By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 5, 2006; 12:33 PM
There are two basic ways to cover a presidency. One is to report the rhetoric, track the political ups and downs, and circulate the spin.
The other is to watch what the president is actually doing and report on the results.
There's a lot of the former, and remarkably little of the latter kind of coverage.
Reporting on results can take a lot of work, and the aforementioned rhetoric often gets in the way of a clear analysis. For instance, how much was President Bush personally responsible for taking the country to war under false pretenses, or for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina? To hear the White House tell it, it wasn't really his fault.
But once in a while along comes a story like the one in the New York Times this morning, by David Cay Johnston , which definitively examines the results of Bush's tax cut on investment income.
There have been three major Bush tax cuts for individuals. Bush twice reduced the top income tax rate, which is now 35 percent -- down from 39.6 percent.
Even more dramatically, Bush in 2003 reduced the top rate for most investment income to 15 percent -- down from 39.6 percent for dividends and 20 percent for profits on asset sales.
The result of that change? Johnston writes: "The first data to document the effect of President Bush's tax cuts for investment income show that they have significantly lowered the tax burden on the richest Americans, reducing taxes on incomes of more than $10 million by an average of about $500,000."
Wow. That's a lot of money.
"When Congress cut investment taxes three years ago, it was clear that the highest-income Americans would gain the most, because they had the most money in investments. But the size of the cuts and what share goes to each income group have not been known," Johnston writes.
"As Congress debates whether to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, The Times analyzed I.R.S. figures for 2003, the latest year available and the first that reflected the tax cuts for income from dividends and from the sale of stock and other assets, known as capital gains."
Another way to look at things: "Americans with annual incomes of $1 million or more, about one-tenth of 1 percent all taxpayers, reaped 43 percent of all the savings on investment taxes in 2003. The savings for these taxpayers averaged about $41,400 each."
A major part of Bush's pitch for the investment tax cut, as he outlined in a January 2003 speech , was that it would help cash-strapped retirees.
"Double taxation falls especially hard on retired people. About half of all dividend income goes to America's seniors, and they often rely on those checks for a steady source of income in their retirement."
But Johnston writes that "few taxpayers with modest incomes benefited because most of them who own stocks held them in retirement accounts, which are not eligible for the investment income tax cuts."
Bush also argued at the time: "The benefits of this tax relief will be felt throughout the economy. Abolishing double taxation of dividends will leave nearly 35 million Americans with more of their own money to spend and invest, which will promote savings and return as much as $20 billion this year to the private economy.
"By ending this investment penalty we will strengthen investor confidence. See, by ending double taxation of dividends, we will increase the return on investing, which will draw more money into the markets to provide capital to build factories, to buy equipment, hire more people."
Calculating the indirect results of the tax cut is, of course, more complicated than figuring out the direct results.
But Johnston writes that "the Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress that analyzes issues, concluded in a January report that lower taxes on investment income may translate into lower savings because people need fewer investments to earn the same after-tax income. In another report, the research service showed how lower taxes on investment income can encourage investment outside the United States, creating jobs, but not for Americans."Covering the President
At last night's "Opinion Awards," presented by The Week magazine and the Aspen Institute , a panel of journalists and pundits was convened to address the topic: "Covering the president: Are White House correspondents real journalists?"
The consensus, such as it was, was that White House correspondents are by and large great journalists -- behaving badly.
They are, in other words, highly talented reporters in the throes of a pack mentality, fearful of not getting their calls returned, trapped in a remorseless news cycle and in a room where almost nothing happens.
Huffingtonpost.com blogger Arianna Huffington called White House correspondents "real journalists who have lost their way." They have sacrificed their principles and self-censor themselves in an attempt to maintain their access to top White House officials, she said. "I think the problem is access, access, access."
Michael Massing, the author of two devastating critiques of the press coverage in the run-up to war in the New York Review of Books (here and here), argued that White House reporters put too much effort into cultivating high-level sources or "trying to get [press secretary Scott] McClellan to give them a tidbit." Instead, they should work mid-level federal officials who might actually tell them something of value.
Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry said White House correspondents "are really good journalists, probably the best on the face of the planet." But the White House briefing room is just not the place to be if you're looking for news," he said.
