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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush's Gas Attack

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 18, 2005; 12:40 PM

Stung by a dramatic fall in his approval ratings at least partially due to public distress over rising gas prices, President Bush used his weekly radio address on Saturday to announce a new "first order of business": Getting Congress to pass his controversial and long-stalled energy bill.

"American families and small businesses across the country are feeling the pinch from rising gas prices," he said.

"In the coming days and weeks I'll talk more about what we need to do in Washington to make sure America has an energy policy that reflects the demands of a new century."

But what has one got to do with the other?

The president, famous for his implied linkages (remember Saddam and September 11?) certainly appears to be suggesting that passage of the energy bill would lower gas prices.

But energy experts agree that the bill's effects wouldn't be felt for years, and that gas prices in particular might not be affected much at all.

Opponents of the bill charge that its salient feature is massive tax breaks for the energy industry -- the very folks who have been profiting from the recent run-up in gas prices, even as their executives contributed to Bush's reelection campaign.

Nevertheless, if Bush can somehow persuade the public that there is a relationship between skyrocketing gas prices and passage of his energy bill, the political effect could be overpowering. (Remember Saddam and September 11?)

Judy Keen writes in USA TODAY with a preview of the tightrope Bush will walk Wednesday, when he talks about energy issues at a U.S.-Hispanic Chambers of Commerce event.

"President Bush will lament the high price of gas in an energy policy speech this week but doesn't plan to promise an immediate solution," Keen writes. His message will be "that passage of an energy bill that's been stuck in Congress for four years would have helped prevent soaring prices."

Dan Bartlett, Bush's communications guru, telegraphs to Keen that the president won't make any specific promises. "There's no magic wand that can reduce the price of gas overnight," he tells Keen.

But that doesn't mean he won't suggest linkages. "This is an issue that requires national debate as well as substantive change of policy and habits over time," Bartlett said.

As for things that could potentially bring gas prices down in the short term, the White House has rejected calls to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. "Bush spokesman Scott McClellan says the reserve should be kept for emergencies," Keen writes.

McClellan said that Bush will talk about gas prices when he meets next week with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. But Keen writes: "Bush has not lobbied members of OPEC, the consortium of oil producers. In 1999, he criticized Vice President Gore for rising prices and said President Clinton 'must jawbone OPEC members to lower prices.' "

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The White House has neither proposed nor backed any steps to address the immediate surge in gasoline prices."

As for Bush's energy legislation, Stevenson writes: "Although the bill would do little or nothing to address the current spike in crude oil and gasoline prices, Mr. Bush suggested that the legislation was necessary to deal with the underlying causes of it: the rapid worldwide growth in demand for energy and the reliance of the United States on foreign oil. . . .

"But some Democrats and their allies have said they intend to use the current climate to press their case that Mr. Bush has not gone nearly far enough in calling for conservation, tighter fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks, and development of alternative energy sources."

Need some background? Here's the White House Web site'spage on Bush's energy policy. And here's Public Citizen's.

Like Mother, Like Son

Ann McFeatters writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Bush's resolve to keep pushing for his increasingly unpopular Social Security proposals may be a reaction to watching his father being called a wimp.

"The former president's son learned a lesson he's never forgotten -- the perception of being tough, single-minded and committed is as essential in politics today as being likable and good-looking on TV."

Her Exhibit A is something Bush said at the American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting on Thursday, while discussing Social Security: "I enjoy taking on this issue. I guess it's the mother in me."

But, McFeatters writes that being feisty like mother could be a mistake this time.

"In his determination never to be labeled wimpy or weak, Bush has taken a huge gamble. And while he's certainly no stranger to risk, nobody wins the PR game all the time."

Bush in Ohio

Peter G. Gosselin and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush came to Ohio on Friday to highlight a state retirement savings system that he said showed that Americans would be better off handling their own old-age investments through personal accounts than relying on traditional Social Security.

"But that state's version of personal accounts has attracted few takers among the people eligible -- Ohio's 750,000 public employees. And records show that the most widely chosen version of the state-offered accounts has racked up a five-year earning record of 1.86%, about the same return that the president says Social Security produces."

Here's the transcript of the event.

Who Needs Amnesty?

Bush yesterday: "I imagine there's some people fearful in Washington, D.C. about maybe laying out an interesting idea and that one of the political parties will get all over them for laying it out. If I had anything to do with it, it would be political amnesty for people bringing good ideas forward."

