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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Should Tax Dollars Fund Bush's Bubble?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; 11:39 AM

A controversial president barnstorms through the country attending carefully controlled events where tickets are distributed by his own party, where no one disagrees with a word he says and no one puts him on the spot.

When this happened in the heat of the political season, the events and at least part of the president's travel costs were being paid for by his campaign. But now it's a post-election president spending tax dollars and ostensibly acting in the public interest.

Some of my readers think it's not appropriate.

"The president's dialogue with America on Social Security should be just that -- a dialogue, not a series of campaign events controlled by the local GOP bosses," writes John Deem of Huntersville, N.C.

"Obviously, these 'town hall' meetings, packed with W's most vocal supporters, and no dissenters allowed, are purely works of propaganda. Why is the American taxpayer paying for these 'town hall' meetings?" asks Tom Deaton.

President Bush developed the habit during the fall campaign of riding Air Force One from one protective bubble to another. That may not be everyone's idea of how to earn people's support, yet it's hard to argue with success.

But now the White House would appear to have established these bubble trips as standard operating procedure whenever the president wants to make his case to the American people.

One good test of whether this is appropriate might be to compare what Bush is doing with what other presidents have done when they decided to take their message on the road.

The Clinton Comparison

I'm no presidential historian -- and I welcome those of you who are to chip in with an e-mail -- but I do remember a bit about the last guy. And Bush himself invited comparison with President Clinton in his Jan. 26 press conference.

"I look forward to . . . traveling around the country discussing this issue -- similar to what President Clinton did," Bush said. "President Clinton highlighted the issue as an issue that needed to be addressed, and an issue that needed to be solved. He fully recognized, like I recognize, that it's going to require cooperation in the House and the Senate."

But Bush's approach couldn't be much more different than Clinton's. When Bush has one of his "conversations" on Social Security, it's with people prescreened to agree with him and he asks the rehearsed and leading questions. When Clinton had his "discussions" on Social Security, he intentionally brought opponents along with him, spoke before a mixed crowd, and let himself get grilled.

For instance, here's the transcript of an April 7, 1998 appearance by Clinton in Kansas City. He invited Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), among others, to join him.

And while the audience was laboriously prescreened, that was so that it would not be one-sided. Members were selected by a market research company to reflect the demographic and economic characteristics of the region.

By comparison, skim through the transcripts from Bush's two-day five-stop trip last week to Fargo, Great Falls, Mo., Omaha, Little Rock and Tampa.

Bush stays in the bubble because his aides figure that, just like during the campaign, events like these are an effective way of getting his message out without any downside risk. They work, they make nice sound bites and headlines, and nobody complains, at least not much.

As for the president himself, last fall's debates with Sen. John F. Kerry indicated that he doesn't much like it when people disagree with him. And one reason Bush is avoiding tough questions could be that he hasn't quite figured out how to answer them.

Consider this exchange at Friday's Tampa event, where a woman (whose question was somehow not transcribed by the White House) asked how the private accounts would fix "the red problem." She was referring to Bush's snazzy charts illustrating what he said was Social Security's "red ink."

Here's Bush's response, in its entirety:

"Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to what has been promised.

"Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

"Okay, better? I'll keep working on it."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online taking your questions and comments tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET.

Budget Watch: The Overview

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush sent Congress a $2.57 trillion federal budget yesterday that is designed to project U.S. power and priorities overseas while squeezing government programs at home but would not make a sizable dent in the nation's record deficit next year, despite politically painful cuts."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush and his aides portrayed the plan as an effort to prune ineffective and duplicative programs while providing more support to priorities like keeping the nation safe from terrorism, keeping the economy healthy, improving high school education and building health clinics in poor areas."

Joel Havemann and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times that the budget "continues to shift government priorities from domestic programs to national security and tax cuts."

And Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The era of big government is back.

"Bush's $2.57-trillion budget for 2006, if approved by Congress, would be more than a third bigger than the 2001 budget he inherited four years ago. It is a monument to how much Republicans' guiding fiscal philosophy has changed over the 10 years since the GOP's Contract With America called for a balanced budget and abolition of entire Cabinet agencies."

The Big Trick

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The spending plan [White House budget director Joshua B.] Bolten outlined was a model of fiscal responsibility. But as he fielded questions for an hour, it became steadily clearer why the new budget seemed so restrained: The White House left out a lot of expenses the government is likely to have, while including savings the government is unlikely ever to see. . . .

"The theme repeated itself throughout Bolten's briefing: Potential good news was embraced, and potential bad news was left out of the equation."

Edmund L. Andrews and David E. Rosenbaum write in the New York Times: "The large tables in President Bush's new budget show he intends to keep his promise of slicing the federal deficit in half by the end of his term, but the fine print indicates that the goal may be elusive.

