washingtonpost.com
Bush Commands the Spotlight

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 28, 2005; 1:09 PM

For the first time in over a year, President Bush will hold a prime-time news conference tonight, at 8:30 p.m. ET.

His goal: Stop the bleeding.

Friday marks the end of the first 100 days of Bush's second term. And Sunday marks the end of his 60-day Social Security barnstorming tour.

As Bush approaches those mileposts, many observers are noting his low approval ratings and his lack of progress in achieving some key initiatives and they wonder: Has the president overreached? Has he lost his touch? Is he already a lame duck?

Tonight's news conference creates an opportunity for Bush to assert that he is still relevant, enthusiastically reaffirm his domestic and international agendas, and ask the American people directly for their support.

I wrote in Monday's column that Bush was in grave danger of losing the spotlight. Tonight, in no uncertain terms, he grabs it back.

Press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that Bush will start the evening off with a 10-12 minute speech in which he'll "talk in more specific ways" about resolving Social Security's future funding shortfalls. Bush has come under increasing pressure from legislators in his own party to say precisely how he wants to do that -- since he has acknowledged that his proposed private accounts wouldn't actually help.

McClellan said Bush will also talk about high gasoline prices and his energy bill.

Bill Plante reported on CBS News this morning: "There's a reason for this of course: The president's agenda is in trouble. Energy prices are going higher, as his energy bill goes nowhere. And he hasn't made many converts to his plan to reform Social Security. So tonight, he'll make an attempt to make those arguments again to a wider audience. . . .

"As his second term begins, the president is going through what one Washington veteran calls 'a bad patch.' "

ABC News takes a look at Bush's press conference history. Today's will be his fourth prime-time press conference, and his 18th solo press conference, since taking office.

His last prime-time press conference was on April 13, 2004 , and is probably best remembered for the press's relentless attempt to get him to acknowledge that he'd done something -- anything -- wrong.

Unscripted -- More or Less

Don't expect to see anybody outside the mainstream media asking questions tonight -- attendance in the East Room will be carefully controlled by the White House press office, which is requiring a special sign-up.

Bush will presumably be equipped with a list of reporters to call on, as usual.

And while nothing on the reporters' side is scripted -- I repeat: reporters under no circumstances submit their questions to the press office beforehand -- the president will be amply prepared with stock answers for the ever-so-predictable topics.

ABC News's The Note is full of prognostications. Among them:

"Reporters' topics that the President's creative team will have prepared him for will include: Poll numbers (Bush will be dismissive, and answer such questions with off-topic information); Iraq's slip back into violence following the election (Bush will use his standard 'Democracy is hard,' along with an historical allusion to how long it took the colonists in America to get up and running); Bush's weird relationship with the Saudis (Bush will talk about good progress in the Middle East and ANWR); the economy ('The economy is strong,' he will say in channeling Don Evans and marshalling the best stats.)

"Also: Conservative dissent on tax caps; the federal marriage amendment; will Jews go to heaven?; if Tom DeLay is found culpable by the ethics committee, should he step aside as leader?; does he support the decision to rescind GOP-backed ethics rule changes?; did he lie to Harry Reid about not politicizing the filibuster debate?; is John Bolton an angry man?

"And: Does he believe that those who oppose judges based solely on their Roe v. Wade stance are irreligious?; something about the Denver Three (and Scott McClellan's ability to see into the future). . . .

"Watch for: whether Bush will be in the same nicknaming, jokey, giddy mood as in the immediate post-election -- i.e. how soon and how much will he start insulting/mocking/man-flirting with the reporters when he calls on them. . . .

"Although President Bush will NOT utter the words 'The President IS relevant,' the reporters in the room and the execs in the control rooms (and the people in their living rooms?) will be kickin' the tires on that one throughout."

The Assessments

All this comes as Bush is facing -- and perhaps hoping to turn -- a tide of gloomy assessments of his second term in general and his barnstorming tour in particular.

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush closes out the first 100 days of his second term this weekend with his ambitious agenda weighted down by political diversions and by public and partisan opposition to his signature issue."

Bill Straub writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "Now with Friday marking the first 100 days of his second term, Bush has seen some progress in the war in Iraq, including the creation of a democratic government there, and has realized a handful of legislative goals. The nation has been free of another terrorist attack, and the economy remains steady if not outstanding.

