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Mostly Hot Air on Gas

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 25, 2006; 12:57 PM

President Bush's challenge this morning was to address the problem of skyrocketing gas prices in a way that would telegraph to the public that he is concerned and is on the ball.

Whether he succeeded or not will depend on how his speech gets covered today and tomorrow. But by any reasonable measure, he was short on substance.

The biggest news was that after insisting repeatedly for years that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should only be used for emergencies, the White House partly reversed course today.

While stopping short of actually tapping the reserves, Bush ordered a temporary halt to any further deposits -- a move that will slightly increase supply available to consumers.

Dow Jones reports that the move would free up about 70,000 barrels a day otherwise destined for the reserve in the coming weeks.

By my calculations, that's about one third of one percent of the total U.S. consumption of about 20 million barrels a day -- anyone want to call that a drop in the bucket?

The other news, which the White House first announced last night, was that Bush has ordered the Justice and Energy departments to investigate possible price-gouging.

But Bush has been touting administration anti-gouging enforcement for more than a year now, and there is no indication this new announcement is anything but a feint on his part.

John D. McKinnon, John Fialka and Jackie Calmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "To be sure, calling for investigations doesn't promise much in the way of enforcement action, according to industry officials.

" 'This is a Groundhog Day-type thing where we go through this again and again about what price gouging is,' said Robert Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association."

And in an unusual evening gaggle yesterday, lame-duck spokesman Scott McClellan was asked if Bush had any reason to suspect market manipulation.

McClellan responded: "Well, gas prices are high right now, and that's why you want to make sure there's not."

Powerless?

Bush doesn't want to appear powerless, but the traditional argument is that there is in fact very little he can do to affect prices in the short run.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Steven Mufson write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and congressional Republicans are under mounting public pressure to reduce gasoline prices, but they have few if any policy choices that would cut them over the next few months as family driving reaches its annual peak and as the midterm elections near. . . .

" 'The problem has built up over many decades, and it isn't going to change overnight,' said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino. The president's speech in Washington about energy costs 'will have some new ideas for short-term solutions,' Perino said. But she added: 'Nothing is going to be a magic wand that will lower gas prices overnight.' "

All He Can Do?

And yet, it's probably worth calling attention to my April 21, 2005 column, The Magic Wands Bush Won't Wave .

As I wrote then: "The dynamics of gas prices are enormously complex, and the conventional wisdom has indeed been that the recent run-up in prices is just the market at work, responding to long-term supply and demand factors. If you buy into that explanation, then it's hard to see how the government could do much about it in the short term.

"But some alternate views are now emerging. They suggest that maybe there are some things Bush could do -- that, in short, Bush has some magic wands around, he's just choosing not to wave them.

"Here, according to what I've been reading lately, are some of the things Bush could conceivably do to conjure up lower prices:

" Develop an exit strategy for Iraq. Fear of continued instability in the Middle East is widely seen as contributing to a 'risk premium' that's driving up crude oil prices.

" Tamp down speculation on the oil-trading exchanges, either by re-regulating the markets, raising interest rates, or both. There is some evidence that avaricious speculators have driven the price way above the levels justified simply by supply and demand conditions.

" Do something about the weak dollar. The dollar's dramatic drop against major currencies directly translates to higher gas prices for Americans. (But strengthening the dollar might require serious deficit reduction.)

" Tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

" 'Jawbone' producers into increasing production.

" Aggressively investigate the possibility of price gouging by the oil industry."

Here are a couple of articles from the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site, where I also work, about possible collusion in the oil industry; and how deregulation of the oil markets encourages speculation .

Gas Guzzling

Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle notes in her pool report: "President Bush rode a 14-vehicle motorcade there and back to the Marriott Wardman to talk to the Renewable Fuels Association about energy conservation and other topics. En route, the motorcade passed the Exxon station next to the Watergate, where gas prices were $3.29, $3.39 and $3.49 a gallon. Just saying."

Immigration Talk

Here's one way to look decisive when you're not: Come out strongly against a plan that no one's actually seriously considering.

Ron Hutcheson and Dana Hull write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush delivered a forceful rebuttal Monday to immigration hard-liners, telling a Southern California audience that illegal immigrants are here to stay.

" 'Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic,' he told members of the Orange County Business Council, as anti-immigration protesters chanted outside an Irvine hotel. 'You can hear people out there hollering it's going to work. It's not going to work.' "

But consider this: "Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., whose district includes parts of Orange County, boycotted the president's event and called Bush's remarks 'an insult to the American people.'

" 'No one I know is advocating mass deportations. If we simply prevent people who are here illegally from getting jobs and we stop giving them benefits . . . . they will go home on their own,' Rohrabacher told CNN after Bush's speech."

