By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 31, 2005; 11:45 AM

Is President Bush a lame duck? Murmurs to that effect are the background noise against which Bush is competing today as he holds his monthly press conference.

You can hear the hum in news stories across the country over the last few days.

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Two days after winning reelection last fall, President Bush declared that he had earned plenty of 'political capital, and now I intend to spend it.' Six months later, according to Republicans and Democrats alike, his bank account has been significantly drained. . . .

"Bush faces the potential of a summer of discontent when his capacity to muscle political Washington into following his lead seems to have diminished and few easy victories appear on the horizon."

Bush's weakened leverage with his own party, partly a result of polls showing that much of the public has soured on him and his priorities, "has unleashed the first mutterings of those dreaded second-term words, 'lame duck,' however premature it might be with 3 1/2 years left in his tenure," Baker and VandeHei write.

The New York Times Week in Review section on Sunday declared: "This may have been the week the lame duck landed in the Rose Garden."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News: "From fissures within his own party to having to use the phrase 'real progress' to characterize the agreement that could lead to defeat for two of his judicial nominees, President Bush is getting a stark lesson in the realities of second-termitis.

"Six months after a re-election that had Bush aides talking about a second-term mandate, there has been little progress on the president's priority issues. And polls indicate slippage for an incumbent whose numbers have long been near the break-even point."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight-Ridder Newspapers: "Back-to-back legislative setbacks last week raised questions about President Bush's clout in Congress and his effectiveness for the rest of his term. . . .

"At risk is his ambitious agenda, including big changes to Social Security, an overhaul of the federal tax system, and a new energy policy. Even before he took his second oath of office in January, Bush estimated that he had 18 months, at most, before his power started to wane.

"Now, some in Washington are revising that timetable."

Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune: "When he was first elected president, George W. Bush was rewarded by a Republican Congress determined to see him succeed. . . .

"But now the second-term president faces a far different atmosphere on Capitol Hill, where his legislative priorities have been greeted with a heavy dose of hesitance topped with some skepticism and even a little resentment."

David Jackson writes in the Dallas Morning News that one big danger for Bush is a further downward spiral in his approval ratings.

"The less popular a president, the less he can force his political will, even on some members of his party. The less members of Congress fear a president, the more they are willing to buck him, even if he belongs to their party -- and especially if he is a lame duck."

Rupert Cornwall writes in the Independent: "Suddenly . . . only seven months after his clear re-election victory, the writ of this most dependably conservative President no longer runs as it did. Mr Bush's plan to part-privatise social security, intended as the flagship reform of his second term, is virtually dead in the water. His approval rating, according in one poll, has slumped to a new low of 43 per cent. The dread term 'lame duck' is already to be heard."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan has been batting away questions about whether the president's agenda is in trouble.

"Asked Wednesday whether Bush feared the onset of lame duck status, McClellan called the suggestion 'cynical.'

" 'This Congress has been in place for just over four months now. We have made significant progress in the first four months or so of this Congress,' McClellan said."

Here's the transcript of Wednesday's briefing:

The question: "Scott, the House ignored the President's veto threat and voted to ease the restriction on stem cell research. It looks like John Bolton's nomination will go to the Senate floor, but it's the Senate Republicans urging its colleagues not to vote for the nominee. And the President is having problems getting his Social Security package, even among -- even facing resistance among some members of his own party. Is there a concern about sort of an onset of lame duck status around here?"

McClellan replied: "You wouldn't want to take a more cynical look at things, would you?"

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, eager to hear your questions and comments. Obviously, we'll spend a lot of time on today's press conference, which comes just after my deadline.

Bush's Tells

Judy Keen offers USA Today readers a cheat-sheet for interpreting Bush's throwaway lines at press conferences.

For instance, "We're making progress" really means that he's working on it.

And "I appreciate that question," which usually comes immediately after a complex or tricky question, means he needs a second to collect his thoughts.


Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that "despite a Senate deal [last week] that seemed - at first glance, anyway - to be a victory for the chamber's Democratic minority . . . Bush seems poised to get what he wants - to accentuate the court's rightward tilt, potentially to reshape the bench as no president has done since Franklin D. Roosevelt."

