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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that press pool reports of President Bush's tour of the Panama Canal on Monday did not mention that he waved and blew kisses to reporters and photographers.
Much Ado About Tuesday

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 10, 2005; 3:36 PM

It's not a good sign for the president of the United States when respected political reporters start paraphrasing Shakespeare in their leads. It's just a short step from there to Greek tragedy.

Enter Dan Balz , who writes in a Washington Post news analysis this morning: "In a season of discontent for the White House, Tuesday's election results intensified Republican anxiety that next year's midterm contests could bring serious losses unless George W. Bush finds a way to turn around his presidency and shore up support among disaffected, moderate swing voters. . . .

"For Bush, the results from Tuesday and a succession of new polls showing him at the lowest point of his presidency mean further tensions with congressional Republicans. 'It creates an environment where individual members start looking out for themselves rather than the whole team,' Republican pollster Bill McInturff said.

"Bush put his prestige on the line with an election-eve visit to Virginia and now must live with the reality that some Republicans may be reluctant to have the president campaign for them next year. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) told radio show host Don Imus yesterday that he does not want the president's help: 'No, not at this time.' Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), facing a tough reelection race next year, will not appear at a Bush event in Pennsylvania on Friday but said he welcomes Bush in the state in the future."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: " 'As they say down in Texas, these folks are running away from President Bush like a scalded dog,' said Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Kilgore's defeat in red-state Virginia -- by six points to Democrat Tim Kaine -- suggested the old Bush stump speech has run its course. If Virginia's off-year election is the canary in the mine, it's time to buy another bird. Political strategists will dispute what it all means for the national scene, but on one issue the result seems clear: Bush's aides seriously misjudged the state of the race and the president's ability to shift voters towards the GOP."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said Tuesday's results did not increase the administration's anxiety about next year's elections -- in part because it already recognizes that Republicans will face a stiff challenge unless Bush rebuilds his public support.

" 'If you've got the president's job approval rating at the point where it is, it tells you something, and we're cognizant of that,' said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing White House matters. 'But I'm not any more worried, and I don't think anyone around the White House is any more worried than they were two days ago.' "

Poll Watch

Mark Murray reports for NBC News: "The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released Wednesday night, finds that all five of Bush's job approval ratings -- on overall job performance, the economy, foreign policy, terrorism and Iraq -- are at all-time lows in the survey. In addition, the CIA leak scandal seems to be taking a toll on the administration, with nearly 80 percent believing the indictment of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, is a serious matter, and with Bush experiencing a 17-point drop since January in those who see him as honest and straightforward. . . .

"According to the poll, Bush's approval rating stands at an all-time low of 38 percent, a one-point decline since October; in fact, this is the third consecutive NBC/Journal survey showing Bush at an all-time low on his job approval. . . .

"Iraq -- which has emerged as the public's top priority in the poll -- has become a particularly thorny issue for Bush. Fifty-seven percent believe he deliberately misled people to make the case for war, compared with 35 percent who say he gave the most accurate information he had."

Tim Russert called particular attention to Bush's record 57 percent disapproval rating on the NBC Nightly News. What's' Bush's single biggest problem? "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq," Russert said. "Iraq is a cloud that hovers over this presidency."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers appears to have deepened skepticism about the quality of Mr. Bush's appointments, which swelled in late summer after the Federal Emergency Management Agency's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Some 45% of Americans now rate Mr. Bush poorly for 'appointing qualified people,' while just 26% give him strong marks."

Here are the complete results .

A few other statistics:

* The public views Cheney negatively by a 49 percent to 27 percent margin.

* Asked if they think Bush has or has not given good reasons for why the United States must keep troops in Iraq, 58 percent said he has not given good reasons; compared to 38 percent who said he has.

Divide and Conquer

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek that Democrats are focusing on Cheney's troubles as part of a new wedge strategy "aimed at Bush-led Republican Washington, where team loyalty is supposed to be the number one virtue, and where the president has ruled with an iron hand. The Democrats want to unhinge that discipline by exposing -- or creating -- friction between: Bush and Cheney, Bush and his political advisor, Karl Rove; the White House and the Republican-run Congress; and between competing Republican leadership tongs on Capitol Hill.

