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A Change of Subject

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.

"Gregory: Let me ask you about your leadership. In the most recent survey, your disapproval rating is now one point lower than Richard Nixon's before he resigned the presidency. You're laughing.

"President Bush: I'm not laughing.

"Gregory: Why do you think that is?

"President Bush: Because we're at war. And war unsettles people. Listen, we've got a great economy. We've added 5.2 million jobs in the last two-and-a-half years, but people are unsettled. They don't look at the economy and say, 'life is good.' They know we're at war. And I'm not surprised that people are unsettled because of war. The enemy's got a powerful tool -- that is to get on your TV screen by killing innocent people. And my job is to continue to remind the people it's worth it. We're not going to retreat hastily. We're not going to pull out of there before the job's done and we've got a plan for victory.

"Gregory: They're not just unsettled, sir. They disapprove of the job you're doing.

"President Bush: That's unsettled.

"Gregory: That's how you see it?

"President Bush: Yeah, I do. I see it as the war has -- the war is -- the war is difficult. And I understand that. I understand why people wonder whether we can win the war or not. But there's a big difference between some of us who believe we're doing the right thing and moving forward and a group of people who want to pull out before the job is done.

"Gregory: Do you think it's possible that, like Nixon and Watergate, the American people have rendered a final judgment of disapproval on you and your war in Iraq?

"President Bush: Of course not. I've got two-and-a-half years left to be President of the United States and I intend to get a lot done, including immigration reform. Yesterday, I signed the extension of tax relief. We're making good progress on cutting this deficit in half. I've got a lot to do and I'm going to work with the Congress and get things done on behalf of the American people. We've got a positive agenda that is making a difference in people's lives. I'm also not going to retreat in the face of adverse polls. I'm going to do what I think is right and complete the mission in Iraq. And I believe a free Iraq is going to make the world a better place.

"Gregory: Let me ask you a little something about your style. You've said in this immigration debate that you want to find 'rational middle ground' on this issue. What other areas can the American people expect you to urge a more centrist approach to policy?

"President Bush: I think cutting people's taxes is rational. Particularly since it's worked; it's caused the economy to grow.

"Gregory: Is that middle ground?

"President Bush: I think it is. You're the people who put labels on people, I don't. I said 'rational.' Cutting taxes is rational. I think keeping taxes low is rational because it's working. I think the Medicare bill was rational middle ground. We said to seniors, 'The system wasn't working, we're going to reform it.' You've now got a prescription drug benefit that helps low-income seniors in particular. No longer do seniors have to choose between food and medicine. To me, another way to look at, is just common sense policies.

"Gregory: You mentioned two-and-a-half years. What's the momentum changer, in your mind, for your presidency, to turn it around.

"President Bush: Well, I guess Iraq. I mean, that's what colors everybody's vision, it seems like. People are worried about Iraq. People see progress in Iraq, they'll realize that we can win. You see, most Americans want us to win. They want us to do well in Iraq. They don't want to retreat. Unity government will help in Iraq. The fact that more Iraqis are in the fight will help."

On ABC

Here's the video and text of Bush's interview with Martha Raddatz, who hit him right off with a tough question.

"RADDATZ: Mr. President, one of the things that happened today is [California] Gov. Schwarzenegger said he's very concerned about the two-week rotation with the Guard. How would that work? How can they actually accomplish anything in two weeks?

"BUSH: Well, actually, the Guard goes through training exercises and the Defense Department is going to work with the Guard here and work with the governors to explain why the two week shifts of different Guard units coming down here will help complement the border patrol. . . .

"RADDATZ: But one of the things the Guard usually does is train for war.

"BUSH: Yeah, but there's units not training for war. In other words, there are units that are not all combat units. They are units that can complement what the border patrol is doing down here. We've got -- listen before I laid it out, I talked to the Defense Department, who talked to the Guard bureau to make sure that which we propose is reasonable and realistic."

Raddatz also asked Bush about the polls.

"RADDATZ: Mr President, you are not doing well in the polls. You say you don't govern by polls, you try not to pay attention to them, but it has got to concern you that so much of the country is not happy with your leadership?

"BUSH: Look, the war causes anxiety. I understand that. You know, war is a terrible thing. Particularly when we face an enemy that kills innocent life nearly on a daily basis. And the enemy is trying to shake our will. The American people have got to know that if I believe I'm right I'm going to move forward with a plan. And I believe we're right to be in Iraq, and I know we're right to help that democracy flourish. And that's exactly what we're going to do.

