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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

New Twists for Bush's Roadshow

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 15, 2005; 12:23 PM

President Bush's Social Security roadshow pulls into Kirtland, Ohio, today and in at least two ways promises to be a break from the almost indistinguishable events of the past several months.

For one, the president's chief economic adviser, who will be on the stage with him today, tantalized reporters yesterday with hints that Bush is softening on private accounts -- the controversial heart of his amorphous proposal to reshape Social Security -- and is now willing to consider "add-on" accounts that would supplement the current system, rather than be carved out of it.

And, after mounting criticism that the White House has been shattering presidential precedents, wrapping Bush in a bubble and possibly even violating free-speech rights by keeping dissenters out of Bush's so-called public events, the Bush team is trying something new today.

For today's event, the White House has eliminated any pretense that the events are open to the public, instead making it clear that the events are invitation-only.

That's certainly one way to address the issue.

Hubba Hubbard

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "The top White House economic adviser said Thursday that President Bush was willing to consider making a major shift in his Social Security proposal: creating individual investment accounts that would be an 'add-on' to the retirement system, not a part of it financed by diverting payroll taxes.

" 'We haven't ruled it out, we haven't ruled it in, but we're certainly willing to discuss it,' Allan Hubbard, head of the National Economic Council, said at a breakfast with reporters. 'It really comes down to what the proposal is.' . . .

"The suggestion that Bush might agree to 'add-on accounts' would address the fundamental objection to his proposal from congressional Democrats. They have refused to discuss solvency until Bush drops his plan for individual accounts that would be part of the system.

"Hubbard took a different tone Thursday than he did in an interview with USA Today on March 9, when he flatly dismissed add-on accounts."

The Christian Science Monitor has excerpts from the Hubbard breakfast.

Terence Hunt reports for the Associated Press about a meeting Bush had in the morning with House GOP members to talk about Social Security.

"Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., said he told Bush 'the time has come where we've got to start to put some specifics out there about how we're going to fix the solvency of it.'

"But Kolbe said Bush might not be prepared to do that, yet."

And Bush himself gave no indication of any course change yesterday in his remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (much more on that appearance below).

"[W]e've just started the process," he said about Social Security. "It may seem like a long time to you, but realistically, we've really just started. If you ask questions about it, I'd be glad to expand on what I mean by that. But there's -- I got a lot more time to tell people there is a problem."

Today's Panel

Hubbard is one of five panelists Bush will have on stage with him today.

John Arthur Hutchison of the News Herald in Northeast Ohio spoke with another, Raymond E. Sines, a local Republican county commissioner who once sponsored a state law that provided alternative retirement plans for college and university employees.

Sines told Hutchison that the panel held a practice run last night.

" 'I understand each one of the folks will have five minutes to talk about their particular area,' Sines said. 'I believe there will be a presentation and slide show, and the president will speak.' "

Invitation Only

Bush is scheduled to have coffee with a group of (presumably pre-selected) small business owners at the Yours Truly of Mentor coffee shop before heading over to Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, about 20 miles east of Cleveland, to speak in a rented hall.

News Channel 5 in Cleveland reports: "About 200 people are expected at Bush's invitation-only speech on Social Security.

"But not everyone is happy with Bush's plan. Some Ohio political leaders are opposed to Bush's plan, a proposal that would allow younger workers to invest up to 4 percent of their payroll tax.

"They are also not happy with the decision to hold an invitation-only event at Lakeland.

" 'If you are presetting up your stage, then you're going to have continuous applause for a plan that is not necessarily supported by the constituents,' said state Rep. Tim Cassell, a Democrat."

The News-Herald's Hutchison reported yesterday: "This week, White House spokesman Allen Abney told the AP that the President's Friday stop in Kirtland, Ohio will be open to an 'invitation-only crowd' using a newly crafted 'round-table discussion' format instead of the previous 'conversations' that were purportedly open to the public. The White House is apparently now outsourcing ticket distribution for presidential events to the local Chamber of Commerce instead of local Members of Congress."

Susan Jaffe writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Instead of just pitching his ideas during a stop at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, he will take a seat at a table with members of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System to highlight a program that resembles what he's proposing for Social Security.

" 'He is going to be hearing about a program in Ohio that has been successful that shares some of the same principles he is proposing for Social Security,' said White House spokesman Allen Abney. . . .

"But critics of the Bush plan, as well as PERS staff, say the system can't be compared to the president's proposals.

" 'There's no risk in the PERS plan, and the president's plan exposes people to risk of loss in the market,' said U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat who has held 13 town hall meetings on Social Security attended by nearly 3,000 people. . . .

"Neither the audience nor reporters will be able to ask questions, Abney said."

Elizabeth Auster writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "When President Bush brings his Social Security crusade to Kirtland today, he will be preaching not only to the citizens of Northeast Ohio, but also to the Republicans who represent them.

"More than halfway through his 60-day mission to rally support for revamping Social Security, Bush has yet to convert Ohio's two Republican U.S. senators or Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette, the congressman in Lake County, into fans of the private investment accounts that form the centerpiece of his plan. . . .