"None of these figures or factions is popular in the country right now, and the Dems' rather simple idea is to force them to defend each other in broad daylight."

Abramoff Promised Access to Bush

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The lobbyist Jack Abramoff asked for $9 million in 2003 from the president of a West African nation to arrange a meeting with President Bush and directed his fees to a Maryland company now under federal scrutiny, according to newly disclosed documents.

"The African leader, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, met with President Bush in the Oval Office on May 26, 2004, 10 months after Mr. Abramoff made the offer. There has been no evidence in the public record that Mr. Abramoff had any role in organizing the meeting or that he received any money or had a signed contract with Gabon.

"White House and State Department officials described Mr. Bush's meeting with President Bongo, whose government is regularly accused by the United States of human rights abuses, as routine. The officials said they knew of no involvement by Mr. Abramoff in the arrangements. Officials at Gabon's embassy in Washington did not respond to written questions.

" 'This went through normal staffing channels,' said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, who said the meeting was 'part of the president's outreach to the continent of Africa.' " Abramoff suggested in his letter to Bongo "that he had unusual influence to arrange a meeting with President Bush," Shenon writes.

Abramoff has been known to have bragged about his contacts with Karl Rove. (See this Sept. 23 Post story .) Shenon also notes in the Times today that Abramoff "had connections to Gabon through a former business partner, David Safavian, who was a registered agent in Washington for President Bongo. Mr. Safavian, a former White House budget official, was arrested in September on charges of lying about his ties to Mr. Abramoff."

Jeff Shields writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that "while White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby dominate the headlines, Abramoff remains - according to some observers - the Republican Party's most dangerous problem."

Here's a White House photo of Bush's meeting with Bongo. And here's a photo of Laura Bush hosting Mrs. Bongo in the Yellow Oval Room.

Torture Showdown

Kathy Kiely and John Diamond wonder in USA Today if the House will go along with the Senate and attach amendments to defense bills that would ban abusive treatment of detainees. "Bush has never vetoed a bill, but it's unclear if that prospect will be enough to persuade the House of Representatives to excise the ban."

In a Q and A , Diamond and Kiely do their best to answer one of the more perplexing questions in the matter:

"Q: Since Bush says we don't torture, why does he oppose the bill?

"A: The administration has said little publicly about the McCain proposal but the main objection appears to center on presidential power and prerogatives rather than an explicit desire to torture. Bush says he must have power to 'aggressively pursue' terrorists who may know about plans for attacks."

About Those Ethics Classes

Just trying to be helpful, I'm sure, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) yesterday sent White House Counsel Harriet Miers a series of questions and answers about the rules governing security clearances and the protection of classified information for possible inclusion in the ethics refreshers White House staff are taking this week. Among Waxman's proposed questions:

* "Is it appropriate for President Bush to wait until a criminal investigation is complete before taking action on security breaches?"

* "Is it appropriate for President Bush to allow White House officials to retain security clearances pending a leak investigation?"

* "Is it appropriate for President Bush to apply different security rules to White House officials than are applied to other federal officials?"

Meanwhile, even more helpfully, satirist Christopher Buckley writes an ethics-refresher skit for the New York Times op-ed pages.

Instructor: "I thought we'd start this morning with a situational exercise. Karl, suppose a reporter called you and said, 'I will write a very favorable article for my paper and make you look really good if you will tell me a super-duper classified national secret.' What would the correct thing to do be?' " Rove: "Tell him, 'Let me get back to you on that?' "

Briefing: On the Defensive

Here's the transcript of yesterday's relatively sedate press briefing by Scott McClellan.

McClellan denied that Tuesday's election results were any sort of referendum on the presidency -- or the least bit alarming.

"I don't think any thorough analysis of the election results will show that the elections were decided on anything other than local and state issues and the candidates and their agendas. That's what I think," he said.

And he went to great pains to try to prevent Voice of America reporter Paula Wolfson from reading aloud from this section of the U.S. criminal code.

