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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Omissions, Implications and Contradictions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 3, 2005; 1:03 PM

The banner headlines in today's newspapers belong to the stories that dutifully recount the highlights of President Bush's daring State of the Union address.

But the morning news is also alive with little headlines advertising analyses and sidebars that dig deep into the speech's omissions, implications, misrepresentations and contradictions.

Most notably, on the issue of Social Security, many reporters pointed out that Bush warned alarmingly of financial disaster but didn't really say what he wanted to do about it. Instead, he spoke of the importance of personal accounts, which even supporters say wouldn't help.

In fact, careful observers of the run-up to war in Iraq will recognize some similarities in this strategy. Back then, as the president was making an argument for going to war, many critics said that he confused Americans by linking Saddam Hussein to the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now the Bush message is: Social Security is going bankrupt; Let's give people private accounts. Doubtless, the president is hoping the public will link those two concepts as well.

Before the speech, a senior administration official spoke at length and on background about Bush's plan for private accounts. He also pretty clearly implied that the White House sees across-the-board benefit reductions in the offing. They just don't want to talk about it.

Here's the transcript of that very important briefing.

When push came to shove, and it did, the official was grudgingly more forthcoming than the president on some key issues. For instance:

"QUESTION: "[A]m I right in assuming . . . that it would be fair to describe this as having -- the personal accounts by themselves as having no effect whatsoever on the solvency issue?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: . . . that's a fair inference. . . .

"QUESTION: But is it fair to say that when everybody wakes up tomorrow morning, the president is not going to have given them an answer tonight about the $3.7 trillion shortfall, and that presumably, since he's ruled out higher taxes, that the deal that he goes along with is going to have to come up with $3.7 trillion worth of benefit cuts?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not sure I would categorize it that way. . . . "

Here's the text of the State of the Union address. And here's the list of guests in the first lady's box.

Barnstorm Watch

Before I delve into the coverage of last night's speech, a bit about Bush's two-day barnstorming trip that starts today and makes stops in North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida.

As Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "His campaign-style tour features a series of town-hall forums featuring guests hand-picked by the White House to discuss Social Security. At a couple of the events some of the invited guests will be able to ask Bush questions."

The events are billed as "Conversations about Social Security," but, much like at his campaign events, there is no sign that he will "converse" with -- or even be in the same auditorium with -- anyone who disagrees with him.

Objectively, from a journalistic standpoint, such conversations are a disappointment: They make very little genuine news, because the president only repeats things he has said before.

Reporters covering these events should seriously consider that what is most newsworthy about them may be what is missing, not what is said.

Now, while is it almost inevitable that the hand-picked guests sharing the stage with Bush will be falling all over themselves to agree with him, I suppose it's possible that the audiences will include dissenters this time around.

But that's not looking so likely, either. In each state, Republican officials are in charge of distributing the tickets, and there are signs that critics aren't welcome.

Mary Jo Almquist and Teri Finneman write in today's Fargo Forum, for instance, that a Fargo city commissioner "is among more than 40 area residents included on a list of people barred from attending President Bush's speech today in Fargo.

"Among the 42 area people on the do-not-admit list: two high school students, a librarian, a Democratic campaign manager and several university professors. . . .

"The list contains a wide range of people. Several wrote opinion page letters to The Forum criticizing Bush or the war in Iraq. Others wrote letters in support of gay rights or of Democratic policies."

As a sidebar explains, "at least 33 of the 42 people on the list are or have been members of the Fargo-Moorhead Democracy for America Meetup Group."

And over in Nebraska, the Omaha Channel reports: "The Republican Party chairman for the state, David Kramer, said everyone is invited. But Democratic Party Chairman Steve Achelpohl said the president's visit is a Republican-only event.

"'I think the understanding out there is that the Republicans -- the Bush administration -- holds these events for Republicans, not Democrats,' Achelpohl said."

State of the Union Overview

Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush called last night for a historic restructuring of Social Security that would allow younger workers for the first time to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market, declaring in his annual State of the Union address that without change the venerable program is headed toward bankruptcy. . . .

"With Social Security as its centerpiece, the address laid out an exceptionally ambitious agenda as Bush gears up for another four years, one that will challenge powerful constituencies and test the capacity of a president reelected with a slim majority to simultaneously wage war abroad and transform government at home. Celebrating the success of elections in Iraq and vowing a new effort to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush also promised to rewrite the U.S. tax code, liberalize the nation's immigration laws and rein in what he views as litigious legal system."

About Those Accounts

David E. Rosenbaum and Robin Toner write in the New York Times: "The financial safety net that the government promises the elderly, the disabled and the survivors of workers would be transformed over time from a program that uses tax money to pay guaranteed monthly benefits to one that allows workers to put part of their taxes into private investments.