"The budget is notable for including limits on spending that are unlikely to be enacted and for excluding expenses that are sure to be incurred."

Rick Klein and Susan Milligan write in the Boston Globe: "If all costs were included, Bush would fall well short of his campaign pledge to halve the federal budget deficit within five years, according to independent budget analysts."

What's He Trying to Prove?

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's $2.57 trillion budget is intended to demonstrate to three critical groups -- conservatives at home, Wall Street and financial markets overseas -- that he has become serious about reducing the nation's record deficit."

But Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Bush has tried to slash such programs before, only to have Congress -- which is controlled by his party -- refuse."

And Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that "many analysts doubt that Congress will fully embrace the president's recommendations, and the greetings from Wall Street economists yesterday were not encouraging."

Tax Cuts Intact

Peter G. Gosselin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As part of his ambitious second-term agenda, President Bush renewed the drive Monday to make his first-term tax cuts permanent and add some hefty new tax breaks -- an effort that experts said would cost the government at least $1.4 trillion in revenue over the next decade, possibly much more."

Tom Herman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Despite renewed clamor over budget deficits, President Bush shows no sign of backing down from his tax-cutting crusade."

Philosophical Change

Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "In the latest sign of a philosophical change in how the government should deliver social services, President Bush's new budget would cut some traditional aid for the poor in such areas as housing and health coverage.

"At the same time, some religion-based programs that promote such goals as sexual abstinence and marriage and provide mentors for at-risk children would enjoy increased federal aid."

Verbatim

Here's the text of Bush's brief comments after his Cabinet meeting yesterday. An excerpt:

"I look forward to explaining to the American people why we made some of the requests that we made in our budget. I fully understand that sometimes it's hard to eliminate a program that sounds good. But by getting people to focus on results -- I was saying to members of Congress, show us the results as to whether or not this program is working. I think we'll get a pretty good response."

Here's the transcript of Bolten's briefing.

The White House's Own Budget

Anne E. Kornblut and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "While drawing up an austere budget for the rest of the government, the Bush administration has been moving to scale down its own operations, paring positions in the West Wing and openly encouraging employees from the first term to consider moving on.

"For example, the Office of Cabinet Affairs, which has employed up to a dozen people to coordinate policy between the White House and administration agencies, has been reduced and is now run by one main administrator, according to Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff. The job of cabinet secretary, which until recently was held by Brian Montgomery, a longtime Bush associate -- has been 'redefined,' essentially vanishing."

According to the proposed budget, the White House would take a 1.7 percent reduction in its spending.

Says the budget document: "Resources requested for the EOP [Executive Office of the President], and for executive functions and official residence of the Vice President (see 3 U.S.C. 106 and Public Law 93-346), in 2006 total $329 million, or 1.7 percent, below the 2005 appropriated level. These resources will support approximately 1,840 personnel, as well as information technology and other infrastructure needs to serve the President and the Vice President."

Poll Watch

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "Americans give President Bush his highest job-approval rating in more than a year and show cautious optimism about Iraq in a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken shortly after historic Iraqi elections.

"In reversals from a month ago, majorities now say that going to war in Iraq was not a mistake, that things are going well there and that it's likely democracy will be established in Iraq.

"Bush's approval rating of 57% is his highest since he reached 59% in January 2004, shortly after U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein.

"The public remains skeptical about Bush's plans to alter Social Security. Forty-four percent say they approve of his approach, compared with 50% who say they disapprove."

Here are the poll results.

Good Bet

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "It's safe to assume that the mood at the White House dinner table last night was a bit more tense than usual. A few hours before dining with President Bush and a handful of others, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) took the Senate floor to rebuke the president and his political party for a 13-page mass-mail attack on Reid, authored by the Republican National Committee."

Steroid Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush was not aware of any steroid use by Texas Rangers players while he was a team executive, the White House said Monday.

"In his upcoming book, Jose Canseco said he introduced Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez to steroids after being traded to Texas in 1992, the New York Daily News reported. Canseco said Bush, the Rangers' managing partner at the time, must have known about the drugs."

Frisky President

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in the New York Daily News: "Dubya didn't let the Sabbath inhibit him Sunday when he and Laura Bush attended services at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House. The frisky moment came shortly after the Rev. Luis Leon encouraged his flock to greet one another. Most congregants settled for a handshake and the salutation 'Peace be with you.'

"But the Chicago Tribune's White House correspondent wrote in his pool report: '[President Bush] leans toward [the First Lady], gives her a quick kiss on the lips and then pats her behind -- I am not making this up -- before turning to shake hands with other worshipers around him.' "


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