The House version of an immigration bill would make illegal entry into the country a felony punishable by deportation. But Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that "even Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., one of Congress' most outspoken advocates for tougher immigration laws, does not advocate mass deportation."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks.

Bush and Congress

The central question is not whether all illegal immigrants should all be deported, but how specific Bush will get about what sort of bill he wants to see emerge from Congress.

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "White House aides emphasized that Bush has no intention for now of staking clear legislative positions on the immigration bill. He does not want to embrace a proposal, only to see it lose once House and Senate negotiators try to reach a final agreement, whose prospects are still seen as remote on Capitol Hill.

"For a president eager to show he still wields power in Washington, the immigration issue is looming ever larger. Beyond a few smaller energy and science proposals, legislation to tighten the nation's borders, address the 12 million illegal immigrants already here and offer new avenues for legal employment for immigrants may be the only major domestic initiative still attainable for Bush this year."

VandeHei and Weisman write that "beyond general calls for a comprehensive approach to the immigration issue, Bush has refused to say exactly what he wants in a bill."

Editorial Watch

The New York Times editorial board was not impressed with Bush's speech: "If there ever was a moment in the debate over immigration when presidential leadership was urgently needed, it was yesterday, when Congress returned from its two-week intermission with the Senate's short-lived compromise in tatters. But all President Bush offered was a restatement of the painfully obvious and a bunch of bland generalities."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board was slightly more optimistic: "This is a controversial issue for a president with low approval ratings. But Bush can hardly afford to run away from his long-held convictions. He needs to assert himself, and Monday's speech was a good start."

Bush in the OC

I wrote in yesterday's column that Orange County might have been a poor choice of location for Bush to make a speech on immigration, considering how polarized county residents are on that issue.

But apparently, that was precisely the point.

John Marelius writes in the San Diego Union-Tribune that Bush "said former state Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga asked him before the speech why he didn't find someplace other than Orange County. 'And the answer is because that's what a leader does,' he said."

Marelius notes: "In Orange County, anti-illegal immigration passions gave birth to Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative to deny public services to illegal immigrants, and the Minutemen citizen border patrol Bush once described as 'vigilantes.' "

As for the scene yesterday: "The protest scene outside the Hyatt Regency Irvine was relatively modest compared with the massive immigration demonstrations across the country in recent weeks.

"Several dozen Minutemen protesters chanted 'Go back to Mexico' as about 150 demonstrators nearby chanted and waved signs to protest Bush's immigration policy, the war in Iraq and the Minutemen."

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush, aiming to shore up sagging support in a Republican bastion, came for a heart-to-heart talk on immigration Monday, acknowledging that some were puzzled by his choice of Orange County -- in the heart of an area opposed to his immigration policies. . . .

"But even as he spoke, the breadth of the president's political problems on immigration was evident in Orange County -- a longtime GOP stronghold that is being transformed by a vast influx of immigrant laborers, mostly from Mexico. From Republican-dominated Newport Beach to Democratic-leaning Santa Ana, interviews found few supporters for Bush's positions.

"The president's conservative base is angry with his support for a guest worker program, which would increase the number of temporary visas for those with jobs here, while many Latino groups argue he hasn't stopped the effort in his party to criminalize illegal immigration."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Send me your questions and comments .

Poll Watch: How Low Can He Go?

CNN reports: "President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to a personal low, with only a third of Americans saying they approve of the way he is handling his job, a national poll released Monday said.

"In the telephone poll of 1,012 adult Americans carried out Friday through Sunday by Opinion Research Corporation for CNN, 32 percent of respondents said they approve of Bush's performance, 60 percent said they disapprove and 8 percent said they do not know."

Here are the complete results .

Asked whether "honest and trustworthy" describes the president, 40 percent said yes, down seven points in just two months. By contrast, 55 percent say those words do not apply to Bush.

And as gas prices go up and Bush's approval rating goes down, it's worth taking another look at Stuart Eugene Thiel 's chart showing how Bush's approval tracks pretty closely to gas prices (inversely of course). Thiel, who teaches economics at DePaul University, maintains the Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls Web site.

The Elephant in the Room

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times about Republican Rep. Mike Sodrel's re-election campaign in Indiana as "a test case of the impact of public discontent with President Bush and the war in Iraq."

Tony Snow's Job

Suzanne Malveaux reports for CNN: "Sources close to the White House said Monday that Fox anchor Tony Snow is likely to accept the job as White House press secretary, succeeding Scott McClellan.

"The sources said they expect him to announce his decision within the next few days."

Suddenly Thin Skinned?

Snow himself writes in his latest opinion column about all the people out there who have already "told me where to go, what to use to fill various orifices, which pack animal I most closely resemble and my next-world destination. . . .

