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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Ready to Barnstorm

By Dan Froomkin
Special to wasingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; 1:23 PM

At the first news conference of his second term, a peppy President Bush announced that he'll be barnstorming the country after his State of the Union address, making his case for remaking the Social Security system directly to the American people.

"Right after my State of the Union, I think I'm going to four or five states to continue to address this issue. . . . I can remember President Clinton doing the same thing on Social Security. I thought he was very effective in keying up the issue, of making the case. And I will do the same thing," he said.

Here's the transcript.

"I am going to continue to speak directly to the American people about this issue," he said.

Bush also expressed optimism about the upcoming election in Iraq. He said his inaugural address does not comprise a policy shift or a new aggressive posture, but "sets a bold new goal for the future." He soundly condemned the practice of paying commentators to support his agenda.

But he wouldn't respond to the charges from Senate Democrats that they were lied to in the run up to war in Iraq.

And he sidestepped a question about torture and newly disclosed statements from White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's nominees to be attorney general.

The news conference, his first in more than a month, came as Democratic senators heaped criticism on the judgment and credibility of two of Bush's closest aides: Gonzales and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bush's new (as of today's 85 to 13 Senate vote) secretary of state.

Senate Democrats Attack

Charles Babington writes in this morning's Washington Post: "Senate Democrats delivered one of the sharpest critiques yet of the Bush administration's credibility and its handling of the Iraq war yesterday, as the Senate prepared to confirm Condoleezza Rice's nomination to be secretary of state today. . . .

"Too many Republican senators allow Bush's top aides 'to get away with lying,' said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who opposed the war and will face reelection next year in the swing state of Minnesota. 'Lying to Congress, lying to our committees and lying to the American people. It's wrong, it's immoral.' The only way to stop it, Dayton said, is to keep the administration from promoting officials 'who have been instrumental in deceiving Congress and the American people, and regrettably that includes Dr. Rice.'"

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said: "This is no ordinary incompetence. Men and women are dying as a result of these mistakes."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Joel Brinkley write in the New York Times: "Democrats assailed Ms. Rice -- and, by extension, President Bush -- and accused her of having exaggerated the threat of unconventional weapons before the war and failing to offer a realistic portrait of the continuing difficulties facing American forces in Iraq."

Gonzales and Torture

The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted 10 to 8, split right along party lines, to approve Gonzales's nomination, sending it to the full Senate.

Jesse J. Holland reports for the Associated Press on the stinging rebukes from Democratic senators.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said of Gonzales: "Based on the glimpses of secret policy formulations and legal rationales that have come to light, I believe his judgments not to have been sound."

"His judgment is defective," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware.

Frank Davies wrote for Knight Ridder Newspapers this morning: "Alberto Gonzales has asserted to the Senate committee weighing his nomination to be attorney general that there's a legal rationale for harsh treatment of foreign prisoners by U.S. forces.

"In more than 200 pages of written responses to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who plan to vote Wednesday on his nomination, Gonzales told senators that laws and treaties prohibit torture by any U.S. agent without exception.

"But he said the Convention Against Torture treaty, as ratified by the Senate, doesn't prohibit the use of 'cruel, inhuman or degrading' tactics on non-U.S. citizens who are captured abroad, in Iraq or elsewhere.

Here's an excerpt from the written submissions, where Gonzales answers a question from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.):

"KENNEDY: The FBI e-mails produced in the ACLU lawsuit include reports that detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo have suffered from the following abuses: Detainees were bound hand and foot and left in urine and feces for 18-24 hours; cigarette burns were inflicted; detainees were exposed to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods; enemas were forced on detainees.

"Do you believe any of these practices were or are lawful interrogation techniques or lawful detainee management?

"GONZALES: I found those e-mails to be shocking and deeply troubling. While I share a revulsion to the use of practices such as those described, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to address reports of interrogation practices discussed in the press and attempt to analyze whether such reported practices are lawful.

"In addition, were the administration to begin ruling out speculated interrogation practices in public, by virtue of gradually ruling out some practices in response to repeated questions and not ruling out others, we would fairly rapidly provide al Qaida with a road map concerning the interrogation that captured terrorists can expect to face, and would enable al Qaida to improve its counter-interrogation training to match it."

