an unusually low profile in Rome yesterday, although former President Bill Clinton gave a television interview watched by millions. . . .

"Mr. Bush became the first president in years to conduct a full day's schedule on foreign soil without allowing a single press question, photograph or even fleeting image on videotape. His father, the first President Bush, also refrained from interviews."

The White House did released a bunch of its own photos of the president.

Adds Sammon: "It was the second day in a row that Mr. Clinton made headlines as he accompanied the Bushes on a three-day visit to Rome for the pope's funeral. On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton angered some conservatives by remarking aboard Air Force One that the pope 'may have a mixed legacy.' "

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "While Romans were unlikely to catch a glimpse of President Bush -- he moved only in motorcades and appeared only at a few official events -- Mr. Clinton was clearly reveling in the fact that shoppers, tourists having lunch at outdoor cafes and Italian business people walking to meetings all stopped to greet him.

" 'Isn't this a great city?' he said. Along the streets, people starting yelling 'Bill, Bill, Bill,' and a few shouted 'U.S.A.!' One shopkeeper raced out with a photograph of Mr. Clinton on a past visit. . . .

"He reminisced about his long walking tours of the backstreets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, during the last long foreign trip of his presidency. 'You go around the world and you see a lot of affection for Americans,' he said."

Where's Jimmy?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about Jimmy Carter's absence from the delegation.

"The reason has touched off a classic Washington imbroglio fueled by suspicion, animosity and distrust, one that has reopened a rift between the camps of the former president and the current one. When Carter was left off the delegation list assembled by President Bush's White House, Democrats assumed he was snubbed. The Bush team is angry at what it considers an unfair smear."

"The truth is a little harder to sort out. . . ."

The Italian Question

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "In the hours before the Pope's funeral, President Bush apologized in person for the death of an Italian secret agent killed last month in Iraq by American troops.

"Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brought up the touchy subject last night over dinner with Bush, who promised an investigation would get to the bottom of the embarrassing incident.

" 'The President reiterated our regret over the incident,' said White House press spokesman Scott McClellan."

White House Correspondents' Association News

The Associated Press reports: "Ron Fournier of The Associated Press and Susan Page of USA Today have won top awards for presidential coverage, the White House Correspondents' Association announced Thursday.

"Fournier won the Merriman Smith Award for outstanding presidential coverage under deadline pressure for his stories on President Bush's victory over Democrat John Kerry.

"After writing 67 leads over the course of a long election night, Fournier filed a bulletin quoting sources as saying that Kerry had called Bush to concede Ohio and thus the election. It is the fourth time Fournier has won the prize.

"Page won the Aldo Beckman Award for journalistic excellence for stories on the presidency and the presidential campaign."

This year's winners will be honored at the association's annual dinner on April 30.

Speaking of which, Anne Schroeder writes in The Washington Post's Names & Faces column with some breaking White House Correspondents Association dinner news: "Who's coming this year? Knight Ridder has charmed Jane Fonda and Sally Field into being its guests on April 30, while Newsweek has landed Richard Gere. People mag, we understand, has Kristin Chenoweth of 'The West Wing.' The Denver Post opted for more humorous dinner-table chatter, nabbing the cynical creators of 'South Park,' Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And ABC News has cajoled Philly Eagle Donovan McNabb, 'The Daily Show's' Stephen Colbert, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Air America's Al Franken. (Fingers crossed that they seat Franken and Dobson together.)"

Social Security Watch

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Republicans are considering temporarily sidetracking President Bush's plan for personal investment accounts under Social Security, hoping Democrats will then join compromise talks on legislation to restore the program's solvency.

"Several GOP officials said Thursday that Republican leaders discussed the possibility privately this week, recognizing that unified Democratic opposition to the accounts has so far stalled efforts to advance the president's top domestic priority."

In Wednesday's column, I called attention to an intriguing quote from White House Social Security guru Chuck Blahous, in which he said the Social Security surplus "should not be spent" -- but should instead be used to fund private accounts.