"But the administration is limping past the first guidepost looking to generate some momentum, and Bush is toiling to make sure a lame-duck status doesn't overtake him prematurely."

On the commentary side of things: David S. Broder writes in The Washington Post that in retrospect, Bush clearly overestimated his political capital.

"In January, when interviewing at the White House on the prospects for President Bush's second term, I found that the reelected chief executive had instilled a belief among his close associates that the bigger and bolder the goals they set for themselves, the more they would accomplish.

"Whether it was political strategist Karl Rove or budget boss Josh Bolten, the message was the same: The way to avoid the 'second-term curse' that had brought disappointment and frustration to almost every reelected president in modern times would be to have a clear and ambitious agenda. . . .

"Having armed himself with an ambitious set of goals in order to energize his government, Bush has become the victim of overreach -- the one problem he and his advisers did not anticipate."

And Howard Fineman writes on MSNBC: "Across a range of issues, and in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the Bush Administration seems to have lost its touch. Is it losing momentum in a serious and permanent way?

"Yes, Bush has been down politically before, and recovered smartly. He's a fighter, and has the ability to ignore the gloom and doom around him. Yes, the Democrats don't have much of an answer to him other than to shout 'no' on a host of issues. Still, despite Republican control of virtually every lever of power in Washington -- in a way because of that very fact -- Bush finds himself playing defense."

What Real People Would Tell Bush Tonight

This is absolutely fascinating stuff: The Gallup Poll is out with the results of asking 1,003 real people what advice they would give Bush if they had the chance.

If they could, topic one would be the war in Iraq.

Consider this finding: Among Democrats, the top two things they would say to Bush are "get out of Iraq" and "you're doing a bad job." The top two things independents would say are "get out of Iraq" and "leave Social Security alone." The top two things Republicans would say are "you're doing a good job" -- and "get out of Iraq."

Gallup, fantastically, publishes the actual responses , along with the respondents' ages and genders.

A selection:

"Stop the (swear word) war. Male, age 56"

"Keep following the Lord. Female, age 23"

"That he's an idiot because he turned the surplus to the deficit. Female, age 35"

"Get our troops out of Iraq. Use the money being spent in Iraq and work on the awful problems in this country. Female, age 58"

"Let's go hunting! Male, age 60"

"Keep on plucking away and see where it leads. Male, age 85"

"Lighten up and recognize he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Male, age 75"

"I'd say that I'm disappointed that he hasn't been indicted for war crimes. Male, age 56"

"He doing a (swear word) of a good job and keep fighting those democrats. Male, age 78"

"I'd probably go to jail for the rest of my life. Female, age 77"

So What Should Reporters Ask?

This is the first time in quite a while that Bush has given a news conference with more than a few hours notice. That gives editors and reporters a chance to put a lot of thought into deciding what questions to ask.

Here are my questions for editors and reporters: What are the things the public most needs and deserves to know? What questions are most likely to actually get answers, to get the president to actually say something that's revealing?

The latter issue is a particularly difficult one these days, as Bush has gotten ever more adept at giving long involved answers that are only remotely related to the question.

There are, however, two ways to deal with that: Ask him about something he's entirely unprepared for, or follow up rigorously.

Also, as I wrote in an essay about press conferences in December, previous White House correspondents highly recommend short, clear questions that it's harder for Bush to dance around -- or that at least make it more obvious when he does.

Some Mysteries

Tonight's questions will likely be dominated by recent events, but there are some great mysteries past and present about the Bush administration that I suspect the public would be very grateful if he would clear up. So here are some proposed questions in that vein:

Is the Bush doctrine still in effect? Would we still go to war pre-emptively to protect ourselves? Under what circumstances?

There are only three ways to reduce deficits. Raise taxes, cut spending, or greatly expand the economy. You say you won't raise taxes; you haven't shown any ability to cut spending, and the economy is not exactly booming. So why should anyone believe your promise to reduce deficits?

Your elevation of Karl Rove to deputy chief of staff has led some people to suggest that politics and policy have become one and the same in your White House. What do you consider the most important differences between campaigning and governing?

In your Social Security barnstorming tour, your staff made sure that you were constantly surrounded by supporters. Did you want them to do that? Shouldn't the president of all the people meet with all the people?

Social Security was designed as a social insurance program, not a wealth-accumulation program. It can't really be both. Why is wealth accumulation more important to you than social insurance?

With an ownership society comes risk. How much risk do you think is too much risk?