Slate's John Dickerson, formerly of Time, called the briefings "useless" and said that to report on the White House, "you have to go around it."
But editors love tidbits so much that White House reporters are loath to tick off the people who dole them out, Dickerson said. Ask the wrong question at a press conference and top advisers stop returning your phone calls, he said.
Rising from the audience, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, scolded the White House press corps for its lack of staying power. As an example, he cited Bush's recent admission that U.S. troops would still be in Iraq in 2009. That should not just have been a one-day story, Wyden argued.
Huffington explained that "the media are generally suffering from attention deficit disorder" -- while by contrast bloggers like her, "can be persistent."
And in his remarks before the panel, Senator Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, suggested that perhaps a better topic for the whole panel would have been: "Are White House correspondents covering a real president?"Dissecting McClellan
Media critic Michael Wolff eviscerates McClellan -- "something of a knucklehead Socrates" -- in this month's Vanity Fair.
"[T]he briefing has become the living, inarticulate, comically absurd voice of the White House. Under McClellan the briefing is not only the source of news but news itself: McClellan's performance, its degree of ham-handedness, echoed and refracted in a thousand blogs, is a central political event. . . .
"Putting someone as strikingly out of his depth as McClellan into this job (and keeping him there) could well be part of this administration's contempt for the press."
While he's at it, Wolff also critiques the press corps. "[A]mong the overrated jobs in American journalism is being a daily assignment reporter covering the White House. You are, in essence, a transcriber. The White House dishes out relative baloney and you serve it. So if you're the press secretary, your job is to make the baloney palatable. You have to help provide press people with the wherewithal to maintain the belief that they are doing something more than writing up your spin -- you have to go the extra lingua-mile to make the spin seem plausible, clever, elegant, seductive, uplifting even. It is not just the stubbornness of McClellan's baloney but the inartfulness that makes everybody nuts. He offers nobody any cover. . . .
"His inability to finesse the administration line, to tickle its logic, to prettify it, to seem smart about it in the least -- and with virtually every one of his prevaricating and dissembling and truth-avoiding utterances becoming the morsels of the daily blog diet -- means the media has to struggle even more to justify how it ever believed these numskulls."
Wolff gets a rare sit-down interview with McClellan. "But there remains the same intractable problem: he's as inexpressive one-on-one as he is in the briefing room."White House Correspondents Awards
Meanwhile, the FishbowlDC blog has a list of all the winners of the 2006 White House Correspondents Association reporting awards.
Among them: "For excellence on deadline, Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press wins for breaking the news of President Bush's choice of John G. Roberts, Jr. for the US Supreme Court. . . .
"For deadline reporting on a broadcast, Terry Moran of ABC News 'went beyond the obvious story in covering President Bush's first visit to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, going outside the White House press bubble to do original reporting from the viewpoint of the victims,' according to the award judges. . . .
"Carl Cannon of National Journal wrote with what the judges describe as 'clarity, eloquence, and scholarly authority' in his profile of presidential advisor Michael Gerson, tracing the role of fundamentalist Christians in American politics."Democracy Watch
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "While President Bush vows to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, his administration has been scaling back funding for the main organizations trying to carry out his vision by building democratic institutions such as political parties and civil society groups. . . .
"The shortfall threatens projects that teach Iraqis how to create and sustain political parties, think tanks, human rights groups, independent media outlets, trade unions and other elements of democratic society. . . .
"Officials at the White House, the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget and USAID were contacted for comment in recent days, but none would speak on the record."Global AIDS Watch
David Brown writes in The Washington Post: "The requirement that a large fraction of President Bush's global AIDS plan go to promote abstinence and fidelity is causing confusion in many countries and in a few is eroding other prevention efforts, including ones to reduce mother-to-child transmission of the virus.
"Those are among the chief conclusions of an 87-page report by the Government Accountability Office that examined the most controversial aspect of the giant AIDS plan, budgeted at $15 billion over five years."India Watch
Caroline Daniel, Demetri Sevastopulo and Guy Dinmore write in the Financial Times: "The sense of relief among White House staff was palpable last month when President George W. Bush unveiled a landmark deal to provide India with civil nuclear technology after months of tense negotiations. He thought he had secured a momentous foreign policy victory.
