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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Won't Budge on Private Accounts

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; 12:28 PM

Social Security remains at the top of President Bush's agenda, and he was more forthcoming about it yesterday, in a roundtable interview with regional newspaper reporters, than he was at this morning's press conference.

Bush told the regional reporters that he is not about to take private accounts off the table -- a condition Democrats have set before they will join him in crafting a solution to Social Security's long-term solvency problem.

He also warned that there will be "political consequence for people who do not want to participate in coming up with a solution."

He made it clear that he is solely interested in "carve-out" accounts -- where the money would come out Social Security payroll taxes -- rather than "add-ons," which would be supplemental.

But he expressed astonishment that people constantly refer to "Bush's plan": "I haven't laid out a plan," he said. "I've laid out some ideas that I think ought to be considered for a plan, and that's what's important for people to know."

And he said that his political strategist, Karl Rove, has been having behind-the-scenes discussions with some Democrats.

Bush's comments came in a 30-minute Oval Office interview with reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Las Vegas Review-Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Baton Rouge Advocate and Omaha World-Herald -- and a columnist for a chain of tiny Arkansas newspapers.

Meeting with regional reporters is a way for Bush to route around the sometimes more skeptical national press corps. And yet, Bush also seems somewhat more amenable to answering the regional reporters' questions than he is with his regular interlocutors. At today's press conference, for instance, his answers on Social Security were only tangentially related to the questions he was asked.

Yesterday's roundtable interview came exactly a month after a similar conclave, during which Bush for the first time said he is not ruling out raising the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, which is now capped at $90,000. (See my Feb. 16 column.)

The Interview

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has some excerpts from Bush's roundtable interview yesterday. Among them:

"Q: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid [D-Nev.] said if he could ask you one question, it would be, 'Why doesn't he take [Social Security account] privatization off the table, and let's talk about solvency for Social Security? What would you say to him?

"A: I would say, 'I'm willing to talk about solvency; please come to the table,' and I think it's very important for people to consider personal accounts. It's a concept that I think is very important to be discussed. . . .

"Q: There was some confusion when you referred to personal investment accounts as an 'add-on' in a recent Social Security [promotional] appearance [in Westfield, N.J.]. Would you be open to add-on personal accounts, as opposed to a personal accounts carved out of payroll taxes?

"A: No, I think the 'carve-out' is the way to go. What I was referring to in my speech, I was explaining to people that the capital in the personal account would yield a certain amount of interest, and that interest -- the monies would be in addition to a Social Security check you were receiving.

"Q: So you would rule out add-on accounts?

"A: In my judgment, the best way to go forward is to allow a personal account to be created out of the payroll taxes being paid into the system."

Maeve Reston writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Despite a recalcitrant Congress and tepid public support, President Bush yesterday warned against underestimating his commitment to restructuring the Social Security system and said lawmakers who refuse to negotiate changes would come to regret it.

"The president also all but ruled out creating private retirement investment accounts outside the Social Security system, an idea some Democrats have floated as a possible compromise. . . .

"Although no prominent Democrats have stepped forward to support his proposals, Bush said his aides have picked up 'helpful feelers' from the other side of the aisle that Democrats eventually will come to the table. . . .

"He also noted that Social Security's trust funds are now a 'vault of IOUs' and that the government is spending Social Security surpluses on other government programs, emphasizing an emerging new line in the Republican argument for change -- that personal investment accounts are the only way to keep Social Security money out of the government's reach and create a system with 'real assets.' "

Tony Batt writes in the Las Vegas Review Journal: "President Bush on Tuesday warned opponents of Social Security reform they will pay a political price if they defeat his plan without offering recommendations of their own."

Jon Sawyer writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "President George W. Bush said Tuesday that virtually all aspects of his Social Security reform proposals are open to negotiation, including the diversion of payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts."

Sawyer evidently reached that conclusion based on Bush's insistence, which he has made repeatedly, that "all ideas are on the table" with the sole exception of raising the payroll tax rate.

The other reporters did not draw that same conclusion.

Gerard Shields wrote a story for the Baton Rouge Advocate that will be on its Web site later today, headlined "Bush resolute on Social Security."

Shields writes: "Despite visible opposition to his plan to create private investment accounts, President Bush is digging in his heels for the long haul in his attempt to change Social Security. . . .

"[W]ith the same boldness that he used to march into war with Iraq and push tax cuts in Congress, Bush said private investment accounts have to be on the negotiating table when talking about Social Security."

"Bush upbeat over Social Security" is the headline over Jake Thompson's story in the Omaha World-Herald.