"LaTourette said that despite his reservations about private accounts, he plans to introduce Bush today at the roundtable Social Security discussion at Lakeland Community College, and is happy to do so. He said Bush has repeatedly told him that he is open to a wide range of ideas on how to fix the program.

" 'He's never said that [personal accounts] is a dealbreaker,' LaTourette said."

ASNE

Bush paid a visit to the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention yesterday, and in spite of the simmering resentments in the industry about the unprecedented secrecy in which his administration operates, it was pretty much all smiles all around.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Acknowledging a 'tension' between his administration and the press, President Bush confronted an often-critical audience of newspaper editors on Thursday with a heavy helping of the disarming charm and self-confidence he has exuded since his re-election. . . .

"In a casual, conversational session peppered with jokes for editors assembled in a downtown Washington hotel, Bush asserted his confidence in the correctness of his stance on the most controversial items on his second-term agenda -- ranging from Social Security to the war in Iraq to immigration reform.

"The confidence stems in part from the fact that Bush will never face another presidential election.

" 'I do find myself much happier than I've been in a long time in Washington,' the president told the editors.

" 'I make a lot of decisions,' said Bush, a former baseball team owner who tossed the opening pitch at Thursday night's home opener for the Washington Nationals. 'Do I go with the fastball or a slider?' "

Introduced By . . . a Blogger?

Bush was introduced by Rich Oppel, the editor of the Austin American- Statesman. As it happens, Oppel and Fred Zipp, the paper's managing editor, have their own blog.

So in a blog post yesterday entitled "How would you introduce a president?" Oppel tells readers the constraints he was under:

• "The White House put a limit of 3 minutes on the introduction.

• "Because the president was an invited guest, doing us the favor of an appearance at the editors' convention, a tone of friendliness and cordiality was expected.

• "But he is a president, and many editors have differences with him over access to government information -- the public's right to know. Certainly, I do. Therefore, a firmness and directness on policy was necessary as well.'

Oppel then prints the text of his remarks.

Lots of Little Bits of News

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks; here's the video.

Reporters took lots of different approaches to covering the event.

News to Him

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that he was surprised by his administration's plans to require U.S. citizens to show a passport when reentering the country from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, and he ordered an administration review of whether the entry rules should be relaxed. . . .

"Yet the concern expressed by Bush is unusual, since the White House signed off on the change. . . .

"A senior U.S. government official involved in the policy change said Homeland Security and State Department officials had vetted the change exhaustively with the White House before announcing it."

Here's the Bush quote: "When I first read that in the newspaper, about the need to have passports, particularly today's crossings that take place -- about a million, for example, in the state of Texas -- I said, what's going on here? I thought there was a better way to do -- to expedite legal flow of traffic and people."

Open Government?

David Westphal writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Amid criticism that the federal government is becoming ever more secretive, President Bush fully endorsed the principle of open government Thursday, telling the nation's newspaper editors that Americans 'ought to know as much as possible about the government decision making.' . . .

"Bush's comments came a week after an interest group, OpenTheGovernment.org, issued a report alleging that the federal government kept secret a record number of documents last year and that declassifying old documents had slowed to a trickle."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush said Thursday that he does not send e-mail, fearing that Washington's culture of investigation would make public even his most private correspondences.

" 'I don't want you reading my personal stuff,'' Bush told newspaper editors gathered in the capital, who asked about the government's obligations to provide information.

" 'You're entitled to (know) how I make decisions. And you're entitled to ask questions, which I answer,' Bush said. 'I don't think you're entitled to be able to read my mail between my daughters and me.' "

A Telling Example

Bush talked at length about the tension between making things public, on the one hand, and jeopardizing the war on terror and putting people's lives at risk on the other.

The example he used of a proper balance may speak volumes about where he stands on the issue.

"Let me refer you to the WMD report that -- the Silberman-Robb Commission -- as an example, however, of how I hope that we're becoming balanced between that which the public ought to know and that which, if we were to expose, would jeopardize our capacity to do our job, which is to defend America," he said.

"Ninety percent of the report was declassified. I think that might have surprised the press corps. I don't know, I don't want to speak for you all. But I think people following this issue were surprised that so much was declassified."

But for some observers, what was surprising was how secretive the commission was all along. In fact, the commission's proceedings were the least open of any presidential commission in history, as far as I know.

Its meetings were entirely closed to the public. Its deliberative procedures were a mystery. Even the location of its offices was never disclosed. Official witnesses were almost entirely from within the ranks of current or recent administration officials.

Some White House Briefing readers may recall that I first wrote about the debate over the WMD commission's plans to operate in secrecy in my May 21, 2004, column, which included a fascinating exchange of correspondence on the topic.

