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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The Magic Wands Bush Won't Wave

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 21, 2005; 11:56 AM

For months, the stock White House response to question about high gas prices has been to call for passage of President Bush's energy plan -- as if the two were related.

So it was a bit of a shock yesterday when Bush himself bluntly acknowledged what's been obvious to most observers for quite a while now: That his energy proposals won't lower gas prices in the short term one bit.

"I wish I could simply wave a magic wand and lower gas prices tomorrow; I'd do that. Unfortunately, higher gas prices are a problem that has been years in the making," he said in a speech to members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"An energy bill wouldn't change the price at the pump today. I know that and you know that. It will help us make better use of the energy supplies we have. It will make our supply of energy more affordable and more secure for the future."

But wait. Is there really nothing Bush could do about gas prices in the short term?

The dynamics of gas prices are enormously complex, and the conventional wisdom has indeed been that the recent run-up in prices is just the market at work, responding to long-term supply and demand factors. If you buy into that explanation, then it's hard to see how the government could do much about it in the short term.

But some alternate views are now emerging. They suggest that maybe there are some things Bush could do -- that, in short, Bush has some magic wands around, he's just choosing not to wave them.

Here, according to what I've been reading lately, are some of the things Bush could conceivably do to conjure up lower prices:

• Develop an exit strategy for Iraq. Fear of continued instability in the Middle East is widely seen as contributing to a "risk premium" that's driving up crude oil prices.

• Tamp down speculation on the oil-trading exchanges, either by re-regulating the markets, raising interest rates, or both. There is some evidence that avaricious speculators have driven the price way above the levels justified simply by supply and demand conditions.

• Do something about the weak dollar. The dollar's dramatic drop against major currencies directly translates to higher gas prices for Americans. (But strengthening the dollar might require serious deficit reduction.)

• Tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

• "Jawbone" producers into increasing production.

• Aggressively investigate the possibility of price gouging by the oil industry.

Bush himself touched on those last two options yesterday: "One of the things we can do to try to help in the immediate term: we can encourage oil-producing countries to maximize their production overseas; we can make sure consumers are treated fairly, that there's not price gouging."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com that, according to officials from oil-producing countries, the United States can affect oil prices significantly on its own.

"Those officials say there are two big factors that have nothing to do with the growing demand from China and the rest of the developing world: fear of instability and financial speculators. 'If you take out the speculators' effect and the fear factor, you should be able to see oil prices $15 less than they are now,' says one senior official from an oil-exporting nation.

"The fear factor rests in large part on Iraq, where Bush has yet to detail an exit strategy in the foreseeable future. It also rests on Russia's political future and its attitude to foreign investors in the energy industry, something President Bush will once again discuss with President Vladimir Putin next month in Moscow.

"As for the speculative element, some oil producers believe that rising interest rates in the United States is the best way to shift the dynamic among the hedge funds to move out of oil."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Critics say Bush could provide some relief by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the government's stockpile to protect against an oil disruption, but he's resisted that idea. Bush believes the reserve should be used for national emergencies, not to influence prices at the pump."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Bush's admission that he lacked the power to lower prices was a notable turnaround. Bush promised as a candidate in 2000 to pressure oil producers to increase supply and drive down prices.

" 'I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot, to increase the supply,' Bush said outside of Detroit in June 2000."

But as it turns out, there are signs of some imminent jawboning ahead, this very weekend, with Vice President Cheney taking the lead.

G. Robert Hillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Vice President Dick Cheney will confer in Dallas over the weekend with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. . . .

"Mr. Cheney and other administration officials plan to meet with him on Sunday, before consultations with President Bush scheduled Monday at his Texas ranch outside Crawford."

As I wrote in yesterday's column, there are some signs that Bush may be hoping for the Saudis to come to his rescue on gas prices. The fact that he's deploying Cheney makes that even more likely.

As for making sure there's no price gouging, I have yet to see any evidence that the administration has taken any recent steps in that direction.

In a piece on my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org, consumer advocate Tyler Slocum, director of Public Citizen's Energy Program, says the evidence shows that the oil industry is increasing its profit margins even as the price of crude rises.