Carl M. Cannon, White House correspondent for National Journal, writes in The Washington Post's Outlook section that there are "plenty of reasons to believe" that Bush will simply pay the judicial compromise no heed.

"For starters, the White House is not a party to this deal, and White House support for it has been lukewarm, even noncommittal. That's significant because Bush doesn't appear to fear a showdown."

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post that the compromise shouldn't obscure this fact: "Republicans have already changed how the business of government gets done, in ways both profound and lasting. . . .

"The common theme is to consolidate influence in a small circle of Republicans and to marginalize dissenting voices that would try to impede a conservative agenda. . . .

"At the White House, Bush has tightened the reins on Cabinet members, centralizing the most important decisions among a tight group of West Wing loyalists. With the strong encouragement of Vice President Cheney, he has also moved to expand the amount of executive branch information that can be legally shielded from Congress, the courts and the public."

Terror Shift

Susan B. Glasser writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has launched a high-level internal review of its efforts to battle international terrorism, aimed at moving away from a policy that has stressed efforts to capture and kill al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11, 2001, and toward what a senior official called a broader 'strategy against violent extremism.'

"The shift is meant to recognize the transformation of al Qaeda over the past three years into a far more amorphous, diffuse and difficult-to-target organization than the group that struck the United States in 2001. But critics say the policy review comes only after months of delay and lost opportunities while the administration left key counterterrorism jobs unfilled and argued internally over how best to confront the rapid spread of the pro-al Qaeda global Islamic jihad."

President Bush's top adviser on terrorism, Frances Fragos Townsend, "just hired a deputy last week, Treasury official Juan Carlos Zarate, to take on the terrorism portfolio at the NSC; Townsend had been doing that as well as serving as the president's top homeland security aide for the past year. . . .

" 'They recognize there's been a vacuum of leadership,' said a former top counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. 'There has been a dearth of senior leadership directing this day to day. No one knows who's running this on a day-to-day basis.' "


Agence France Presse reports: "President George W. Bush vowed to honor those US service members who have died or gone missing in Iraq and Afghanistan by defeating insurgencies in both countries, as he addressed veterans, dignitaries and military families at Memorial Day observances outside Washington."

Here's a transcript of Bush's speech, in which he said that "America has always been a reluctant warrior."

We're Winning ?

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush offered an upbeat assessment of the war on terrorism yesterday, saying the United States is on the road to victory after toppling brutal governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, dismantling a nuclear arms network, routing terrorists and encouraging democratic reformers across the world. . . .

"Despite the high spirits, the mood underlying the event was undeniably different than during Bush's last commencement speech to Naval Academy graduates, in 2001. Then, war seemed a remote prospect, not a daily reality. Bush, his face smoother, and his hair less gray, told the 2001 graduates that they were inheriting 'a safer and more peaceful world.' "

Here's the text of his speech.

CNN reports: "The insurgency in Iraq is 'in the last throes,' Vice President Dick Cheney says, and he predicts that the fighting will end before the Bush administration leaves office."

Here's the transcript of Cheney's appearance with CNN's Larry King, during which he was also joined by his wife.

"KING: When do we leave?

"D. CHENEY: We'll leave as soon as the task is over with. We haven't set a deadline or a date. It depends upon conditions. We have to achieve our objectives, complete the mission. And the two main requirements are, the Iraqis in a position to be able to govern themselves, and they're well on their way to doing that, and the other is able to defend themselves, and they're well on their way to doing that. They just announced that in the last day or two here, there've been stories about a major movement of some 40,000 Iraqi troops into Baghdad to focus specifically on the problem there.

"KING: You expect it in your administration?

"D. CHENEY: I do.

"KING: To be removed. It's not going to be -- it's not going to be a 10-year event?

D. CHENEY: No. I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time. But I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

Over on my NiemanWatchdog.org site, I suggest that the press should ask Bush for some objective benchmarks for success in Iraq.

More From Cheney on King

"KING: Well . . . what did you make of Bob Woodward's comment recently that you're going to be a candidate for president?

"D. CHENEY: Well, he didn't clear that with me in advance.

"KING: Anything to that?

