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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Details Wanted

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; 12:35 PM

President Bush will focus on Social Security in the domestic portion of the State of the Union address Wednesday night. But at the end of the night, will his vision be any less blurry?

It's the details that really matter, and thus far Bush's public pronouncements about Social Security have been vague, sweeping, and sometimes misleading.


Amid signs that Bush is developing a more nuanced plan for remaking the program than he has previously indicated, there's still no indication that he'll go into much detail tomorrow night.

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush is privately expressing support for limits on the cost and risk of partially privatizing Social Security, in an effort to mollify nervous Republicans and win over dubious Democrats, according to White House aides and congressional Republicans. . . .

"After surveying roughly half a dozen Senate Democrats whom the White House considers potential converts to Bush's plan, the president and his congressional allies realize they must limit the budget impact of creating a new system and protect lower-income workers, who rely heavily on Social Security for their retirement income."

So, for instance: "The Treasury Department is doing a budget analysis to determine how many lower-income Americans could be shielded from benefit cuts necessary to offset the overall cost of creating private accounts, the officials said."

But VandeHei and Weisman write that Bush is not planning to deliver specifics Wednesday night.

"In his speech, the president will not detail the size of new private accounts or the benefit cuts needed to help offset the revenue losses, according to an administration official briefed on the speech."

As Robin Toner writes in the New York Times: "It is a cliché of public policy that the devil is in the details, but nonetheless true. . . .

In fact, Toner writes, Bush's plans for Social Security are at risk of foundering on the details -- much like the Clinton universal health care plan did 13 years ago.

But the Bush team has learned "the chief political lesson of the health care war," which was "whichever side framed public opinion will win," Toner writes.

Does that suggest that the converse is true, too? That whichever side provides details, loses?

But how can the public make an informed decision without details?

The Foreign Part

The focus of the foreign portion of the State of the Union will, of course, be liberty. But unlike at his inauguration, Bush will not avoid the word "Iraq."

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Bush will head tomorrow into his State of the Union address with a jolt of political momentum and the prospect that the Iraqi vote will give him breathing room after months of sliding public support for the war."

For Bush, holding the Iraqi election on Sunday "was one of the biggest gambles of his presidency."

But, Baker and Wright write: "The payoff, his aides said, was perhaps one of the best days of his administration. Whatever happens next, the pictures of Iraqi voters streaming to the polls and holding up ink-stained fingers to show they had cast their ballots will go down as one of the defining images of his ambitious project to introduce democracy to the Middle East."

David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman write in the New York Times: "With the State of the Union address scheduled for Wednesday night, both parties appeared to be maneuvering to gain political advantage from a relatively peaceful vote. White House officials said the address was being rewritten to celebrate the images of jubilant Iraqis at the polls as part of a 'democratic wave' that has also swept Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

"Yet in an effort to pre-empt the speech, two leading Democrats, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, demanded that Mr. Bush use the speech to explain to Americans how long forces would remain in Iraq, and how he would measure success there -- terms that Mr. Bush has kept vague."

Tyler Marshall and Paul Richter write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration moved quickly Monday to enlist new support for its struggle to turn Iraq into a viable democratic state, using Sunday's election as leverage at home and abroad.

"President Bush spoke by telephone with French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, urging them to help consolidate the gains expected from the vote."

But John Yaukey writes for the Gannett News Service: "Voting down, security to go. Iraq's first free elections in 50 years now set the stage for President Bush to ratchet up the training of Iraqi security forces and convince Americans he has a viable plan for Iraq, which he is likely to try to do in his State of the Union speech Wednesday. . . .

"Without security in Iraq, the exuberance for democracy that Iraqis displayed Sunday while voting will not last."

The First Test

As the Iraqi polls were closing Sunday, Bush called two Middle Eastern autocrats: President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

So, in keeping with his inaugural pledge, did he use the phone conversations to promote liberty and free elections?

Not so much.

Here's an excerpt from the text of Monday's briefing by press secretary Scott McClellan:

"Q Scott . . . on these phone calls, particularly with President Mubarak and with Crown Prince Abdallah. Did the President use the opportunity of these phone calls . . . to press his case that they, too, should open themselves to competitive elections? . . .

"MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. The President makes his views well known, both in public as well as in private with leaders. And he made his views known again last week. . . .

"Q Did he make them known in this phone call?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I know, I'm coming to the call. In terms of these calls, these were brief conversations. I think the calls were all less than five minutes, except for Crown Prince Abdallah, because of the translation. So these were brief calls that focused on the Iraqi election and spent a good bit of the time talking about how to help the Palestinian leadership move forward on putting institutions in place in the Palestinian areas. So I'm not aware that that came up."

The Feisty President

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Liberals charge him with manufacturing crises. Conservatives worry he'll ignore some of their causes. But few accuse President Bush of lacking what his father once derisively called 'the vision thing.' "

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Bush will go before Congress and the nation with his annual State of the Union message Wednesday night with the lowest approval rating of any second-term president since Richard Nixon. Yet he is in a feisty mood, insisting that his re-election has given him a mandate for change and political capital to spend in pursuing his agenda. . . .

"First lady Laura Bush, meanwhile, said Tuesday that among those sitting with her in the House gallery as special guests during her husband's speech will be two voters, one from Iraq and another from Afghanistan, who had participated in those countries' elections.

"She told NBC's 'Today' show they would serve as 'a sign that people the world over want to live in freedom and want to have a democracy in their country.' "

Memories of Addresses Past

Bob Dart writes for Cox News Service: "On Wednesday night, President Bush will be battling precedent if he hopes to deliver a State of the Union address for the ages.

" 'They're throwaway speeches for the most part,' said Joan Hoff, a history professor at Wyoming State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York City. 'There are so few memorable ones that they're barely worth mentioning. Usually they're laundry lists of one kind or another.' "

On Sunday, Dart wrote about another State of the Union tradition: The jockeying by members of congress to get a photo-op with the president.

And Tim Annett of the Wall Street Journal takes a look at how some of President Bush's past State of the Union promises have panned out.

WMD Watch

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In what may be a formal acknowledgment of the obvious, the CIA has issued a classified report revising its prewar assessments on Iraq and concluding that Baghdad abandoned its chemical weapons programs in 1991, intelligence officials familiar with the document said. . . .

"A note in the report describes the document as the second in a 'retrospective series that addresses our post-Operation Iraqi Freedom understanding of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and delivery system programs.'

"A Jan. 4 report focused on Scud missiles and other delivery systems. Intelligence officials said future reports would revise the agency's claims that Iraq had stockpiles of biological weapons and was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. Those allegations were a centerpiece of the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq."

Rise of the 'Nuclear Hawks'

Guy Dinmore writes in the Financial Times: "A group of hardline officials known as 'nuclear hawks' is being promoted in a shake-up of the Bush administration's arms control and non-proliferation teams, according to officials close to the administration.

"The latest appointment, announced by President George W. Bush yesterday, saw Jack Crouch, the ambassador to Romania, become deputy national security adviser."

Immigration Watch

Dave Montgomery writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "With his pledge to make immigration revisions a high priority for his second term, President Bush is reigniting an emotional national debate over how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants spread throughout American society.

"The president is expected to include the issue in his State of the Union address Wednesday night, renewing his year-old proposal for an immigrant guest-worker program and provoking an acrimonious confrontation with conservative members of his party."

Just how serious is the White House about this issue?

Holly Bailey and Daren Briscoe, writing in Newsweek, offer up this tasty, if somewhat dated, anecdote: "Rep. Tom Tancredo was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on his way to the Capitol one Friday morning in April 2002 when his cell phone rang. Though the caller ID read unidentified, Tancredo had no trouble recognizing the voice on the other end of the line: it was White House adviser Karl Rove, and he was seething.

"The congressman had been quoted in that morning's Washington Times attacking George W. Bush's immigration plan, which he warned could be an 'open door' for illegal immigrants and a national-security risk. As Tancredo remembers it, Rove screamed at him for more than 20 minutes, accusing him of disloyalty to his party and the president in the wake of 9/11. The conversation grew so heated that Tancredo had to pull over. As the congressman recalls, Rove ended the call with a warning that Tancredo should 'never darken the steps of the White House again.' (The White House disputes Rove's comment.)"