"The theory behind the proposal is that the government can make the Social Security system financially solid by reducing guaranteed retirement benefits, but ideally workers' retirement income would not be lower because their investment accounts would make up for the lower guaranteed benefits."

Peter G. Gosselin and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "Officials said that workers would have to earn an after-inflation 3% annual return on their private account to make up for the loss of traditional benefits. . . . "

Some Omissions

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "For all the questions President Bush answered last night about his idea of carving private accounts from Social Security, the most fundamental remains: How to shore up the popular program that he says is 'headed for bankruptcy.' . . .

"Mr. Bush left those unpopular details out of his State of the Union speech last night. . . ."

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "The White House said the amount of guaranteed benefits currently paid by the system would be reduced by the amount that goes into the private accounts. That might not have been clear to listeners who heard Bush last night say 'the account will provide money for retirement over and above the check you will receive from Social Security.' The amount above the current benefit comes from the potential profit of the private account's investment. Bush did not mention potential losses that could occur in an account invested in what he called a 'conservative mix of bonds and stock funds.' "

Robert A. Rankin writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Like any good salesman, he was putting the best face on his plan, and he didn't mention many other aspects of it that would result in greater federal debt and lower Social Security benefits for many Americans."

Among his several examples of "what the president didn't say," Rankin writes: "Bush said he'd let younger workers pay for their new investment accounts by diverting part of the taxes they now pay on their wages into stocks and bonds that they'd own. He didn't say that every dollar that was diverted into the new personal accounts would be taken away from paying Social Security benefits for today's and tomorrow's retirees and would have to be made up by massive federal borrowing."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's urgent call to permanently fix Social Security contained only a passing mention of an unpleasant truth: Americans soon will be asked to either pay more or receive less."

He adds: "Confronting big problems without demanding sacrifice is a familiar approach for the current president."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "His avoidance of specifics appeared deliberate. The Bush team well knows how critics of the Clinton administration's heavily detailed health care proposal -- submitted to Congress as a pre-baked package -- picked it apart and defeated it a decade ago."

Offering a Solution?

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "For the first time, he put on the table a series of changes in the system that would result in lower benefits in the future, including raising the retirement age; limiting benefits for wealthy retirees; and indexing benefits to prices, rather than wages, thereby reducing their value over time. The only thing he explicitly ruled out was raising payroll taxes.

"But the president declined to take ownership of any of these politically risky changes, offering them instead as the ideas offered in the past by other politicians, all Democrats as it turned out."

Fact Checks

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "The devil was in the missing details Wednesday night when President Bush showcased his Social Security plan and claimed advances on jobs and against terrorism that don't tell the full story."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe that Bush's "statement that starting in 2018 the government 'will somehow have to come up with' extra billions to stay afloat ignores the fact that there exists a substantial trust fund now invested in US treasury bonds and will make up the shortfall for several decades. Second, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected the trust fund will be exhausted in 2052; the year 2042 is an older figure that came from the Social Security Trustees, who used a different set of economic assumptions. Finally, even after 2052, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has noted the system could still pay out 80 percent of normal benefits without new taxes or borrowing."

Kevin G. Hall writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush's warning that Social Security faces a looming financial crisis is based on the assumption that the U.S. economy will grow by only 1.8 percent each year, on average, for most of the next 75 years.

"Since 1950, the U.S. economy has grown, on average, by 3.5 percent per year.

"If the economy continued to grow over the next 50 years at a rate anywhere near the past pace, Social Security wouldn't face a financial crisis, though it would require small adjustments to balance its income and costs."

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was asked this question in his Live Online last night:

"Washington, D.C.: Anything he said strike you as objectively untrue?"

Kaiser's answer: "Yes. Bush often describes a world whose features are all highly debatable, if not simply invented. He proposes 'a comprehensive health care agenda' that will leave perhaps 50 million Americans without health insurance. Is that comprehensive in any meaningful sense? He promises big economic benefits from legal changes, 'tort reform,' that independent economists say cannot have more than a small economic effect even if enacted, which is not likely. He promises to increase the size of Pell Grants, not noting that they have shrunk far below the level he promised when he came into the White House. He proposes to reduce American dependency on foreign supplies of energy, when independent specialists say that as long as we need oil, we will be heavily, and increasingly, dependent on foreign suppliers. Bush spoke of a free and sovereign Iraq as though all was well there, but Iraq is a country in terrible straits, with most uncertain prospects. Bush didn't invent the rosy scenario approach to politics, of course. There's a lot of tradition behind this kind of wishful rhetoric."

