Meet the New Media Strategy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 7, 2006 12:48 PM

The White House yesterday excitedly announced a new plan to reconnect President Bush with the voters who have soured on him in almost every possible way.

No, it's not a change in policy. It's a new media strategy.

The president, it seems, is getting out of Washington. "Every team changes the playbook every once in a while and this is an opportunity to share what's on his mind but also get a sense of what's on the minds of the people out in the country," presidential counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters at the White House yesterday.

But very little is ever really new at this White House. Just as political guru Karl Rove's plan for the 2006 election is exactly the same as it was in the 2004 election -- make the opposition look weak on national security -- the new media strategy sounds awfully familiar.

It appears to primarily involve routing around the national media and, secondarily, giving the impression that Bush is meeting with real Americans, while keeping dissent at bay.

That's precisely the approach that worked so well in Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. (See, for instance, my October 28, 2004 column.) But it didn't work nearly as well during Bush's subsequent barnstorming for his failed Social Security overhaul proposal. (See, for instance, my February 8, 2005 column.)

Now, I could be wrong in scoffing at Bartlett's insistence that Bush wants to hear what's on the nation's mind. Maybe this time, Bush won't take his bubble on the road.

And today's out-of-town press conference -- which is, indeed, a first for the president -- is taking place after my deadline this morning. So by now you know how that particular gambit turned out. Did the local reporters he called on serve up small-bore softballs, or were they actually less inhibited than their White House press corps colleagues? Regardless, did Bush get knocked off script in any way, or did he stick to his endlessly repeated talking points?

But as of this writing, there's no sign that Bush is really exposing himself to anything new or particularly risky.

Item one: Bush's interview, along with the first lady, with CNN's Larry King last night. As Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times put it, it was "classic Larry King: a warm bath, not a hot seat."

Item two: Bush's unusual, casual dinner in Chicago last night with "opinion leaders" was actually with business leaders. His host the mayor, while a Democrat, has been a huge Bush supporter -- and, ironically, had one of his top aides convicted yesterday on corruption charges brought by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office.

Item three: His breakfast today, which Bartlett described as being with leaders in the small business community, is with four CEOs, two of whom lead Fortune 500 companies. One of them is called Kraft.

Now, that's not to say that all this isn't serious business. And the White House telegraphed that in the clearest possible way yesterday when it announced that the new travel plan will significantly cut into Bush's cherished vacation time in Crawford, Tex.

Road Trip

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Presidents have for decades bemoaned the Washington press corps. President Bush has discovered an escape valve: with his poll numbers down and the midterm elections around the corner, he is taking his show on the road, holding a full-scale formal news conference Friday in Chicago. . . .

"The changes go beyond the news conference. Mr. Bush usually dips in and out of American cities in an hour or two, but his Chicago itinerary included an overnight stay, a dinner on Thursday night with local opinion leaders and Mayor Richard M. Daley, a breakfast on Friday with business leaders and an afternoon tour of a microelectronics plant in Aurora, in the home district of Representative J. Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House. . . .

" 'We can pop in and out of a media market in a nanosecond, give a speech and go,' Mr. Bartlett said. 'This gives an opportunity to really sink your teeth into a city or a region.'

"It also gives Mr. Bush an opportunity to do what he does best: act like a candidate, though one who is not running for anything."

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush, seeking to 'really sink his teeth into a local market,' will hold a news conference in Chicago tomorrow as part of an effort to focus more on local issues, said Dan Bartlett, a top White House adviser. . . .

"In press conferences at the White House, issues such as the war in Iraq and Iran's attempts to gain a nuclear weapon often dominate the questions asked by reporters. 'Sometimes there is a dominant issue, like the war, that's the only one discussed,' Bartlett said.

"Bartlett said that the new strategy isn't an attempt to exclude the national press from asking questions, a tactic Bush's campaign employed in the fall of 2000, when the then-Texas governor was falling in public opinion polls. During that time, Bush met only with local reporters who often asked questions of parochial interest."

One thing that's changed since Bush's last series of road trips is that even local reporters know how unpopular Bush is right now -- heck, they may realize that more viscerally than the White House press corps does.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Forget the hot, dusty weeks relaxing at his Texas ranch. . . .

"With Republicans nervous about keeping control of Congress and worries about the future of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, White House officials have decided too much is at stake this year for Bush to spend so much time on vacation. He'll spend some time at the ranch, but it will be less than previous summers and interrupted by more time on the road.

"Since he's been president, Bush has spent the better part of every August largely out of sight on his ranch. It hurt him most last summer, when anti-war activists camped outside his property and drew attention to the mounting deaths in Iraq. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, forcing him to end his vacation several days early."