"RADDATZ: You don't seem like you've changed anyone's mind in the last few months even though you've been out there speaking about it all the time.

"BUSH: Martha, the enemy has got a powerful tool. And they get on your TV screen by killing innocent people. And, of course, that shakes the confidence of the American people. Most Americans -- listen -- there are some in Washington that say 'pull out now.' I look forward to debating those voices."

On Fox

Here's the video of Bush's interview with Carl Cameron. They talked mostly about immigration.

"It makes sense to use fencing here," Bush said. "It doesn't make sense to use fencing in other parts of the border. And the best people to help us design the program are those who are in charge of enforcing the border."

Asked how many miles of fence he'd like to see built, Bush replied: "Whatever works."

In this apparently unbroadcast and unpublished exchange, Cameron tried to get Bush to clear up some key issues related to the NSA database.

Cameron: "Can you sort out for us some of the confusion about your own remarks earlier this week regarding the terrorist surveillance program versus reports this week and last year that the government is taking bulk statistical call data information and using it to track terrorism? If that's happening without a warrant, is it legal? And is it happening?"

Bush: "I'm not going to discuss the details of any plan we're doing and the obvious reason why is we don't want the enemy adjusting their tactics. But I did say, and will continue to tell the American people, that anything we do is within the law. We're guarding people's civil liberties. But if Al Qaeda is making phone calls in the United States, I want to know why."

Cameron: "When you say 'I'm not going to discuss any program we're doing,' many will take that as tacit confirmation that it's happening. Are you confirming that that data record analysis is taking place?"

Bush: "We're not going to talk about details, Carl. It's very important for -- I know everybody -- it's the same thing that happened last time the issue came up. People say, 'Tell us what you're doing.' Well, if I tell you what we're doing, we're telling the enemy what we're doing. . . . "

Cameron: "Are we then to say that this president will not confirm or deny the existence of this call data records report?"

Bush, chuckling: "The president will say: Anything we're doing to protect the American people is within the law, that protects people's civil liberties, and is focused on Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda affiliates."

On CNN

Here's the video and text of Bush's interview with Suzanne Malveaux.

"MALVEAUX: You came into the second term with a lot of confidence and political capital. Clearly, it is your lowest approval ratings at this point and congressional Republicans are going in their own direction.

"What do you do to become -- at least not risk -- becoming irrelevant?

"BUSH: Look, yesterday I signed a bill extending capital gains and dividends. We're making -- we've had a very strong legislative record. I will continue to sign good law because I'm working with members of the House and the Senate. I, you know, we're going to win the war on terror. I'm doing my job, what the American people want me to do."

On CBS

Here's video of Bush's interview with Bill Plante.

Plante noted that House Republicans are deeply opposed to Bush's plan on immigration.

"You sent Karl Rove up there yesterday and they practically showed him the door," Plante said.

"Let the process work," Bush responded.

Plante said he'd talked to some locals. "One old fellah said to me, he said this morning, 'You know, he'll be down here and that's fine, but he'll leave and everything'll be the same tomorrow.'"

Bush's reply: "I doubt that. I think you need to tell the old fellah that when George Dubya says he's going to make this a technologically advanced border with additional border patrol, he means it."

The Backstory

Hillary Profita writes on CBS's Public Eye blog about how all these interviews came about.

"Earlier this week, White House correspondents were told that they would definitely want to be on the president's upcoming trip -- which suggested that he would be granting one-on-one interviews, said Carter Yang, a producer for the 'Evening News,' who is covering the president's trip. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that there would indeed be sit-down interviews with each network. CBS News producer Tom Seem explained that the White House sets the interview length and determines the order of when each network's interview will take place. In this case, the interview length is five minutes, and the order of networks is: Fox, followed by CNN (the cable networks get first dibs because their deadlines are more immediate) then CBS, NBC, and ABC."

On the NBC Nightly News , anchor Brian Williams debriefed Gregory: "Let's talk about the fact that you were able to interview the president today, along with the other correspondents who cover him in television. This was offered by the White House. We didn't have to ask. That is a huge change for this White House. What if anything should we read into that?"

Gregory: "Well, that there's a new strategy about dealing with the press and trying to speak directly to the American people. Wasn't a long interview -- five minutes -- but we were certainly happy to get it, those of us who cover him day in and day out. But particularly on this issue, Brian, the White House recognizes that it needs a strategy to try to speak beyond its conservative critics and reach the country directly. We saw that with a primetime address to the country on immigration and now these series of interviews today. I suspect we'll see more of this coming down the line."

