Bush Fights Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 6, 2004; 10:36 AM

His approval ratings taking a dive, the negative headlines mounting, President Bush is trying to seize back the momentum.

He's kicking off a new, more combative chapter in his presidency -- and arguably going into full campaign mode.

In South Carolina yesterday, he delivered a rousing defense of the war in Iraq, sneered at his rivals -- and got some ribs.

Today he'll visit a high-tech anti-terrorist government center in Northern Virginia and is expected to announce that he has signed an executive order forming a presidential commission to investigate intelligence failures -- his commission, on his terms.

Tomorrow, he sits down in the Oval Office for a mano-a-mano one-hour interview with NBC's Tim Russert, to air on Sunday's "Meet the Press." (The blogosphere has lots of questions they'd like Russert to ask, by the way.)

And if all that doesn't work, well, Laura Bush said yesterday the campaign may just roll out the twins in the spring.

As John Harris writes in The Washington Post, "President Bush is weaker than his strategists expected, spreading alarm in the White House and Republican circles, GOP sources said.

"The dramatic turn of fortunes prompted an equally dramatic response."

Coming Out Swinging in South Carolina

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush edged closer Thursday to admitting that some of his prewar allegations about Saddam Hussein may have been mistaken, but he defiantly defended his decision to invade Iraq and said he would do it again

" 'Knowing what I knew then, and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq,' Bush told a handpicked crowd of applauding supporters on a Charleston Harbor dock.

"He lashed out at critics, including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and other Democratic presidential candidates, and leveled a sharp accusation that until now he has left to his party and his campaign. 'If some politicians in Washington had their way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power,' he said."

The setting was carefully stage-managed. Allen writes: "The morning was raw, with wind whipping his hair, script and overcoat. Moments before the speech, the White House staff had to get the Coast Guard to reposition a cutter anchored behind him because it had drifted out of position and was no longer providing a perfect backdrop."

Joe Curl of the Washington Times notes that Bush "delivered his speech yesterday within view of Fort Sumter, site of the first shot fired in the Civil War.

"Speaking with more energy and enthusiasm than in other recent events, the president ticked off a host of facts about Saddam and the threat he posed to America and its allies."

Richard Benedetto and Judy Keen write in USA Today: "Bush's trip here was part of a retooling of his political strategy. His poll ratings are dropping. Democrats who want his job are hammering him and shoving him off news broadcasts and front pages. His advisers want him to counter critics more aggressively in hopes of improving his standing as voters begin to focus on November's election."

The visuals were, indeed, impressive. See this White House photo and the news photos.

Here's the full text of his speech.

Ribs Again!

We were all wondering where the president's unscheduled stop would be yesterday. White House Briefing readers even made a few suggestions (see end of yesterday's column.)

It was back to ribs! (A flash back to New Mexico.)

The Associated Press has a report on the stop: "En route to Charleston's airport, Bush detoured to the Sticky Fingers restaurant -- the home of 'unbelievable ribs' -- in the downtown historical district. . . .

"The president asked reporters what they'd like and urged them to order. But the media pool was hustled in and out of the restaurant and had no time to sample the Carolina fare."

Schuyler Kropf of the Charleston's Post and Courier talked to the restaurant's staff.

" 'He got three barbecued pork sandwiches and some ribs,' said an obviously pleased Matt Lowe, the restaurant's owner and manager.

Here's an AP photo.

Sticky Fingers, a chain restaurant operating in four Southern states, quickly added a new line to their logo on their Web site.

"Get Sticky. Have Fun" now has the tagline: "Run the Country."

The Executive Order

In his Post story, Mike Allen also previews the big event of the day: "On Friday, Bush plans to sign an executive order creating a nine-member, bipartisan commission to study the prewar intelligence on Iraq and the broad problem of proliferating unconventional weapons. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will be a member, Republican officials said. White House aides also discussed a possible spot for Kay, the officials said. Officials also plan to talk to former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.)."

This comes a day after CIA Director George J. Tenet put Bush in a bit of a bind.