"We're already getting weary of the insult industry and the accompanying insinuation that one must view people with contrary views not only as political opponents, but as invading microbes, suitable for swift and complete destruction. Free people cannot live on rage alone. It makes them crazy and boring all at once."

But the American Street blog notes: "Tony evidently has forgotten that he once said : 'I mean, I love old fashioned eye-gouging, hair pulling, sucker-punching, full-contact politics.'

"And that he called Harry Reid 'inane' and a 'moonbat.' The same Tony Snow who doesn't like to be called a 'toady-stenographer' also liked to call Clinton the 'Big Creep.' "

McClellan's Art

CQ Weekly publishes a list of some of McClellan's favorite ways of not saying anything. Among them:

"Doesn't Know: Used at Briefings 574 Times. . . .

"Cannot Comment on an Ongoing Investigation: 210 Times. . . .

"Ask Someone Else: 50 Times. . . .

"Wants to Be Left Alone: 1 Time"

Gergen on the Five-Point Plan

Appearing on Anderson Cooper 's show on CNN, presidential pundit David Gergen took issue with the five-point plan attributed to new Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten by Mike Allen in this week's issue of Time.

"I have too much respect for Josh Bolten to believe that this is his plan. You know, somebody who really doesn't like him leaked this and attributed it to him, because this plan is cynical.

"It plays -- it plays only to the base, in a way that I think that most Americans will reject. And it's -- it just is not responsive to the -- to the real issues of the day. I mean, what's the -- what's the heart of this plan? Scaring people about Iran, putting a lot more troops on the borders with big badges, as they say, and a lot of guns, and tax breaks for investors, and then going out there and bragging a lot about their accomplishments and cozying up to the press.

"That's a plan for recovery? Now, come on. That's -- that's not a serious plan. It's cynical. It's not responsive to the problems of the country, and many people would regard it as irresponsible. I just don't believe that's their plan. I think they're going to something more serious than this. I don't believe Josh Bolten would sign on to a plan like this."

The Mysterious Claude Allen

The Washington Post's Lynne Duke tries to get a the mystery that is Claude Allen: "Even before his arrest on March 9, after a sterling career in which he rose to become a senior White House adviser, there was something enigmatic about him, a sense that more was happening beneath the surface than was readily apparent. And now, many of his friends are wondering just what that might have been.

"It is impossible, these friends say, to even imagine Allen strolling into Montgomery County Target stores in full view of security cameras and committing serial fraud."

Mostly she's left with questions. Among them:

"Were the rigors of the grueling White House schedule too great?

"Did Allen snap after decades of operating outside the African American mainstream and often in concert with figures, like [former Republican North Carolina senator Jesse] Helms, viewed as hostile to black interests?

Meet Joel Kaplan

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Joel D. Kaplan, the new White House deputy chief of staff for policy, has been a member of President Bush's team since the 2000 campaign, and if there was any lingering doubt about his commitment, it ended last week when he cut short his honeymoon in Hawaii to rush back to his new job."

Impeachment Watch

Tracy Swartz writes in the Chicago Sun-Times with news from the Democratic-controlled state legislature of Illinois: "State Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) has sponsored a resolution calling on the General Assembly to submit charges to the U.S. House so its lawmakers could begin impeachment proceedings. . . .

"To support her legislation , Yarbrough is relying on a provision from Jefferson's Manual , a procedural handbook written by Thomas Jefferson as a supplement to U.S. House rules.

"Jefferson wrote that there are various methods of setting an impeachment in motion, including 'charges transmitted from the legislature of a State.' "

Heckler Speaks Again

Agence France Presse reports: "A woman who heckled Chinese President Hu Jintao on the White House lawn, said her protest was a spontaneous reaction to China's suppression of the Falungong spiritual movement. . . .

"Wang Wenyi, 47, interrupted the elaborate welcome ceremony laid on by President George W. Bush on Thursday by shouting abuse at the Chinese leader for several minutes before she was detained by Secret Service agents."

Wang herself writes in the Epoch Times: "On April 20, I went to the White House to report. However, when I saw President Bush shake hands with Hu Jintao, I couldn't help but cry out.

"I cried out for those Falun Gong practitioners, for those who have been or are going to be dissected alive for their organs. I cried out for those who have been tortured and suffered genocidal persecution.

"I don't want the U.S. President and the international media to be deceived by the CCP any more. I hope that Hu Jintao does not follow Jiang Zemin in the persecution and genocide of Falun Gong."

Prom Watch

Who's coming to the White House Correspondents Association dinner?

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts have all the details in The Washington Post.

Joke Watch

Via Kevin Drum and Needlenose , a joke apparently making the e-mail rounds:

"George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are flying on Air Force One. . . . "

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