In what seems like one of the more amusing parts of the interview, during which Bush was described as relaxed and genial, the president explained why he had not yet put forth a specific plan.

"Some have suggested, 'Why don't you send a bill up?' Well, sure enough, the bill I send up will be 'pffft,' " he said, apparently making the sound of a balloon deflating, "the first bill to go down."

Odd Man Out

The sixth journalist in the roundtable interview was David Sanders, an opinion writer for the Stephens Media Group's Arkansas News Bureau. His column is published in a handful of tiny Arkansas papers.

Sanders told me this morning that he'll write up the interview for his Sunday column. He said he didn't know why the White House called him.

"I've been trying to get an interview with the president the times he's come to Arkansas and it's never worked out," he said.

Here's his bio.

What It's Like to Get the Call

Tim Funk, who works in the Charlotte Observer's Washington Bureau, describes the experience of getting a call out of the blue inviting you to an exclusive White House interview.

In Funk's case, it was an invitation to interview Vice President Cheney. Here's the story he filed about that last week.

In his "the-making-of-the-interview" piece, Funk now shares not only his surprise at the phone call, but the conditions under which the interview took place -- and his futile attempts to get Cheney to actually make some news.

He acknowledges one theory about why the White House called him instead of, say, the New York Times: "The White House is convinced that going around the national media -- with town meetings and interviews with regional reporters -- is a better way to get its message to folks outside the Beltway.

"I'm fine with that as long as we regional reporters don't turn into powder-puffs when we walk into Cheney's West Wing office. If we get starry-eyed at all the trappings and gravitas, then we've gone over to the dark side -- i.e., public relations -- and can no longer claim to be there for readers.

"So I had to come up with some killer questions -- the kind that invite answers that make headlines and give people the details they need as citizens."

But Funk writes about how Cheney didn't answer his questions at all -- just launched into a few monologues.

"Me, I'm fishing for some news," he writes.

"As I leave, pondering my 15 minutes in the White House, I'm not sure whether I feel more like the fisherman or the fish."

The Wolfowitz Announcement

Bush dropped quite the bombshell this morning by nominating Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of his administration's most controversial figures, to be the next president of the World Bank.

William Branigin and Ann Scott Tyson have all the latest on washingtonpost.com.

The World Bank, like the United Nations, is normally considered a place of peacemaking, reaching out, diplomacy and conciliation. The Wolfowitz pick -- coming on the heels of his nomination of hawkish John Bolton to the United Nations -- is puzzling a lot of folks, to say the least.

White House Briefing Room News

Everyone who visits the White House Briefing room -- and the working press's warren of dingy cubicles beyond and below it -- leaves a bit disillusioned. It's all so dingy and depressing.

But apparently it's also a firetrap.

Joseph Curl of the Washington Times reported yesterday: "Talks are under way for a major renovation of the White House briefing room and press work area in the West Wing, prompted in part by a General Services Administration walk-through inspection that found the cramped and cluttered quarters to be a 'firetrap.' . . .

"The renovation could begin as early as this summer, and one Bush administration official said all work areas for networks, newspapers and wire services could be affected. The tiny briefing room, with its 48 theater-style seats, may also get a major facelift, which could include installing robotic cameras and wiring each seat with individual microphones.

"During the renovation, reporters could be moved to workspace in the Old Executive Office Building. The work is expected to start in August, when President Bush often retreats to his Texas ranch for several weeks, but could begin earlier."

Bush joked about the renovation during his press conference, which was a last-minute affair held in the room in question. "Whoever thought about modernizing this room deserves a lot of credit," he said. "It's like there's very little oxygen in here anymore."

But my question is: Will reporters really be allowed back? It's hard to imagine the White House press office won't make at least a token effort to permanently displace the press corps from its current lodgings.

After all, it may be a basement -- and a sub-basement -- but it's still only yards from the Oval Office, making it about the most prized office location anywhere.

Poll Watch

Dan Balz and Richard Morin write in The Washington Post: "Two years after President Bush led the country to war in Iraq, Americans appear to be of two minds about the situation in the Middle East: A majority say they believe the Iraqis are better off today than they were before the conflict began -- but they also say the war was not worth fighting in the first place, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"For the first time in a Post-ABC poll, a majority (51 percent) called the war in Iraq a mistake. On the day Baghdad fell in April 2003, just 16 percent called the war a mistake and 81 percent said it was the right thing to do."

All this, somewhat amazingly in spite of the fact that most Americans apparently still believe Bush's initial -- but false, and now long-abandoned -- rationales for the war.