Slocum also argues that de-regulation of energy trading has been a boon to fast-buck oil speculators.

Bush Sets a Deadline

Jim VandeHei and Justin Blum write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that his national energy policy would not lower gasoline prices anytime soon, but called on Congress to pass it by August to begin weaning the nation from imported oil and transitioning to alternative sources of power and fuel. . . .

"As Bush spoke, the House began debating an energy bill that includes $8.1 billion in tax breaks, mainly for big energy companies; permits oil drilling in part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and provides legal protections to producers of the gasoline additive MTBE, which is blamed for contaminating drinking water."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President Bush demanded on Wednesday that Congress get a long-stalled energy bill to his desk for signing by the summer, even as he admitted that the legislation would do nothing to lower the rising gasoline prices that polls suggest have cut into his approval ratings. . . .

"Mr. Bush's speech was part of a White House effort to portray the administration as proactive on gas prices and to use the public focus on the issue to try to move the legislation, which the president proposed nearly four years ago."

White House Comes Out Slugging for Bolton

As Bush's nomination of John Bolton as United Nations ambassador faces more and more resistance on Capitol Hill, the White House is showing no public signs of backing down. In fact, quite the contrary.

In a speech to insurance agents this morning, Bush started things off with a Bolton riff. "He is the right man at the right time for this important assignment," Bush said. "I urge the Senate to put aside politics and confirm John Bolton to the United Nations."

Charles Babington and Jim VandeHei write in this morning's Washington Post that the White House "launched an aggressive campaign to salvage the nomination. Spokesman Scott McClellan accused Democrats of manufacturing charges to discredit Bolton and 'score political points.' "

Douglas Jehl and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bolton's prospects may hinge on calculations made by the nominee himself, or by the White House, and particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who is regarded as his main patron. For now, President Bush and his team appear to see the battle as a test of wills, but new information, or the potential for another bruising hearing, may turn his cause into an unacceptable political liability. Mr. Chafee told CNN that the committee's Republicans might consider whether to recommend that the nomination be withdrawn."

Stephen Dinan and David R. Sands write in the Washington Times: "A Republican with close ties to the White House said President Bush has no intention of letting Mr. Bolton twist in the wind, but at this point does not think that the nomination is in peril."

For McClellan, the word of the day was "unsubstantiated." He used it six time in his briefing yesterday. For example:

"Q A follow-up on John Bolton -- is that nomination lost?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, absolutely not. I think what you're seeing is some Democrats on the committee trumping up allegations and making unsubstantiated accusations against someone the President believes will do an outstanding job at the United Nations. He is someone who has been an effective manager, a strong diplomat who has gotten things done. And I think he's earned the respect of many people that he has worked with because of what he's done. . . .

"Senate Democrats on the committee continue to bring up these allegations that are unsubstantiated, that are unfounded, that John Bolton has addressed in his testimony, in more than eight hours of testimony before the committee, that he's addressed in written responses to follow-up questions, as well. And I think what you're seeing is the ugly side of Washington, D.C., that people are playing politics with his nomination. . . .

"Q With regard to the Bolton nomination, I'm trying to get my head around 'unsubstantiated allegations.' With regard to the allegations of trying to have senior intelligence analysts removed from their portfolios, my understanding is that the allegations were made by those analysts, independent intelligence analysts, were substantiated by their superiors and have been corroborated by others, and even Mr. Bolton himself concurs that something occurred. So I'm not quite sure what 'unsubstantiated' means about that one in particular.

"MR. McCLELLAN: The accusations that are being made are unsubstantiated. Again, Democrats continue to raise them. These matters have been addressed before the committee. I'm not going to go and dignify these unsubstantiated accusations from this podium by responding to them."

Social Security Watch

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Markets go up and markets go down. But the slide over the last month on Wall Street is hardly good timing for President Bush, who now finds himself with another issue to explain as he struggles to win over public opinion -- and the votes he needs in Congress -- for his proposal to add investment accounts to Social Security. . . .

"In political terms, a weak market and jittery investors create an unwelcome juxtaposition for the White House as Mr. Bush makes his case that Wall Street can be counted on to help offset the benefits cuts required to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security."