A Contradiction

Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "When he discussed fiscal policy Wednesday night, President Bush portrayed himself as a champion of 'spending discipline,' renewing his pledge to cut the federal deficit in half by 2009 and vowing to send Congress a budget that 'substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs.'

"In the rest of his annual report to Congress, however, the president laid out an agenda of domestic and foreign policy action that illustrated just how hard it would be for his administration to achieve its goals on the budget and fiscal policy -- as it has been for most of his predecessors."

Reaction Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "On issue after issue -- Social Security, same-sex marriage, energy, taxes and lawsuit restrictions -- Bush's rhetoric split the House chamber between the throaty roars of Republican conservatives and the stony silence and occasionally outright heckling of the Democrats. That left the small number of GOP moderates sprinkled among the Republicans with a difficult choice: Would they swallow their concerns and cheer for ideas they considered objectionable? Or would they sit on their hands when their president proposed policies they oppose?

"In a clear warning to Bush, several of the moderates took the latter course last night, with subtle but unmistakable protests as the president spoke."

Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "From the moment Mr. Bush turned to the subject of Social Security in his speech, there was no doubt of the intensely partisan battle his proposal had spawned. Democrats hollered 'no, no!' as a Mr. Bush asserted that the Social Security system 'would be exhausted and bankrupt' in 40 years, making it appear for a moment that Mr. Bush was standing in the well at the British House of Commons."

Charles Babington and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that after the speech, Democrats were not impressed, and even some Republicans were restrained.

"Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate's point person on Social Security, issued a statement that went no further than 'I give the president credit for taking on a controversial issue. . . . It's our responsibility to address this issue right now, before the situation gets worse.' "

The Spectacle

As Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The night's most poignant moment came when two guests invited to represent those who had sacrificed -- Safia Taleb al-Suhail, whose father was assassinated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and who voted in Sunday's election, and Janet Norwood, the mother of Marine Sgt. Byron Norwood of Pflugerville, Tex., who died in the assault on Fallujah -- hugged in the gallery to the applause of those attending the speech in the House chamber."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "Was this a genuine expression of America appreciating its men and women in uniform, or a shameless political stunt using grief-stricken parents as pawns? As we all know in the age of media moments, it matters less what it was than what it was perceived to be, and to a greater degree than perhaps any other time since he's been in office, Bush appeared to have the perception presidency well in hand."

Mary Dalrymple follows up for the Associated Press: "On Thursday, the parents of Marine Corps Sgt. Byron Norwood said the Iraqi woman, Safia Taleb al-Suhail, had turned and introduced herself just before the speech.

" 'She thanked us for our son's sacrifice and made sure we knew the people in Iraq were grateful for the sacrifices that were made not just by our son, but by all of them,' Janet Norwood said.

" 'I just told her how happy we were that the elections were successful and told her our son would have been pleased,' said Norwood, appearing on ABC's 'Good Morning America' with her husband, Bill."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "The words were stately and solemn -- but not the man uttering them. As applause lapped around him, George W. Bush grinned, nodded and, at one point, when promising to block judges who 'legislate from the bench,' even winked. His was the confident grin of a high school student who was expected by many to flunk the course, and instead got an A minus on his last paper."

Foreign Affairs

Fletcher and Baker write that, on the foreign front, Bush "offered no new programs or initiatives intended to achieve such a goal, but after criticism that his administration had been selective in promoting freedom, he directly if politely challenged two close allies with autocratic governments, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to reform their systems.

"He had sterner words for two other nations in the Middle East, demanding that Syria stop harboring terrorists and that Iran give up its nuclear development programs, all but encouraging Iranians to rise up against the religious government in Tehran."

Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times: "That call to revolt was reminiscent of the appeals U.S. leaders issued to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and to the Shiite Muslims and Kurds of Saddam Hussein's Iraq shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, said Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert who has advised Democratic candidates.

"In those nations, the United States left the rebels to be crushed by their rulers. Bush's statement could trigger questions about how far the president would go to defend Iranians who defy their government."

The Anti Roosevelt?

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush's plan for a second term became much clearer Wednesday night: Roosevelt, in reverse. . . .

"Roosevelt proposed Social Security with the government as the guarantor of a safety net for the elderly, an idea that has been central to the New Deal creed that Democrats have hewed to since. Bush said he wanted to fundamentally alter it for younger workers, relying on the upward forces of financial markets to provide returns that the government never could. If young voters embrace the idea, then they might also embrace the GOP for years to come.

"What Bush didn't mention was that he was also proposing a fundamental shift in risk from government to the individual."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "At the very least, Bush has signaled he intends to concentrate his second-term domestic energies on big things instead of coasting.

" 'The normal impulse might be to say, "Let's visit India for 12 days," ' a former top Bush staffer said. "Instead, he's gambling his second term on fighting Franklin Roosevelt."


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