I understand that you don't want to set a firm date for a pullout from Iraq. But the American public is eager to bring the troops home. Is there anything you could say that could help people get a better sense than they have now of our exit strategy, and could you specify some benchmarks that would be signs of progress?

Do you know who leaked Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative? Even if the special prosecutor doesn't indict them, will you punish them?

Why haven't you held anyone accountable for the faulty intelligence about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction?

Do you feel that you or your White House bear any responsibility at all for the widespread torture and humiliation of prisoners at the hands of American soldiers and intelligence agents?

You're an oil man. As the price of crude oil has gone up, oil industry profits have skyrocketed. The obvious conclusion is that gas prices would be lower if oil industry profits weren't so high. Can you explain to the public why that doesn't seem to bother you?

Immigration is a big issue among many members of your own party, the consensus being that you should be clamping down on it more. By contrast, you support a guest-worker program that some in your party see as a way of rewarding illegal immigrants. Why do you think you see things so differently on this issue?

You said lately that you believe it's important that the press hold you to account, that it's part of the checks and balances of a democracy. But what do you think we should do when we don't think you've actually answered our questions?

On Television

The White House has asked television networks to clear the decks and broadcast the news conference. That could be dicey, given that the May ratings sweeps actually start today.

On NBC, the press conference would pre-empt Will & Grace and part of the Apprentice; on ABC it would come half an hour into the two-hour movie Sweet Home Alabama; on CBS it would come halfway through Survivor, which is followed by CSI; on Fox it would come halfway through 'The OC' and bump Simple Life.

Tim Grace writes in National Review's blog: '[Y]ou have to applaud Rove for canceling out 'Will & Grace' instead of the engrossing train wreck on 'American Idol.'

Air Scare

Sara Kehaulani Goo and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "The mysterious flying object first blipped across U.S. security radar 20 miles south of Reagan National Airport at 10:40 a.m. yesterday and appeared headed swiftly toward the District.

"About 15 minutes later, President Bush was in an underground bunker at the White House and Vice President Cheney was escorted off the White House grounds to a secure location, officials said."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Officers toting shotguns raced around the compound taking up positions. A surface-to-air missile battery recently installed on the roof of a nearby building was raised to fire position. Some White House staff members were evacuated from the West Wing. Tour groups were hustled out of the executive mansion and a park across the street from the White House was cleared.

"Some parts of the compound, such as the area where the press is housed, were not notified of the threat or moved. . . .

"Bush went to the bunker -- a super-secure, super-secret facility built in case of emergency for the president, his family and a small number of staff deemed essential to running the government -- for the first time on the night of attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After flying from the Florida classroom where he learned of the attacks to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Bush returned to Washington only to be awakened by Secret Service agents who hurried him and his wife, Laura, underground -- also because of a false alarm about an unidentified plane.

"Since then, Bush has gone to the bunker, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He provided no details."

John Roberts reported on the CBS Evening News: "The White House today backed the evacuation as a prudent precautionary measure, but the fact that a false alert triggered such a high state of readiness here at the White House is an indication that there still appear to be some flaws in the system."

Denver Three Watch

Susan Greene writes in the Denver Post: "Colorado's Democratic Party is calling on Republicans and the Bush administration to identify the man who ousted three Denverites from a presidential event in March. . . .

"In a White House briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan would not reveal the identity of the man in question.

" 'I don't think that really serves any purpose to get into that publicly, other than to help advance the political agenda of these three individuals,' he said."

Here's the transcript of the briefing.

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "The White House said Wednesday that simply a belief that someone intends to disrupt a presidential event is enough to get the person removed. . . .

"Unlike campaign events, which are deemed private and therefore could legally limit protesters, Bush's Social Security speech at the Wings over the Rockies Museum was an official White House event funded by the taxpayers."

Meanwhile, the head of the Denver office of the Secret Service is now saying he never described the man in question as a Republican party staffer.

"Instead, he said the man was 'a member of the Republican staff host committee.'. . . .

"Rachael Sunbarger, spokeswoman for the Colorado Republican Party, said, 'The White House is the host committee.' "

The Denver Post editorializes: "The ouster of Alex Young, Karen Bauer, and Leslie Weise from a Bush Social Security rally at the Wings Over the Rockies museum has turned into a surprisingly long-lived political whodunit, with politicians, columnists, bloggers and activists all stirring the pot. It would be nice to have the case solved."