Liberal blogger Brad DeLong takes a stab at unpacking his statement.

Twins Watch

How did I miss this yesterday?

Page Six columnist Richard Johhnson writes in the New York Post: "Videotape of Jenna Bush in very high spirits at a bachelorette party is being sold and could end up on national TV by the end of the week."

First Blogger

It has come to my attention that Garrett M. Graff, the much-celebrated "first blogger in the White House," was, technically speaking, the "second blogger in the White House."

(This would make Eric Brewer, the blogger I wrote about in Tuesday's column, the "third blogger.")

Eric Pfeiffer, who writes the Beltway Buzz blog for National Review Online, blogged from the briefing room on March 1, (scroll down to "Notes from the Gaggle") almost a full week before Graff made it in.

Pfeiffer just didn't make a big deal out of it.

Nevertheless, there are some important distinctions to be made between Pfeiffer and Graff.

Pfeiffer, although primarily a blogger, works for an established media organization that has previously been credentialed by the White House. He also reports for the magazine and has previously written for other publications. On asking to get his day pass, he tells me, he identified himself as a National Review employee who blogs on the White House and Congress.

So you could say that letting him in wasn't exactly setting a new precedent for the White House press office.

By contrast, Graff, who writes the FishbowlDC blog, is employed by mediabistro.com, an independent Web site for media professionals. He is not an established journalist who could have gotten into the briefing room under any other auspices.

So while Pfeiffer was indeed the first blogger to blog from the White House briefing room, Graff can still claim credit for being the first blogger granted a day pass purely on his blogging credentials.

And that was the precedent that paved the way for other bloggers. Brewer, for instance, is a volunteer blogger who happens to be a scientist by profession.

Just to add to the confusion, the first person to have blogged a White House event, as far as I know, is neither Pfeiffer nor Graff. It's Rex Hammock. (See my Feb. 20, 2004 column.) He blogged a private meeting with Bush more than a year ago.

The New Rules

One thing Bloggers "One", "Two" and "Three" all have in common is that the White House press office gave them quite the runaround before letting them in.

This suggests to me that the press office, while not officially changing its policies post-"Jeff Gannon," has in fact established two consistent rules for bloggers (and other small-fry newbies):

1) You can't get a day pass every day anymore. If you want to come regularly, you now have to get a "hard pass," which requires passing muster with the Standing Committee of Correspondents on Capitol Hill, and then getting an FBI background check.

And 2) You don't get one at all unless you're spectacularly persistent.

The White House and Delay

How's the White House taking the stream of revelations about Rep. Tom Delay (R-Tex.)?

James Harding writes in Slate: "The House majority leader has so far commanded extraordinary, tight-lipped loyalty from the Republican ranks in Congress in the face of scandals detailed here. But precedent is not on his side. Newt Gingrich's political demise was a slow death by a thousand cuts. Today there is already plenty of speculation in Washington that the White House is wavering about DeLay: As much as the president prizes loyalty, he is intolerant of sleaze and impatient with damaging distractions from his agenda. 'Within six months, Karl will force him out,' a senior administration official from the first term says, speaking, of course, of Karl Rove."

Karl 'Kingmaker' Rove Watch

Mark Zdechlik reports for Minnesota Public Radio: "Karl Rove, the man considered to be the political mastermind of the Bush White House, will be in Minnesota Friday night to raise money for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty."

So does this mean Rove sees Pawlenty as a strong presidential candidate in 2008?

Well, maybe, maybe not. Long-time Republican strategist Paul Weyrich told Zdechlik that "Rove is holding fundraisers for practically everybody that you could consider to be a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008."

Zdechlik writes: "But Weyrich added that as Rove raises millions for Republicans around the country, he's also talent scouting.

" 'I expect that Rove won't stay in this White House for more than a couple of years,' Weyrich said. 'And at the conclusion of his service to the president, I think he's going to be looking for a client to guide into the White House in 2008. And I think this may be one way that he's looking at all potential clients for himself.' "

It's like Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek in December: "[T]he Karl Rove Primary has begun."


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