On the Border

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush traveled on Thursday to a blistering stretch of scrub land surrounding the nation's busiest Border Patrol station and declared that he supported fencing some but not all of America's 1,950-mile border with Mexico. . . .

"Mr. Bush has in the past indicated he is opposed to fencing, and White House officials were kept busy on Thursday trying to explain the change in his position."

Here's the transcript of his speech.

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The president's daylong journey, three days after he announced the National Guard deployment, was designed to highlight his newly emphasized commitment to the immigration issue. . . .

"Seeking to draw attention to his call for broad legislation to overhaul the immigration laws, rather than legislation that would just clamp down on illegal border crossings, Bush sat in near-100-degree heat for five consecutive television interviews, with the chain-link fence to his left and a Border Patrol vehicle behind him.

"The president flew nearly nine hours round-trip, approximately 4,400 miles, for the roughly three-hour visit to the southwest corner of Arizona."

Poll Watch

CBS News reports: "There's growing support for President Bush on the hot-button issue of immigration, according to a CBS News poll.

"Most Americans say they approve of the immigration reform proposals the president outlined in a nationally televised address earlier this week. They're also somewhat optimistic that Congress will pass an immigration bill by year's end. . . .

"Mr. Bush's overall approval rating remains low at just 35 percent, but that's a 4-point increase from before his immigration speech."

John Roberts reports about a new CNN poll: "As he toured the border in Arizona, the president's new focus on immigration, it seems, was the springboard for his bounce, a two-point rise in his approval ratings, up to 36 percent now, from 34 percent two weeks ago. Following Monday night's speech, his numbers on immigration shot up 11 points to 36 percent, with just half the country now feeling negative about it. That's a huge improvement since we last asked in January. . . .

"The slight increase in President Bush's overall approval has bolstered hope among Republicans that he could crawl back above 40 percent by the November election. One Republican strategist said we may have seen the bottom. But could it also be the dreaded dead cat bounce?"

Oversight (Non) Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The dictionary tells us that 'oversight' can mean either watchful supervision or an omission caused by inattention. As it held a confirmation hearing for CIA nominee Michael Hayden yesterday, the Senate intelligence committee seemed to be operating under the latter definition."

Daniel Rubin writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "If the job of CIA director requires the ability to answer hours of sharp questions and not actually say much, Hayden passed a critical test."

Stephen J. Hedges writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated to be the next director of the CIA, told a Senate committee Thursday that he initially resisted Bush administration suggestions to expand domestic wiretaps on U.S. citizens after the Sept. 11 attacks, but that White House officials then convinced him the program was lawful."

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Of all the unpleasant tasks Gen. Michael V. Hayden will face if confirmed as CIA director, perhaps the most important will be bringing the president bad news."

Safavian Watch

Jeanne Cummings writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Justice Department's investigation of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal already has produced four guilty pleas. Now, prosecutors are about to find out whether an influence-peddling probe based largely on emails and a network of low-profile Republican aides can pass muster with a jury.

"David Safavian, a longtime friend of Mr. Abramoff and a former White House official, is scheduled to go on trial Monday. He is charged with making false statements and obstructing government inquiries about Mr. Abramoff's relationship with him while he served as chief of staff of the General Services Administration, which manages government property."

Upcoming

Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi write for NBC News: "President Bush and Vice President Cheney will travel through some ethical hotspots over the next several days in their efforts to boost Republican House incumbents and candidates whose vulnerabilities are rooted in scandals."

Snow's Threads

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan gives Tony Snow a thumbs up.

Snow's Language

On the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart reviewed Tony Snow's first briefing. (See Wednesday's column for my view.)

Stewart: "Affable and pathetic -- It is as though they've decided to go with a human being to do a robot's job. But [does] this human being have the goods?"

Stewart then plays video clips of Snow saying:

* "I can't confirm or deny it."

* "We will neither confirm or deny it."

* "I can neither confirm or deny it."

* "We will neither confirm or deny it."

Stewart, shouting: "The press secretary is dead -- long live the press secretary!! All hail!"

Stewart makes trumpet sounds with his mouth.

Stewart: "C'mon Snow you can deliver the standard press secretary evasions -- what's going to make you stand out from the rest? What can you say that we haven't heard before?'

Stewart plays a clip of Snow saying "I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program."

Hoots, jeers from the audience. Stewart looks stunned, puzzled.

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