Madame Secretary

Margaret Spellings was sworn in as secretary of education for a second time yesterday -- so Bush could attend.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush vowed yesterday to push a 'reform agenda' for education in his second term that would extend his academic accountability program known as No Child Left Behind to the high school level and expand access to college by reforming the financial assistance system. . . .

"Spellings, a longtime Bush aide from Texas who served as White House domestic policy adviser in the first term, noted that she will be the first mother with school-age children serving as education secretary."

Incidentally, one daughter attends public school, the other goes to Catholic school.

Here's the text of the remarks.

No Kiss This Time

There was no kiss on the lips this time.

As pool reporter Baker dutifully informed his colleagues: "Card administered the oath to Spellings, then they pecked each other's cheeks." When Bush finished his remarks, he "and Spellings sort of leaned in as if they would do the cheek peck as well, but in the end did not."

Here's the video.

Chertoff Watch

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "As he prepares for his upcoming confirmation hearing, Homeland Security Secretary designee Michael Chertoff has denied advising the CIA on using specific torture techniques on terror suspects when he headed the Justice Department's criminal division. . . .

"Meeting with Republican and Democratic staff members Monday, Chertoff said any legal advice he gave the CIA was broad and generalized -- and merely from the viewpoint of 'what a prosecutor would look for,' one aide said."

Deborah Barfield Berry writes in Newsday that "questions have been raised about whether Michael Chertoff can run the massive federal Department of Homeland Security, an agency in such disarray that two years after it was created some experts and lawmakers are calling for its overhaul."

The Pistons

Greg Sandoval writes in The Washington Post: "During a ceremony in the East Room, the president honored the Pistons for their triumph in the 2004 NBA Finals last June. . . .

"[O]ne member of the party said he was not overjoyed at the prospect of meeting Bush.

" 'I don't have [expletive] to say to him,' [Rasheed] Wallace, 30, told the Detroit Free Press on Saturday. 'I didn't vote for him. It's just something we have to do.'

"But Wallace changed his tune after Bush picked up the player's infant daughter, Rashiyah, who was crying at the close of the ceremony, and gently handed her to her father.

"Wallace smiled down at the president.

" 'I said, "Thank you," ' said Wallace following the ceremony, adding that he was caught off guard by the president's gesture. 'It was cool.' "

Here is the text of Bush's remarks to the Pistons. And here's an Associated Press photo of Bush holding 10 month-old Rashiyah Wallace.

Barnstorm Watch

Right after the State of the Union, Bush heads off for five back-to back "Conversations on Social Security": Thursday morning in Fargo, N.D.; Thursday afternoon in Great Falls, Mont., Friday morning in Omaha; Friday afternoon in Little Rock; and Friday evening in Tampa.

The New York Times reports: "Six of the seven Democratic senators from the states where President Bush plans to campaign this week for his Social Security plan say they are unalterably opposed to his main principle of diverting tax money into personal investment accounts."

In North Dakota, both Senators are Democrats, so Republican Gov. John Hoeven is Bush's official host.

Patrick Springer writes in the Fargo Forum that Bush "will find plenty of interest in the subject: one in five North Dakotans is a Social Security beneficiary, including retirees, people with disabilities and their dependents.

" 'Perhaps more than most, North Dakota has a lot at stake,' Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Monday. 'I think people are very nervous about the president's plan.'"

Dave Forster writes in the Fargo Forum: "Free tickets will go up for grabs from 2 to 9 p.m. today in the east lobby of the Fargodome and at the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau."

Jo Dee Black reports in the Great Falls Tribune that Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is in charge of distributing tickets to the Great Falls event -- and they're all gone.

In addition: "The Montana Republican Party is compiling a list of about 250 invited guests to sit in the VIP section of the arena, which will be closer to President Bush's podium."

Voting Rights Watch

Mary Ann Akers writes in Roll Call: "Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) says he's 'shocked' and 'utterly amazed' by President Bush's response to his question during last week's Congressional Black Caucus meeting at the White House.

"According to Jackson, the Congressman asked the president if the CBC could rely on him to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it comes up for renewal in 2007. Jackson said Bush had no clue what he was talking about. Jackson said the president basically said he 'didn't know enough about the law' to answer the question. . . .

Jackson told Akers: "When we left, I whispered to the chairman of the caucus, 'The news is that the president is not familiar with the Voting Rights Act.' "


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