"The Department of Justice has been asked to review specific interrogation practices used in the conflict with al Qaida and the Taliban and has concluded that they are lawful under the torture statute."

Bush, Blacks and Social Security

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush met yesterday with a group of black business, religious and community leaders, using the opportunity to talk up his plan to allow workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to private accounts. . . .

"Bush's meeting with the right-leaning black leaders came one day before a session with the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, which, like much of the nation's black civil rights and political leadership, had a difficult relationship with the president during his first term."

Peter Wallsten and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Race became a significant factor in the debate over Social Security on Tuesday as President Bush told African American leaders that the government retirement program shortchanged blacks, whose relatively shorter lifespan meant that they paid more in payroll taxes than they eventually received in benefits."

Blogger Joshua Micah Marshall points to this Jan. 17 editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which says that Bush's assertion that blacks are shortchanged by Social Security is "entirely phony. . . . [I]t has been debunked by the Social Security Administration, by the Government Accountability Office and by other experts. . . .

"Bush didn't make up this phony line on his own; it comes from the Heritage Foundation."

So here's the Heritage report.

Here's a response from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

And here's an official Social Security Administration analysis. They're all from the late '90s.

Deficit Watch

This year's federal deficit will set a new record, but press secretary Scott McClellan says the administration is still "on track" to meet its goal of cutting the deficit in half in five years.

Here's the text of yesterday's press briefing.

McClellan: "The President has a deficit reduction plan. It's based on strong economic growth and spending restraint. By taking steps that we have to get our economy growing stronger and creating jobs, we're also seeing increased revenues coming in. And by working with Congress to exercise responsible spending restraint, we've got a plan to cut the deficit in half over the next five years. And we are -- we are on track to meet that goal."

And now some facts.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Additional war spending this year will push the federal deficit to a record $427 billion for fiscal 2005, effectively thwarting President Bush's pledge to begin stanching the flow of government red ink, according to new administration budget forecasts unveiled yesterday.

"Administration officials rolled out an $80 billion emergency spending request, mainly for Iraq and Afghanistan, conceding that the extra money would probably send the federal deficit above the record $412 billion recorded in fiscal 2004, which ended Sept. 30. Bush has pledged to cut the budget deficit in half by 2009, a promise the administration says it can keep. But at least for now, the government's fiscal health is worsening."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The White House's announcement makes it the fourth straight year in which the budget deficit was expected to grow; as recently as last July the administration had predicted that the deficit, which was $412 billion last year, would fall this year to $331 billion."

He adds: "Neither estimate includes the cost of privatizing part of the Social Security program, the leading element of Mr. Bush's domestic agenda. Estimates of the cost of creating those accounts range from $1 trillion to $2 trillion over the next two decades.

"The Congressional Budget Office noted that if Mr. Bush wins Congressional approval to make his tax cuts permanent, a top priority for the administration, the deficit would grow by $2 trillion over the next 10 years. If war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan taper off gradually, the agency estimated that price tag over the next 10 years could total nearly $600 billion."

Here is Bush's statement on the supplemental budget request.

Who Invited Him?

The new war request raises the total cost of military operations since Sept. 11, 2001, to about $280 billion.

Dana Bash reports on CNN that, apparently by coincidence, Larry Lindsey was over at the White House yesterday for some sort of meeting yesterday.

Lindsey, formerly Bush's chief economic adviser, was ousted before the war was launched in 2003 for saying it could cost as much as $200 billion.

Delegate's Remarks Embarrass White House

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A delegation sent by President Bush to Ukraine's presidential inauguration last weekend included a Ukrainian-American activist who has accused Jews of manipulating the Holocaust for their gain and blamed them for Soviet-era atrocities in Ukraine.

"'Big money drives the Holocaust industry,' Myron B. Kuropas wrote in August 2000.

"The inclusion of Kuropas in the U.S. delegation to Sunday's inauguration of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, which was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, appeared to be an embarrassment for the Bush administration."

More Pay for Play

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families. . . .

"But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal.

In an update to his story this morning, Kurtz notes that Bush was asked at this morning's news conference about the practice of contracting pundits such as Gallagher and conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. "Bush acknowledged that his administration had made a mistake by awarding contracts to commentators who support his policies.

"Bush said he expects his Cabinet secretaries to end the practice. 'Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake,' Bush said. 'We didn't know about this in the White House. There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press.'