"Instead, rather than being embraced as an innovative solution to India's long estrangement from international proliferation agreements, it has run into resistance on Capitol Hill. Just 10 Republican senators have so far agreed to co-sponsor the bill to implement it. It has not secured a powerful champion. Most members are waiting to be persuaded.
"On Wednesday Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, speaks to the Senate foreign relations committee at a critical moment in the administration's public diplomacy."Bridgeport Bound
David Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant: "Democrats are eager for President Bush to appear in Connecticut today, visualizing his embrace with Rep. Christopher Shays as just the picture they need to defeat the veteran congressman. . . .
"Bush will speak about his health savings accounts plan to about 150 people from the Bridgeport business community. Originally a part of the 2003 Medicare reform law, the plan allows people to set up tax-free accounts to use in medical emergencies.
"White House press secretary Scott McClellan described the event as a 'conversation on health savings accounts.' Participants will include a local business owner, a bank official and individuals who own health savings accounts."
I wrote in yesterday's column that Bush is putting his relevance to the test in trying to get the nation to turn its attention to the topic of health savings accounts. So far, there's no sign it's working.Snow's Fall
Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "If Treasury Secretary John W. Snow doesn't know he's outta there, he might want to study President Bush's response to a reporter's question yesterday at a health-care meeting about whether Snow is 'expected to stay on.'
" 'Secretary Snow is here at the table,' Bush said. 'He's been a part of this discussion.' [Note past tense.] 'I'm glad you brought him up.' [No doubt.] 'He has been a valuable member of my administration [Past tense again.], and I trust his judgment and appreciate his service. [It's been great.]' "
Snow is apparently getting the message.
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Treasury Secretary John W. Snow has expressed interest in leaving his job in the next several months, a person close to him said Tuesday, as speculation raced through Washington that the White House was seeking Mr. Snow's replacement."
But Bumiller notes that Bush may have a hard time filling the job, "which in this White House has not been the powerhouse position it was when Robert E. Rubin held it under President Bill Clinton.
"Mr. Bush's Treasury secretaries -- Paul H. O'Neill, the former chief executive of Alcoa, was Mr. Snow's predecessor -- have not had their own voices on economic matters and have been effectively subordinate to Karl Rove, the president's political adviser and deputy chief of staff."
Caroline Daniel and Edward Alden write in the Financial Times: " 'No A-grade person on Wall Street will go for this, given the state of the administration,' a Wall Street Republican said."End of an Era?
David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Symbolically as well as practically, the departure of Tom DeLay from Congress signals the end of an era of Republican dominance. . . .
"The old game of muscling bills through by rounding up Republican votes through a combination of political and financial force -- the game at which Tom DeLay excelled -- is over. The question for the White House is whether it can come up with a different strategy that looks for support from at least some Democrats."Bush's Worst Nightmare
Deb Price writes in the Detroit News: "As Republican election-year woes increase, symbolized powerfully Tuesday by the resignation from Congress of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, President Bush's worst political nightmare might be summed up by four words: Judiciary Chairman John Conyers.
"If Democrats can capitalize on a string of GOP setbacks and regain control of the House this November, Conyers would be named chairman, putting the enormous investigative power that goes with the job into the hands of one of Bush's fiercest critics. But even with the House still under Republican control, the maverick Detroit Democrat known for championing liberal causes can no longer be written off by the Bush administration as just a pesky gnat.
"The 21-term Michigan lawmaker's persistent demands for an inquiry into whether Bush should be impeached for the way he led the nation into war have exploded into the political mainstream."Kennedy Critique
Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "In a forthcoming book, Senator Edward M. Kennedy invokes the leadership of his brothers during the Cuban missile crisis to launch a sharp new attack on President Bush, declaring that Bush should have followed the example of President John F. Kennedy and his attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, in forging a diplomatic resolution to the standoff with Saddam Hussein."Who Wants to Grow Up to Be President?
Dave Goldiner writes in the New York Daily News: "A new online poll conducted by Scholastic magazine says more than 80% of kids don't want to be the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth.
"Amazingly, that's a nearly total flip from 2004, when 75% of the elementary and middle school children did want to rule the roost from the White House. . . .
"Scholastic editors say they have no idea why kids' opinions have changed so dramatically about the nation's top job. They don't necessarily believe it is linked to President Bush's growing unpopularity."