"Let me be clear," Tenet said in a speech yesterday. "Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs, and those debates were spelled out in the estimate," he said. "They never said there was an imminent threat."

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus write that "Tenet did not directly address the question of whether top administration officials went beyond the CIA's assessments as they built a public case for going to war with Iraq, as many Democrats have charged.

But Bob Drogin and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times that "Tenet's insistence that the CIA did not portray Iraq as an imminent threat put new pressure on the White House to explain its decision to launch a preemptive war, and created a potential division between Tenet and the president."

Al Gore, by the way, has already made up his mind.

Larry Fine of Reuters quotes Gore, in a speech in New York as saying Bush "abused the trust of the people by exploiting the fears of the American people in order to take this nation on an adventure that had been preordained before the attacks of Sept. 11 ever took place."

Gore was speaking at a conference called "Fear: Its Political Uses and Abuses."

Today's Road Trip

Bush today goes to visit the high-tech "National Targeting Center" in Herndon.

There's some fascinating background on the center from House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Department of Homeland Security.

The center was established on Oct. 21, 2001, and is the coordination point for the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection agency.

The center's workers use sophisticated and sometimes controversial information-gathering techniques such as data-mining to provide national targeting of suspicious passengers and cargo to field offices.

Meeting the Press

David Gregory of NBC reports that "the president will appear for a one-hour interview on 'Meet The Press' Sunday, in what numerous advisers described as an attempt to confront criticism over a number of issues -- especially Bush's credibility over the war."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that this was the president's idea. "[A]t a time when he has dipped in the polls and is on the defensive over the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, 'Meet the Press' and its audience of 5 million represents a roll of the dice.

"Communications Director Dan Bartlett said that Bush, who plans to appoint a commission to examine intelligence failures on Iraq, 'felt it was important that the American people hear his thinking on this issue and pursuing the war on terrorism.' On Tuesday, Bush suggested 'Meet the Press' because of the 'lengthy format' and because 'Tim Russert has an enormous amount of respect,' Bartlett said."

Out there on the cynical Web, folks are suggesting all sorts of questions Russert should ask.

"Let's be Tim Russert's staff!" writes economics professor Brad DeLong, who proposes some combative questions. (To which one reader responds: "Don't be naive, Brad. Russert's opening question will be, 'President Bush, do you think John Kerry is haughty and French-looking?' And it'll go downhill from there.")

On Salon.com, Joe Conason has some questions too.

Roll Out the Twins

The Associated Press reports that the first lady "told CNN that her 22-year-old daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are contemplating a role in what may be their father's last campaign."

Scalia Watch

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reports that neither of the two organizations suing Vice President Cheney in an upcoming Supreme Court case has yet asked Justice Antonin Scalia to recuse himself. Judicial Watch won't; the Sierra Club hasn't decided yet.

Michael Janofsky of the New York Times quotes Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt) as saying of Scalia: "He has to know that with similar tactics, in any state in the country, a State Supreme Court justice would have to recuse himself. It's Law School 101."

CBS News weighed in last night with Wyatt Andrews saying that "nowhere else in America would it be remotely acceptable for the defendant to do favors for the judge."

AWOL Watch

Terry Holt, Bush-Cheney '04 Committee spokesman, was on Judy Woodruff's "Inside Politics" on CNN yesterday. Here's an excerpt:

WOODRUFF: Is it a problem, though, for President Bush, as a candidate up for reelection this year, that there are no records that prove that he showed up for service for approximately a year?

HOLT: The record is crystal clear. The National Guard gave him an honorable discharge.

WOODRUFF: But in terms of records that he showed up for his weekend or monthly obligations?

HOLT: Well, according to the National Guard, he made up service during a period that was appropriate, and well within the guidelines that allowed him to have an honorary discharge from the military.

WOODRUFF: So as far as you and the campaign is concerned, that's the end of it?

HOLT: Old story, dead story. Move on to the issues that matter to the American people.

WOODRUFF: All right. Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush campaign.