Energy Speech

It will be interesting to see how Bush tonight connects gas prices with his energy proposals, which really bear little relationship to each other.

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks about energy yesterday.

Justin Blum and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Industry analysts reacted skeptically to new energy proposals President Bush announced yesterday, saying they would do little to bring down soaring prices of gasoline and other forms of energy."

Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's remarks appear to reflect a delicate balancing act on the part of the White House, analysts said. As an accomplished politician, they said, Bush knows he must ratchet up his rhetoric to convince Americans that he too feels the sting of high prices. But as a former oilman and business executive, they said, he was hesitant to embrace solutions that involved extensive federal intervention in the energy sector."

The C-List Dinner

Who's got the latest about who's coming to the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday?

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post with some new names: Actors Robert Duvall, Burt Reynolds, Randy Quaid, Ron Silver and Richard Schiff; actresses Anne Hathaway and Patricia Heaton; and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

And Garret M. Graff , the industrious blogger for FishBowlDC, is all over things as well.

DeLayed Endorsement

Writing in Newsweek.com, Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey throw some cold water on the theory that Bush's joint appearance with embattled congressional leader Tom DeLay was a rousing endorsement.

"For Bush, it was a typical non-endorsing endorsement. He didn't go out of his way to help DeLay and he didn't do anything to hurt him. As his aides like to say, there's clearly no special bond between them," they write.

Wolffe and Bailey also write that when Bush met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah on Monday, oil was not at the top of the agenda.

"In fact, according to senior officials familiar with the talks, the discussion of oil prices was exceptionally brief at Bush's ranch. Abdullah raised the question of oil first, but Bush brushed that aside, saying the Saudi oil minister had already addressed the topic with Vice President Dick Cheney a day earlier. What Bush wanted to talk about in greater depth was the Israeli-Palestinian situation and Iraq. Bush stressed his personal commitment to the newly revived peace process, and he suggested the Saudis could help the Palestinians financially. So much for the headlines about gas prices."

And Speaking of Prince Abdullah

The hand-holding that I wrote about in yesterday's column continues to reverberate.

Here's Jim Axelrod on the CBS Evening News showing the video to horrified viewers in Times Square. He concludes: "When it comes to two men holding hands, America's got issues."

And Jon Stewart weighed in on Comedy Central's "Daily Show": "The president greeted him with a kiss on both cheeks, then led him by the hand into his ranch, confirming the longstanding rumor that he is, in fact, queer for oil."

Unscripted -- More or Less

Don't expect to see anybody outside the mainstream media asking questions tonight -- attendance in the East Room will be carefully controlled by the White House press office, which is requiring a special sign-up.

Bush will presumably be equipped with a list of reporters to call on, as usual.

And while nothing on the reporters' side is scripted -- I repeat: reporters under no circumstances submit their questions to the press office beforehand -- the president will be amply prepared with stock answers for the ever-so-predictable topics.

ABC News's The Note is full of prognostications. Among them:

"Reporters' topics that the President's creative team will have prepared him for will include: Poll numbers (Bush will be dismissive, and answer such questions with off-topic information); Iraq's slip back into violence following the election (Bush will use his standard 'Democracy is hard,' along with an historical allusion to how long it took the colonists in America to get up and running); Bush's weird relationship with the Saudis (Bush will talk about good progress in the Middle East and ANWR); the economy ('The economy is strong,' he will say in channeling Don Evans and marshalling the best stats.)

"Also: Conservative dissent on tax caps; the federal marriage amendment; will Jews go to heaven?; if Tom DeLay is found culpable by the ethics committee, should he step aside as leader?; does he support the decision to rescind GOP-backed ethics rule changes?; did he lie to Harry Reid about not politicizing the filibuster debate?; is John Bolton an angry man?

"And: Does he believe that those who oppose judges based solely on their Roe v. Wade stance are irreligious?; something about the Denver Three (and Scott McClellan's ability to see into the future). . . .

"Watch for: whether Bush will be in the same nicknaming, jokey, giddy mood as in the immediate post-election -- i.e. how soon and how much will he start insulting/mocking/man-flirting with the reporters when he calls on them. . . .

"Although President Bush will NOT utter the words 'The President IS relevant,' the reporters in the room and the execs in the control rooms (and the people in their living rooms?) will be kickin' the tires on that one throughout."

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