"Bush said in response to a follow-up question that the Education Department had made a mistake [in Armstrong's case] as well. . . .

"Bush told reporters he was "confident" that the press would provide 'an objective look' at his administration's policies, adding: 'Won't you?'"

More on Social Security

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush pleaded for patience yesterday from Republican lawmakers who will shape Social Security legislation, summoning them to the White House at a time when they are expressing increasing frustration about his handling of his top priority for the year.

"No Democrats were on the invitation list for the late-afternoon meeting at the White House, reflecting Bush's need to keep his team together before he worries about selling his ideas to the opposition."

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "After a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday, Republican senators said they had cautioned him that the drive to change the Social Security system was faltering because the public was not convinced that a fundamental overhaul was necessary.

"The senators said Mr. Bush responded by promising to make a strong case in his State of the Union Message on Feb. 2 and to lead the charge to win public support."

Bush's remarks about Social Security have lacked detail and many of his assertions on the topic have been contradicted by experts.

But, Rosenbaum writes: "The administration has not aggressively answered the challenges, and Mr. Bush has not addressed them publicly."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush is taking cover under the reputation of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who died nearly two years ago. Mr. Moynihan served as co-chairman of the commission Mr. Bush established in 2001 to recommend ways of establishing personal accounts, a fact the president and his aides mention almost every time they discuss the issue publicly. . . .

"But in implying that Mr. Moynihan was a supporter of his approach to Social Security, Mr. Bush and his team are open to challenge, based on Mr. Moynihan's record and documented indications that he was not totally happy with the commission's work."

Sharansky Watch

Michael Hirsh writes in Newsweek about the influence of Natan Sharansky's thinking on Bush's inaugural address.

Hirsh writes that Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, now Israeli cabinet minister, "says he is elated that the U.S. president, in his second inaugural speech last week, appeared to fully embrace Sharansky's vision of foreign policy."

Sharansky's views on freedom are quite absolute. Hirsh writes: "Administration officials were quick to play down the practical impact of Bush's rhetoric, noting that the president declared the policy of spreading freedom to be 'the concentrated work of generations.' But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. policy toward Iran and North Korea has now been resolved in favor of regime change. . . .

"At the very least, Bush's rhetoric strengthens the hand of hardliners from the Pentagon and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney who see no way around the use of force or covert activity against such tyrannical regimes."

At this morning's news coference, Bush was at his most animated when speaking about his inaugural address. Making a flag-planting gesture, he said: "I firmly planted the flag of liberty for all to see that the United States of America hears their concerns and believes in their aspirations. And I am excited by the challenge and am honored to be able to lead our nation in the quest of this noble goal, which is freeing people in the name of peace."

Live Online

I've rescheduled today's Live Online for Friday at 1. We'll chat then.

Hotline's Comedy Review

Richard Leiby writes in his Washington Post gossip column: "He's no Darrell Hammond, but Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) had the crowd in stitches with his President Bush imitation at the Hotline's post-inaugural comedy review Friday night at the Warner Theatre -- a taped performance now available for wider public consumption at C-SPAN.org.

Here's the video. Baird starts at the 47-minute mark.

Some Leiby excerpts: "On the education front, we're going to launch Operation Easier Grammar. [Big laffs.] You see, there is way too many rules in grammar. . . . This will help my daughters pass the No Child Left Behind test.'

"He closed to guffaws by announcing Operation Solar Landing: 'It's gonna put a man on the sun. Now, I know, I know, you pointy-headed academics and you liberal judges, you don't think we can do that. [Pause.] Heh. We're going at night!'"

I also liked: "We're going to continue our important work in Operation Executive Freedom by streamlining our Constitution. Already, with the help of Speaker Denny Hastert and Billy Frist, we've eliminated Article One. John Ashcroft's helped take nine -- count 'em nine -- amendments out of the Bill of Rights. We kept that second one."

Among other performers at the comedy review: Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox, at the 38-minute mark: "I was going to bring a drink on stage. I thought that would relax me. But then I realized I could probably just siphon some bourbon from the bulge in the back of my jacket. Like the president. The twins taught us that."

And Daily Howler blogger Bob Sommerby, at 2 hours 18 minutes, who looked back fondly at the Clinton years: "Whoever thought we'd be swearing in a president where it all depends on what the meaning of torture is."

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