Bubble Watch

Mark Naymik and Susan Jaffe write in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Just as he did during campaign visits to Ohio last fall, Bush spoke at a roundtable-style meeting in front of an invitation-only audience that allowed him to appear relaxed. The event also was tightly scripted.

"The participants at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, including a state and university administrator in charge of public retirement plans, were hand-picked by the White House. They sat at a table on a stage beneath signs reading, 'Taking Charge of Your Retirement.'

"And the president, cracking jokes about his average grades in college and his graying hair, frequently prompted the participants to clarify their remarks or make specific points that helped underscore his vision for Social Security."

Unlike previous, ostensibly public events, this one was explicitly open only to people who received an invitation.

Curt W. Olson and John Arthur Hutchison of the News Herald of Northeast Ohio checked out the audience. "Most of the small crowd who received tickets to President Bush's invitation-only roundtable discussion on Social Security Friday favored his plan for private investment accounts," they write.

"Those attending the event at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland included politicians, chamber of commerce members and other business leaders."

Denver Three Watch

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos writes for Fox News: "The unceremonious ouster of three people from a recent White House Social Security event in Colorado has critics wondering how far President Bush will go to ensure friendly, sympathetic audiences at his town hall-style forums and rallies."

Vlahos got White House spokesman Trent Duffy to speak at some length on the issue.

"There is an active campaign underway to try and disrupt and disturb his events in hopes of undermining his objective of fixing Social Security," Duffy told her. "If there is evidence there are people planning to disrupt the president at an event, then they have the right to exclude those people from those events."

Vlahos writes: "Duffy said the White House sends advance teams to deal with logistics for any official event. These teams typically handle the screening for speakers and audience members who will be sitting with or addressing the president during the event. They also keep an eye on the crowds for possible troublemakers.

"He said he did not have further information on the Denver incident, but 'from what I was told it was fairly obvious to them that they had plans to disrupt the event. ... It was a judgment call.' "

So is Duffy admitting that the person who ejected the "Denver Three" was operating under White House orders? That would be news.

Working Poor Not Sold

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that Bush says the working poor have the most to gain from his Social Security push.

"But between work, day care and the endless battle to lift themselves up, some members of the president's would-be ownership society say they would just as soon not have another thing to worry about. . . .

"The one thing the working poor seem to have an abiding faith in is Social Security."

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to South Carolina today to talk about Social Security at the statehouse.

Lee Bandy writes in The State: "South Carolinians are eager to hear what you have to say about Social Security reform. Most agree it needs to be fixed, but they aren't sure about costly private accounts. You've got a big selling job on your hands."

The White House Knew

Greg Toppo and Mark Memmott write in USA Today that a report from Education Department inspector general John Higgins has "found that David Dunn, a special assistant to President Bush, participated in at least four conversations about the [Armstrong] Williams contract with Education Department officials last summer."

Williams was paid to promote President Bush's top education initiative

"During at least two of those conversations, Education officials voiced 'strong' concerns about 'the inherent conflict of Mr. Williams' role as both a public relations executive and commentator,' the report says. . . .

"The inspector general's findings run counter to a statement made by Bush on Jan. 26, about three weeks after USA TODAY first disclosed the deal with Williams. At a news conference, Bush said of the contract, 'We didn't know about this in the White House.'

"Whether Dunn relayed the concerns about the Williams deal to others at the White House remains unclear. The Bush administration refused to allow Higgins to question Dunn about his time as a presidential policy adviser."

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "An administration official said it was unrealistic to expect someone with Dunn's broad responsibilities to act on a relatively small contract. . . .

"Dunn, who now serves as [Margaret] Spellings' chief of staff at the Education Department, was not available for comment Friday. In his job at the White House, he also worked for Spellings. . . .

" 'Every American should be outraged that concerns were raised at the highest levels of the [Education] Department and to the White House about the highly irregular nature of this contract,' said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who was among those who had requested the investigation. 'Although White House officials had professed ignorance of the Armstrong Williams contract, this report makes it clear they were aware but failed to intervene.'

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, responding to the report, said, 'The president did not know about this contract and, to the best of my knowledge, other senior-level people at the White House didn't know either.' "

Tax Time

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and first lady Laura Bush paid $207,307 in federal income taxes on taxable income of $672,788 in 2004, according to the tax return released Friday by the White House. . . .

"Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, reported paying $393,518 in taxes on earnings of $1,328,678 in 2004. . . .

"The Cheneys' income included the vice president's $203,000 salary and $194,852 in deferred compensation from Halliburton Co., the Texas-based energy services firm and defense contractor that he headed until August 2000."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The tax cuts that Mr. Bush has signed into law since taking office saved [the Bushes] $28,846 last year, according to an analysis of their returns by Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal research group that is critical of the administration's tax policies. . . .

"The Cheneys saved $81,336 from the Bush tax cuts, Citizens for Tax Justice said."

I have one question: Apparently, the Cheneys under-withheld over the course of the year to the tune of $102,663. Isn't that against the rules? Tax experts, let me know: froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Valerie Plame Watch

Reuters reports: "Democrats on the House of Representatives intelligence panel have asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to explain why no government officials have been charged in a federal probe into the 2003 disclosure of a CIA operative's identity.

"A letter, dated April 14 and signed by the committee's nine Democratic members, expressed 'grave concern' that no charges have resulted from the grand jury investigation into whether the Bush administration illegally leaked the CIA officer's name to the media."

On CNN on Friday, Gonzales said he believes the investigation is moving forward appropriately.

Investigative reporter Murray Waas writes on his blog: "A senior Justice Department official told me tonight that [special prosecutor Patrick J.] Fitzgerald's investigation was still 'an ongoing pursuit' and it was unlikely that any information he has unearthed would be turned over to Capitol Hill until the special prosecutor was completely finished with his work. The official also said it was unclear as to whether Fitzgerald, even if he wanted to, could turn over information to Congress obtained as a result of testimony before a federal grand jury."

The Rove Primaries

Alicia Mundy writes in the Seattle Times that the White House is making Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington a top target in the 2006 midterm elections, "and has told some candidates it wants to avoid an expensive intraparty battle. . . .

"However, there will be a primary of sorts -- in Washington, D.C. And it's already begun."

First Fan

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen finds evidence of Bush's prodigious sports expertise.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that "the president's 60-foot throw from the top of the mound on a glorious spring evening in the capital was still a reminder that Mr. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers and a self-described mediocre pitcher for a short time at Yale, owes much in his life - if not the presidency itself - to baseball."

Where's Karen?

Robin Wright and Al Kamen write in The Washington Post that Karen Hughes is not on the job quite yet.

"Hughes's surprise appointment on March 15 as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy was expected to generate new momentum and high-profile initiatives to the Islamic world. At the time, President Bush said that 'spreading the universal principle of human liberty,' particularly to the Muslim world, was a key component of the war on terrorism."

But Hughes is not expected to take the job until as late as the fall.

Also missing from the initiative: Any Muslim staff.

Playing Bush

The Associated Press reports that Keith Carradine will star as Bush when David Hare's play about the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 opens in Los Angeles this summer.

"Stuff Happens" had its world premiere last September at London's National Theatre, where it opened to positive reviews.

Correspondent Watch

ABC News's The Note reports: "A well-placed source says that, as early as today, CNN will announce that John 'the King of Pebble Beach' King, will be leaving the helm of the cable net's White House unit to become an 'Ubercorrespondent' for the network, a roaming linebacker who can run to whatever hot spot he's needed. . . . That means that the CNN White House Unit on-air line-up of Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, and Elaine Quijano will become what some media historians see as the first all-women White House correspondent team in the history of television."

Presidential Endorsements

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal that Bush doesn't officially endorse products. "There's no law in the U.S. against presidential endorsements, but tradition and taste dictate that the president refrain from product plugs. 'A paid endorsement is not something he'd ever do,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says of President Bush."

But he has let it be known that he is partial to Trek mountain bikes, Callaway putter, ELMS jigsaw puzzles, and so on.

"For a marketer, getting a presidential mention -- or, better yet, having the president photographed using your product -- is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Cooper writes.

And yet: "In the current charged political atmosphere, a presidential endorsement may not always be a godsend. When Mr. Bush was photographed recently using Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod music player, the Web site Macdailynews abandoned its relatively genteel discussions of electronic gadgets and turned darkly partisan. 'That does it, I'm tossing my iPod in the Potomac,' one poster said."


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