I noted the other day that "modernization" is the new White House buzzword for its Social Security pitch. Get ready for Bush to uncork a new metaphor in that vein every few days.

On Monday, it was this: "Telling younger workers they have to save money in a 1930s retirement system is like telling them they have to use a cell phone with a rotary dial."

This morning, he said he it was "like trying to persuade them that vinyl LPs are better than iPods."

The 'No-Child' Revolution

Sam Dillon writes in the New York Times: "Opening a new front in the growing rebellion against President Bush's signature education law, the nation's largest teachers' union and eight school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont sued the Department of Education yesterday, accusing it of violating a passage in the law that says states cannot be forced to spend their own money to meet federal requirements."

Neil Bush Mystery

Knut Royce and Tom Brune write in Newsday: "Neil Bush, the president's controversial younger brother, six years ago joined the cardinal who this week became Pope Benedict XVI as a founding board member of a little known Swiss ecumenical foundation. . . .

"Gary Vachicouras, a theologian and foundation official in Geneva, would not explain in a telephone interview yesterday why Bush, who has no clear public connection to religious causes, was on the first board."

Spring Garden Tour

The annual White House Spring Garden Tour is this weekend. The National Park Service will distribute free, timed tickets at the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion located at 15th and E Streets on both tour days beginning at 7:30 a.m. Tickets will be distributed -- one ticket per person -- on a first-come, first-served basis.

There's more information here.

Slime-Mold Beetle Watch

An update on the slime-mold beetle news I first told you about last week.

AFP reports: "Insect experts are at odds over plans to name three newly-discovered species of slime-mould beetle after US President George W Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld."

The pair of Cornell insect experts who came up with the idea "insist they are both conservative politically and admire the Bush administration, and that this was the best way to honour Mr Bush and his two lieutenants."

But the London-based International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) is worried. "The eyebrows of its executive secretary, Andrew Polaszek, beetle at the idea of naming three US leaders after creatures that spend their days scrabbling around in festering goo."

Bubble Watch, Part I

Denver Post columnist Diane Carman did some digging around yesterday on the "Denver Three" -- the three people kicked out of a Bush Social Security event last month, apparently on account of the bumper sticker on their car.

Carman notes, like I did on Monday, that White House spokesman Trent Duffy's comments in this Fox News story would seem to suggest that the White House may have had a more direct role that initially acknowledged.

Carman writes: "At Wednesday's press gaggle, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked to clarify.

"He denied that the bouncer was paid staff. 'My understanding is it was a volunteer and that that volunteer was concerned that these people were coming to the event to disrupt the event, and that's why he asked them to leave,' he said.

"When asked if the volunteer was acting on the instruction of the White House, McClellan responded, 'Not that I'm aware of.'

"Hmmm. So who might be aware?

"I asked two other White House spokesmen that question Wednesday. They declined to answer."

Where does all this leave us? "It's day 31. The White House stonewalling continues," Carman writes.

Bubble Watch, Part II

I was Live Online yesterday, and an Alexandria reader scolded me: "After all the hard work that you do pointing out Bush's bubble on the road, I am surprised that you didn't mention last night's 'Daily Show' story where Samantha Bee interviews Frank Luntz about how to get a favorable event, and then works with a casting agent to find people for her panel."

I explained that one of the sacrifices I make for this column is going to bed before the "Daily Show" is on.

But it turns out Comedy Central has now posted Bee's sketch on its Web site.

"As he barnstorms across the country to sell his Social Security reforms, President Bush has introduced an exciting innovation: The fake town hall," Bee explains.

And indeed, Bee interviews Republican pollster Frank Luntz for guidance, and then casts her own fake town hall, which turns out to be eerily like Bush's, but for the relentless spewing of obscenities.

My favorite part, however, was Luntz serving as a White House "translator" of sorts.

"Drilling for oil," says Bee. "I would say, responsible exploration for energy," says Luntz.

"Logging," says Bee. "I would say, healthy forests," says Luntz.

"Manipulation," says Bee. "Explanation and education," says Luntz.


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