"In the new poll, 56 percent said they think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the start of the war and 6 in 10 said they believe Iraq provided direct support to the al Qaeda terrorist network, which struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001."

Hezbollah Watch

How frustrating is Scott McClellan's daily press briefing?

Yesterday morning, in a photo opportunity with King Abdullah of Jordan, Bush (here's the transcript) was asked about Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that is a major political force in Lebanon.

"We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not by laying down arms and not threatening peace," Bush said.

Afterward, reporters asked McClellan to clarify what would happen if Hezbollah actually did what Bush asked? Would Bush then consider it a legitimate political organization?

Although this would seem to be an obvious corollary to what Bush said, McClellan was evidently not pre-approved to say so.

Here's the briefing transcript.

"Would and ifs are hypotheticals. I'm not into hypotheticals," McClellan said, even after a reporter noted that "the President brought up the hypothetical."

Ultimately, McClellan's hemming and hawing didn't stop some reporters from interpreting Bush's words.

Barbara Slavin writes in USA Today: "President Bush made a rare overture to Hezbollah on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States might change its view of the Lebanese militant group if it stops attacks on civilians."

Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In an apparent overture to an organization on the U.S. terrorist blacklist, President Bush suggested Tuesday that Hezbollah should put down its arms and become fully integrated into Lebanon's political mainstream."

Bubble Watch

Ron Hutcheson, writing for Knight Ridder Newspapers, has another anecdote about Bush's carefully staged and screened Social Security roadshow.

"Jon Paul Surma, a 24-year-old businessman from Rolling Prairie, Ind., said he was tapped for an appearance with Bush after he raised his concerns about Social Security at a town hall meeting with Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Ind.

"Surma, who works in his family's garbage-truck business, said he'd like to eliminate Social Security, but he didn't mention that politically explosive idea to Bush. Instead, Surma focused on his belief that he'll never received his promised benefits -- a concern that dovetails with Bush's contention that younger workers have little reason to fear changes in Social Security.

"The night before their appearance with Bush, Surma and the other conversation participants held a dress rehearsal with a White House aide who played the role of the president. While Surma and other participants said they were never told what to say, the practice session and the interviews that preceded it reduced the likelihood of any surprises.

"White House Communications Director Nicolle Devenish said screening out opponents helps ensure a 'productive discussion.' "

This morning, it sure looked to me like Bush was (finally) asked to defend his "bubble" trips -- where he only speaks to screened supporters, rather than to the general public.

But the president either misunderstood the question -- or chose to duck it.

Here's how it went:

"Q. Mr. President, back to Social Security if I may, you said right at the top today that you urge members of Congress to go out and talk about the problem with their constituents.

"But . . .

"BUSH: No, about solutions to the problem.

"QUESTION: But also talk about solutions.

"BUSH: Yes.

"QUESTION: And it's that part that I want to ask about. Aren't you asking them to do something that you really haven't?"

Bush then went on to say that he was indeed discussing ideas. He didn't address the question of with whom.

Fundraising Watch

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush encouraged House Republicans to stick with his goal of overhauling Social Security as he helped them raise $8 million at a gala dinner Tuesday night.

"Bush was the keynote speaker at the $2,500-per-ticket National Republican Congressional Committee dinner at the Washington Hilton as both parties kicked off the spring fund-raising season. . . .

"NRCC officials said more than 3,000 people attended the dinner. Singer Patti LaBelle sang the national anthem a cappella, and the singing duo Peaches & Herb was lined up for after-dinner entertainment."

Here's the text of his speech.

Promises, Promises

James Harding and Holly Yeager write in the Financial Times: "The White House is scrambling to salvage the president's $400m pledge to US allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the face of congressional efforts to deny funding for the 'Solidarity Initiative'. . . .

"Mr Bush promised Poland $100m ({euro}75m, £39m) when President Aleksander Kwasniewski visited Washington, and when he visited Bratislava last month, Mr Bush also pledged funds to Slovakia. . . .

"The White House budget office yesterday said the administration was 'very concerned' that the House bill did not fund the initiative for 'our partners who have taken significant political risks and borne financial and military burdens to fight terrorism and advance democracy and stability around the world'."

Froomkin Watch

There will be no column tomorrow, as I will be attending a panel discussion at the National Press Club called "Confronting the Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Improved Access to Government Information on the Record."

Its goal: "To address the off-the-record briefings, anonymous sourcing and official leaking that plague Washington -- and the atmosphere of heightened government secrecy underlying them -- requires understanding what feeds the system: Who benefits from anonymity? Why? Whom does it harm, and how?"

I'll report back Friday.


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