An Evening in Chicago

Rick Pearson writes for the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush traveled to Chicago on Thursday night to celebrate his 60th birthday with Mayor Richard Daley, a bipartisan meal in which both men had one thing in common to chew over: the work of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

"Reporters were only briefly allowed into the dinner at the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant on a day in which Daley's former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, and three others were convicted on federal corruption charges."

Here are Bush's Fitzgerald-free remarks after what the White House billed as a "Dinner with the Mayor of Chicago and Opinion Leaders."

Here's the list of opinion leaders: Greg Baise, president and CEO, Illinois Manufacturers' Association; Charley Carey, chairman, Chicago Board of Trade; Terry Duffy, chairman, Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Larry Ivory, chairman and CEO, Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce; Juan Ochoa, president and CEO, Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; John Rowe, chairman, president, and CEO, Exelon Corporation; Gerry Shaheen, chairman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and group president, Caterpillar.

And here are the members of the "small business community" that Bush had breakfast with today, according to a White House handout: Martin Slark, vice chairman and CEO, Molex, Inc.; Bill Moffitt, president and CEO, Nanosphere; Dusty McCoy, chairman and CEO, Brunswick Corporation (a Fortune 500 company); Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Kraft Foods, Inc. (the world's second-largest food and beverage company with 2005 net revenues of more than $34 billion).

Bush Meets Harper

Here is the transcript of Bush's press availability yesterday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

First Harper got the Bush stamp of approval: "I'm impressed by his leadership style. I appreciate the fact that he doesn't mince words, he tells me what's on his mind and he does so in a real clear fashion."

Then Harper showed he shares Bush's relationship with the press: "Thank you for doing something I never thought I'd see, which is have the Canadian media stand when I entered the room. But we certainly enjoy that."

And although news reports didn't convey it, there were a few moments when Bush went bizarrely off script.

At one point, the president reassured everyone about "how safe Canada is" -- not typically a concern.

And then, this questionable and unsupported bit of speculation about North Korean missiles: "We don't know, for a fact, where it was headed. But, for example, one thing that Stephen and I talked about is he could be seemingly firing a missile at the United States, say, at -- I don't know, this is all speculation -- but could be headed toward the Northwest of our country, and it wouldn't take much for it to get off course, and end somewhere where he may not have intended."

The outer range of North Korea's longest-range missile is generally said to be 3,700 miles, barely enough to reach Alaska, and not enough to reach either the continental United States -- or Canada.

Barbara Demick writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The longest actual flight of a North Korean missile was in 1998, when the earlier version of the Taepodong traveled 800 miles -- just enough to get it over the main island of Japan and into the Pacific. . . .

"Analysts in South Korea often put the range at no more than 2,400 miles, which, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, means the missile could reach Guam or possibly the sparsely inhabited western tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

" 'I think many of us in South Korea believe that the Bush administration had a tendency to exaggerate the military significance of this missile for its own purposes, largely to propel spending for missile defense,' said Lee Chol-ki, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Dongguk University."

Does Bush know something we don't -- or was this irresponsible speculation?

And as Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The White House attempted various shows of deference to Harper, including the formal East Room setting, and the presence of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. . . .

"But the president couldn't maintain perfect decorum. When Harper insisted on making all his remarks in French and English, a bored-looking Bush winked at a couple of the American reporters."

Lovefest

And then it disintegrated into a lovefest.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "There was a surprise ending to the news conference when a reporter noted to Bush that it was his birthday, too. Bush invited the reporter, 54-year-old Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe and Asia Today, onto the stage for a birthday picture.

"'Anybody else have their birthday today?' Bush called out.

"Richard Benedetto of USA Today, turning 65, stood up and was summoned to the stage. . . .

"But there was another celebrant, State Department employee Todd Mizis, who was in the audience.

" 'My goodness,' Bush said. 'Today's your birthday? Awesome.' "

Here's the group photo .

Stolberg of the Times writes that the photo session then "ended with the representatives of the news media singing 'Happy Birthday to You' to the president."

She quotes Benedetto saying: "He asked if anyone had a birthday; I raised my hand. The next thing I knew I was standing there, asking myself, 'What am I doing here?' "

Excellent question.

One Memorable Sound Bite

James Travers writes in the Toronto Star: "In conversation here with George W. Bush and later with the press, Harper made it crystal clear the federal government's first priority is an open America. 'If the U.S. becomes more closed to its friends, the terrorists win,' he told reporters at the White House."

Larry King

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "Mr. King gave the president a chance to defend his policies without risk of interruption or follow-up.

"At times, Mr. King even provided the president with answers. 'You've always had a lot of compassion for the Mexican people,' the interviewer interjected in a discussion of the president's immigration bill. Mr. Bush seemed a little surprised, but grateful. 'Yes, sir!' he replied. . . .