The Chalabi Visit

Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi politician, is in town. He met yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley; he meets on Monday with Cheney.

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Chalabi remains a lightning rod for the Iraq war. An FBI probe into allegations that Chalabi provided highly sensitive U.S. intelligence to Iran -- involving U.S. intelligence breaking a secret Iranian code for transmitting encrypted messages -- is still 'open and active,' FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. . . .

"In one of several expressions of concern about Chalabi's visit on Capitol Hill, three Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday wrote Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to press for Chalabi to sit down with FBI investigators rather than meet Cabinet members. Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) asked Gonzales if the FBI would be interviewing Chalabi about the Iran allegations, and whether the attorney general had advised the White House about the appropriateness of meeting with Chalabi."

Karl Rove Watch

Finally: Proof that Karl Rove can in fact be embarrassed.

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post that "a sexy Arab dancer" made Rove "turn as red as her veil" last night at a dinner for Gen. Peter Pace, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hosted by Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Sabah.

Tonight, Rove is the dinner speaker at the Federalist Society's annual convention.

Whither Tax Reform?

Ryan J. Donmoyer writes for Bloomberg about the upcoming debate on whether and how to make an overhaul of the tax code the centerpiece of the Republican agenda in 2006.

"Republican congressional leaders don't want to confront voters in an election year with hard choices such as trimming homeownership tax breaks to help abolish the alternative minimum tax, as a presidential panel has recommended, according to strategists. Their uncertainty is magnified by a lack of guidance from Bush's administration, which hasn't commented on its panel's recommendations. . . .

"Since the panel's report was issued, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has reiterated that overhauling the tax code is a priority for the president. Otherwise, he has on several occasions deferred questions to the Treasury Department, which is reshaping the tax panel's proposals into a policy initiative for Bush to champion as early as next year.

"The lukewarm reception is in stark contrast to the fanfare with which the president announced the panel's creation in January. Then, Bush introduced panel Chairman Connie Mack and Vice Chairman John Breaux in a ceremony at the White House."

Blowing Kisses

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in their Newsweek.com column today: "On Monday afternoon, President Bush paused during an outdoor tour of the Panama Canal to listen as his guide, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos, gave what appeared to be an animated explanation of how the canal works. As Torrijos pointed and gestured, Bush nodded attentively and scanned the waterway, his eyes finally coming to rest on the small group of reporters and photographers in the White House press pool positioned on a balcony hundreds of yards away.

"When one reporter jokingly waved at the president, Bush broke into a wide grin and waved back. As others waved, Bush laughed and waved even more enthusiastically, blowing mock kisses to the media pack."

Correction: In an earlier version of this column, I incorrectly reported that the kiss-blowing was not mentioned in the pool reports of Bush's visit. It was.

Still Stings Like a Bee

Jose Antonio Vargas writes in The Washington Post: "Aretha Franklin was teary-eyed, Carol Burnett was teasing, Alan Greenspan was reliably taciturn, and 'The Greatest of All Time' stole the show when President Bush bestowed the Medal of Freedom on them and 10 others in a White House ceremony yesterday.

"Bush, who appeared almost playful, fastened the heavy medal around Muhammad Ali's neck and whispered something in the heavyweight champion's ear. Then, as if to say 'bring it on,' the president put up his dukes in a mock challenge. Ali, 63, who has Parkinson's disease and moves slowly, looked the president in the eye -- and, finger to head, did the 'crazy' twirl for a couple of seconds.

"The room of about 200, including Cabinet secretaries, tittered with laughter. Ali, who was then escorted back to his chair, made the twirl again while sitting down. And the president looked visibly taken aback, laughing nervously."

Here's a Reuters photo of the moment. This Associated Press video also captures the gesture. Here's an Agence France Presse story and photo as well.

Live Online

I had a lively Live Online discussion yesterday, as always. And incidentally, if you haven't already, check out the powerhouse lineup of Washington Post political reporters doing Live Onlines every day at 11 a.m. on the Post Politics Hour .

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off tomorrow. Have a good Veterans Day. The column will resume on Monday.

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