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A Change of Subject

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 19, 2006; 1:00 PM

This was the week President Bush changed the subject.

With a rare primetime speech from the Oval Office and ensuing PR campaign, Bush pulled the press and the public away from their growing obsession with his sinking approval ratings, the carnage in Iraq, his domestic snooping, and other stories over which he had little control.

The new subject, of course, is immigration. It's not a sure-fire winner for Bush, sparking as it does virulent opposition from within his own party, and putting him in the unusual position of trying to build a coalition around a "rational middle ground," which is not his strong suit.

But by golly, at least he's setting the agenda again. He's in control. And that, more than anything, may be the reason for what looks like a small end-of-week bump in his approval numbers (see below).

As part of his publicity blitz, Bush asked White House correspondents from the five major television networks if they wouldn't mind interviewing him yesterday, for about five minutes each, with the Mexican border as a backdrop. They of course obliged.

Bush's goal was clear: To keep the momentum going. I couldn't keep track of how many times he used the word "comprehensive."

But while Bush's interlocutors all got the ball rolling with questions about immigration, not everyone kept entirely to the script. There were still quite a few tough questions about some of those other, less welcome topics.

NBC's David Gregory in particular veered off the immigration path -- and succeeded in knocking Bush off his talking points, for one of the most revealing (if short) presidential interviews conducted by an American reporter in a long time.

Under Gregory's assertive examination, Bush repeatedly rejected the notion that his dismal approval ratings actually reflect disapproval -- calling them simply the result of an "unsettled" public. He acknowledged that the war in Iraq is the major factor that will determine his presidency's future momentum. And when Gregory asked him for another example of his pursuing a "rational middle ground," the flustered president offered up his tax cuts, which were recently rammed through Congress over almost unanimous Democratic opposition.

Talking to ABC's Martha Raddatz, Bush made a statement that -- while somewhere short of an actual commitment -- was nevertheless the first sign that he might begin to engage in a public dialogue with opponents of the war. "There are some in Washington that say 'pull out now.' I look forward to debating those voices," he said.

And under repeated questioning from FOX News's Carl Cameron, he refused to even confirm that he was refusing to confirm or deny reports that the government is maintaining a secret domestic telephone database.

On NBC

Here's the video and text of Bush's interview with David Gregory interview.


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