"Even when he ventured into areas like the war in Iraq, public opinion polls or the president's past friendship with Mr. Lay, Mr. King looked less like an interrogator than a hotel concierge gently removing lint from a customer's coat. Mr. King's questions rarely rile his guests; instead, his cozy, incurious style encourages them to expose themselves.

"And just as Liza Minnelli seemed to come unglued all on her own in her appearance on the show last March, Mr. Bush at times seemed tense and defensive even without needling from his host."

Here's the transcript of the interview.

A few notable points:

Bush asserted that he was prepared to shoot down a North Korean missile if it came to that: "If it headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country."

The first lady said she doesn't believe the polls. "It's a sign, but it's not necessarily really what we see. I mean, when we travel around the country, when we visit with people, that's not what we hear all the time."

The president said: "I like to tell people I would rather be -- when history looks back, I'd rather be judged as solving problems and being correct, rather than being popular."

Bush called recently deceased former Enron chairman, corporate fraudster and major Bush campaign donor Ken Lay "a good guy" and said "my hope is that his heart was right with the Lord."

He refused to say anything one way or the other about embattled Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is at risk of losing the Democratic primary on account of his close ties to Bush: "You're trying to get me to give him a political kiss, which may be his death."

Bush also offered a counterfactual analysis of what went wrong with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. First he cited the "unbelievably heroic things" done by the government and said "there was a lot of ice and water delivered." The only problem he acknowledged: "Obviously, the thing that happened that needed to happen better was, how do you deal with a breakdown in law and order."

A Visit From the Ambassador

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press about the Oval Office visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.

"Bush expressed concern Thursday that some of Iraq's neighbors might be working against the fledging Iraqi government.

" 'We, of course, are concerned that some in the neighborhood may want to derail the progress of a free Iraq,' Bush said. 'And that is troubling and something that we'll work on.' "

Here's the transcript .

As a recent cable from Khalizad himself outlined, Iraq is plagued with all sorts of problems, including that conditions for women are becoming more and more abusive, there is no electrical power most of the day, and Iraqi security forces -- a group that is supposed to take charge as Americans step down -- are feared, not trusted.

Khalizad didn't get into any of that in public. Instead, over the course of his 35-second remarks, the ambassador wished Bush a happy birthday three times.

Pool reporter Pamela Hess, the United Press International Pentagon correspondent, wrote to the White House press corps: "No questions were taken, which was very sad for me because if you'd spent 5 months in Iraq, you'd have a few questions too."

She added: "I lagged behind a little because I wanted to ask Dan Bartlett who some of the people were in the room and then POTUS himself yelled out 'LETSGOLETSGOLETSGO' not in a nice cheerleading way but in a 'get out of my Oval' way, and it startled me, so I didn't check what time it ended."

On the Record?

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "On-the-record comments from top White House officials have been precious few throughout this administration. Lately, though, national security adviser Stephen Hadley , legislative affairs chief Candida Wolff and White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and his deputy Joel Kaplan all have talked on the record.

"Credit for this welcome development is being given to White House press secretary Tony Snow. . . .

"On the other hand, yesterday we find two senior administration officials briefing a roomful of reporters about what these unnamed officials called 'backsliding on democracy' in Russia. (Russian officials, in contrast, were on the record when they briefed reporters.)"

Karl Rove Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post about a sighting of "Karl Rove at the reopened National Portrait Gallery on Monday afternoon. Passersby gawked as the White House deputy chief of staff carefully viewed portraits of American presidents. Rove lingered at Ronald Reagan, cruised past Bill Clinton and spent some time staring at George H. W. Bush."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'm on Washington Post Radio today, shortly after 2 p.m.

Bush Talks to People

Well, People magazine .

People: "Could you and Al Gore ever be friends, like your dad and Bill Clinton?"

Bush: "I don't know. I know that Bill Clinton and I have got a very good relationship. In 2 1/2 years I'll be a member of the ex-Presidents club. But I'm very busy these days. I've got a lot to do, and so I'm really not worrying much about my post-presidency."

Krugman Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Over the last few months a series of revelations have confirmed what should have been obvious a long time ago: the Bush administration and the movement it leads have been engaged in an authoritarian project, an effort to remove all the checks and balances that have heretofore constrained the executive branch.

"Much of this project involves the assertion of unprecedented executive authority -- the right to imprison people indefinitely without charges (and torture them if the administration feels like it), the right to wiretap American citizens without court authorization, the right to declare, when signing laws passed by Congress, that the laws don't really mean what they say.

"But an almost equally important aspect of the project has been the attempt to create a political environment in which nobody dares to criticize the administration or reveal inconvenient facts about its actions. And that attempt has relied, from the beginning, on ascribing treasonous motives to those who refuse to toe the line. . . .

"Those of us who tried to call attention to this authoritarian project years ago have long marveled over the reluctance of many of our colleagues to acknowledge what was going on."

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