And just last week -- although I don't believe a single news organization saw fit to report it -- the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the commission for failure to comply with FACA, the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Jules Zacher, the lawyer who filed the complaint, wrote in an e-mail: "The reading room of the Commission did not contain all of the unclassified transcripts, minutes or working papers, which were made available to or prepared for or by the Commission. The public, therefore, does not know what the Commission relied on to reach its conclusions. Further . . . the meetings were not open to the public for the unclassified portions. The public could therefore not know even to the slightest degree see the Commission was up to. . . . "

China Watch

John D. McKinnon and Michael M. Phillips write in the Wall Street Journal from the ASNE meeting: "On the eve of several big international-finance meetings, President Bush issued a blunt call for China to start floating its currency, the yuan, now pegged to the dollar at rates U.S. manufacturers believe are unfair."

Culture of Life and Death

VandeHei notes: "Bush, who presided over more executions as governor of Texas than any other governor, said there is no contradiction between supporting the death penalty and defending what he calls a 'culture of life' by intervening to try to save Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman in Florida who died last month."

The Bush quote there: "I have been supportive of the death penalty, both as governor and President. And the difference between the case of Terry Schiavo and the case of a convicted killer is the difference between guilt and innocence. And I happen to believe that the death penalty, when properly applied, saves lives of others. And so I'm comfortable with my beliefs that there's no contradiction between the two."

Fan in Chief

Dave Sheinin writes in The Washington Post: "In an interview in the Oval Office yesterday morning with three baseball reporters, Bush spoke enthusiastically of baseball's return to Washington and said he hoped it would encourage more African American children to play the game. . . .

"On the subject of steroid use in baseball, Bush, the former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, said he was unaware of the problem at time, but believes current efforts to rid the game of performance-enhancing drugs are working."

USA Today sports columnist Hal Bodley has more, including some excerpts.

So how did Bush do on the mound?

Elizabeth Wolfe writes for the Associated Press: "With a hasty windup followed by a pitch that sailed above a generous strike zone, President Bush opened the Washington Nationals' inaugural home game Thursday night. . . .

"Bush emerged from the dugout in a red Nationals jacket to mostly cheers, some boos and lots of camera flashes. Waving to the crowd, he walked straight to the mound and promptly threw a high pitch toward home plate. Nationals catcher Brian Schneider reached up and snatched the ball cleanly, sparking more cheers. . . .

"The president walked back across the diamond to another round of cheers from fans packed into 46,000-seat RFK Stadium. He waved and smiled before disappearing into the dugout."

Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise has a great anecdote about a Secret Service agent decked out as a National coach.

"There it was, the seminal merging of Washington's two newest institutions, Spandex-tight security and baseball, an old friend who finally found his way home after 34 years."

DeLayed Reaction

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and Representative Tom DeLay, the much-investigated but still powerful House majority leader, have never been pals."

She provides some pointed examples.

"But Republicans say that, for now, Mr. Bush's political need for his fellow Texas Republican transcends his personal distaste and the growing questions about Mr. DeLay's ethical conduct. For that reason, they say Mr. Bush and Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, are unlikely to try to jettison Mr. DeLay in the same way that they deposed Trent Lott as Senate Republican leader for racially charged comments Mr. Lott made in 2002."

Here's what Bush had to say about that at ASNE: "I'm looking forward to working with Tom. He's been a very effective leader. We've gotten a lot done in the legislature, and I'm convinced we'll get more done in the legislature. And I'm looking forward to working with him."

Edugate

Greg Toppo, Jim Drinkard and Mark Memmott write in USA Today: "A senior House Democrat said Thursday that the Bush administration is shielding current and former White House officials from being interviewed in an investigation into the Education Department's hiring of commentator Armstrong Williams.

"But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the department's inspector general, who is investigating, lacks the authority to interview White House staff."

Tax Watch

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune: "As Americans faced Friday's deadline for filing their income tax returns, President Bush's advisory panel on tax reform is serving notice that it will propose sweeping changes in the tax code this summer."

Not So Sexy

Reuters reports: "In a recent online poll conducted by Esquire magazine, 11,000 women in 15 countries were asked to rate Bush's sex appeal on a scale of one to 10, and America's commander-in-chief failed to register much more than a two."

Duck Cheney

Reuters reports: "U.S. officials bolstered security on Thursday for a duck nursing eggs near the White House to protect her from demonstrators at a global economic summit beginning on Friday."

Some Treasury employees have taken to referring to the mallard as "Duck Cheney."

Ask the Fun-Loving White House

I suppose it's no surprise that the White House's online chats don't break news -- although I'm ever hopeful.

In the meantime, their biggest claim to fame is that they're, well, surprisingly kooky sometimes.

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Every few weeks or so, a top administration official sits down at a computer to respond to e-mails that pour in from across the country and around the world. The online chats -- 'Ask the White House' -- sometimes veer off in unexpected directions, offering insights into an administration that's known for buttoned-down discipline and tight message management.

"Where else would White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card poke fun at one of the president's ties? Where else could an Illinois man confess his plans to avoid income taxes to the treasury secretary? Where else could an angry French citizen vent to a White House aide?"

Some of the nuttier "Ask the White House" questions were compiled by Hart Seeley in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks back.


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