"D. CHENEY: Well, Larry, I have to explain to everybody, I signed on for a tour with President Bush. I thought I had left government in 1993. I'd had 25 great years. And looked at running for president myself in 1994/95 and decided not to do it. Went off to private life and enjoyed that very much. Then then-Governor Bush persuaded me to sign on as his running mate five years ago, and I've been delighted that I did that. It's been a great decision. It's been a phenomenal time to be here. I love working with him.

"But I've got about a little over -- a little less than four years to go now, and I'll have done eight years. By then, I'll be 98 years -- 68-years-old in 2009, when we finish the tour, and I've got other things I'd like to go do. So I have no plans to run for any other office.

"KING: So, if they ask you it's a no.

"D. CHENEY: That's right."

The Associated Press reports from the interview: "Vice President Dick Cheney says he's offended by a human rights group's report criticizing conditions at the prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay."

And Reuters reports: "First lady Laura Bush would defeat U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if the two were to face each other in the 2008 presidential contest, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Monday."

The Whole Cheney Family

Todd S. Purdum profiles the Cheney daughters in the New York Times: "The big sister is the first deputy assistant secretary of state ever to have her own Secret Service detail, having passed up lucrative offers to become a television commentator for the privilege of promoting democracy in the Middle East. The little sister may well be the first previously unknown presidential campaign aide to earn a million-dollar advance for her memoirs.

"But Elizabeth and Mary Cheney are no ordinary siblings - and their parents, Dick and Lynne, are no ordinary mom and dad. Like the Adamses, Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, Gores and Bushes before them, they are a family act, a foursome fully immersed in conservative politics and public policy."

Social Security Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's congressional allies on Social Security are limping into the week-long Memorial Day recess, battered by public opinion polls yet hopeful that a rising awareness of Social Security's long-run financing problems will propel a legislative solution.

"But with just 49 legislative days left before Congress's planned adjournment, the odds are still against Bush securing the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, Republican lawmakers concede. . . .

"White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Washington is exactly where Bush strategists thought it would be right now on Social Security, with a rising awareness of the system's problems and Congress entering a summertime legislative push."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Bush is increasingly targeting his Social Security push to minorities and younger people - groups that disproportionately vote Democratic - in efforts to reap electoral benefits for Republicans even if he ultimately fails to enact his proposal."

The President's Closest Aide

Elisabeth Bumiller profiles 25-year-old Blake Gottesman in the New York Times: "Part Sherpa, part butler, part air traffic controller, Mr. Gottesman, 25, is the president's personal aide. . . .

"Mr. Gottesman, who dated the president's daughter Jenna in high school, provides a glimpse into the prosaic behind-the-Oval-Office-doors daily life of the modern White House and the needs and habits of Mr. Bush. Few people spend more waking hours with the president, and almost no one is better, senior aides say, at anticipating his next move."

Crying Shame

Pam Greene writes in the Syracuse Post-Standard: "President Bush bored Brittany Fish to tears Wednesday, prompting the leader of the free world to apologize to the little girl for being so dull. . . .

"Brittany, who is now 7, was abducted from her scooter in Syracuse a year ago and found alive a day later in DeWitt. She was in Washington to meet the president in honor of National Missing Children's Day. About 30 people were invited to meet the president, including Fish and her mom, Patty DeMore. . . .

"Apparently Bush launched into a rather long-winded speech about the significance of the Oval Office. Brittany - usually a bundle of giggles - got antsy, complained she was bored, then started to cry."

Impeachment Watch?

Lame-duck murmurs are one thing. But impeachment murmurs, at this point, appear to be almost solely the province of Ralph Nader and Kevin Zeese, writing in an op-ed in the Boston Globe: "The impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, should be part of mainstream political discourse," they write.

"The president and vice president have artfully dodged the central question: 'Did the administration mislead us into war by manipulating and misstating intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al Qaeda, suppressing contrary intelligence, and deliberately exaggerating the danger a contained, weakened Iraq posed to the United States and its neighbors?'

"If this is answered affirmatively Bush and Cheney have committed 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' It is time for Congress to investigate the illegal Iraq war as we move toward the third year of the endless quagmire that many security experts believe jeopardizes US safety by recruiting and training more terrorists. A Resolution of Impeachment would be a first step. Based on the mountains of fabrications, deceptions, and lies, it is time to debate the 'I' word."

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