Here's what Boston Globe reporter Walter V. Robinson had to say on the radio program, Democracy Now:

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, look, I don't cover presidential politics anymore, thank God, but speaking as a journalist, what we have here are almost 200 pages of very complex military records. Very few reporters have them or have looked at them. Some who have them and have looked at them have misinterpreted them. Most reporters who are dealing with this issue are covering the campaign and dealing with a whole lot of issues every day. So, they're essentially dependent upon what the Democratic National Committee says on the one hand and what the White House says on the other hand. So, it's sort of -- there's a lot of fog around this issue, and it's really being generated by both sides.

Out in blog land, Tacitus thinks this is all irrelevant -- but we may as well get to the bottom of it. The Daily Howler won't let up on the "torn document" question.

And Jay Leno had this to say on the Tonight Show, via Reuters: "Kerry is saying that Bush never showed up for his national guard duty . . . and now Bush is on the attack. He's accusing John Kerry of ducking time in the national guard by hiding out in the jungles of Vietnam."

See my White House Briefing Archives for much more.

The Suskind File

After a bit of a delay (see my Jan. 22 column) Ron Suskind, the author of "The Price of Loyalty," has finally begun slowly posting some of the 19,000 the documents that he received from former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill.

They're a wonk's treasure trove, and they're available here.

Timothy Noah of Slate digs in with gusto. So does Brad DeLong.

Glitchy Day for the President

The Associated Press reports: "It sounded like a burst of machine-gun fire as President Bush was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday but the noise apparently was produced by sound equipment in the room."

The New York Times reports: "[R]eturning from South Carolina, the pilot of Air Force One was forced by a vehicle on the runway at Andrews Air Force Base to pull up and circle for a second effort to land the president's plane."

Plame Watch

Richard Sale, an intelligence correspondent for UPI, is out there all alone with this report published in Insight magazine, a national biweekly newsmagazine published in Washington by the Washington Times.

He writes: "Federal law-enforcement officials said that they have developed hard evidence of possible criminal misconduct by two employees of Vice President Dick Cheney's office related to the unlawful exposure of a CIA officer's identity last year. The investigation, which is continuing, could lead to indictments, a Justice Department official said.

"According to these sources, John Hannah and Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, were the two Cheney employees."

Nobody -- but nobody -- in the establishment press is picking this up. But the bloggers are going nuts.

Prayers Answered

Bush attended the 52nd Annual National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning.

"All of us believe in the power of prayer," he said. "And for a lot of people here in Washington, a prayer has been answered with three words: Coach Joe Gibbs."

See the full text.

Budget Watch

John Heilprin of the Associated Press writes: "President Bush asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked by toxins -- the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices."

Dan Morgan in The Washington Post writes: "The Bush administration's plan to cut the deficit in half within five years envisions an unprecedented long-term spending clampdown that would continue well beyond 2005 for hundreds of popular domestic programs, according to an unpublished White House budget document."

Bush has pledged to cut the budget deficit by half in five years. But the world isn't buying it -- at least not the international currency traders and investors, write Jonathan Weisman and Paul Blustein in The Washington Post.

Ralph Z. Hallow and James G. Lakely write in the Washington Times that "frustration over President Bush's immigration plan and lack of fiscal discipline came to a head behind closed doors at last weekend's Republican retreat in Philadelphia," as House lawmakers "gave his political strategist Karl Rove an earful."

Cheney Watch

Wayne Washington of the Boston Globe writes that Democrats see Vice President Cheney as a target in the upcoming campaign.

"The low-key, tough-talking vice president is portrayed by Democrats as a sinister operator behind the curtain of the Bush administration, secretly meeting with oil executives to formulate energy policy and intimidating intelligence officials into bolstering the case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein."

Halliburton Watch

Speaking of Cheney, Jackie Spinner writes in The Washington Post: "Halliburton Co. fired back at its political critics yesterday, introducing a television commercial that declares it was awarded lucrative Iraq reconstruction contracts 'because of what we do, not who we know.'"

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