White House Launches Barney.gov

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 14, 2004; 10:14 AM

There's a new top dog on the Internet.

Barney, the rambunctious 3-year old Scottish terrier who hangs out in the Oval Office, now has his own .gov Web site.

Barney.gov features a Barney photo of the day, a Barney bio and videos.

White House pets have long exerted a fascination over the American public. (See, for instance, presidentialpetmuseum.com.)

Barney has had his own Web page for years, within the White House Kids area of the White House Web site. But the page was recently expanded, and Barney got his own domain.

The daily photos are amusing. Here, for instance, is Barney escaping from the heat. Here's Barney looking wistfully out an Oval Office window. Here's Barney ferreting out a weapon of mass destruction (just kidding).

I'm looking forward to seeing Barney eating a cicada.

And of course there's BarneyCam, which dates back to Christmastime, 2002.

Like the rest of the online Barneyfest, BarneyCam was the brainchild of Jimmy Orr, the enthusiastic 37-year-old press office staffer who doubles as Internet director.

The first BarneyCam movie came in at 4 1/2 minutes. Orr had originally intended to put a tiny camera on Barney's collar, but Barney would have none of that. So instead a camera crew got to chase Barney around as he skittered after Christmas ornaments.

Out in time for Christmas 2003, BarneyCam Reloaded, which clocks in at seven minutes, has higher production values, many significant cameo appearances, and even a plot of sorts.

"The most memorable experience that I will ever have in the White House is briefing the president as to what his motivation is in BarneyCam," Orr told me.

Barney was a gift from Christine Todd Whitman, then governor of New Jersey, for the first lady's birthday in 2000. He already had several fan clubs, and at least one unofficial Web site.

Spot, the Bushes' 14-year-old brown-and-white English springer spaniel, died in February. The Washington Post's Mike Allen wrote an appreciation.

About That Web Site

So is the White House Web site going to the dogs?

Quite the contrary.

Slowly but surely, and without much fanfare, the White House press office has been expanding its use of technology to connect people with the people's house -- while at the same time honing a most excellent propaganda tool.

Consider some of the following features:

E-mail the White House. Web site users can now submit questions to the White House staff. Among those taking questions so far: Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Ask the White House. A live chat, most often with senior White House officials. Today, for instance, chief domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings is on, talking about education initiatives. And the questions aren't all softballs, either.

The Pennsylvania Avenue Project. Constant updates on the status of the construction currently underway to restore the avenue in front of the White House. Includes video interviews of key players by "White House Kid Reporter" Spencer Connaughton, a natural whose dad happens to be the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- and whose uncle happens to be Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten.

Streaming video. The Web site now carries the daily press briefing live.

White House Radio. The site now makes available audio of some of the radio interviews done by senior officials. Just yesterday, for instance, you could hear national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's morning interview with Steve Gill on WWTN in Nashville, Tenn.

Video tours. Vice President Cheney takes you through one of his offices, press secretary Scott McClellan tours the press room, senior adviser Karl Rove shows off the Roosevelt Room, and, oh yes, the president invites you into the Oval Office. Plus there are 360-degree panoramic photos of the West Wing, including the Oval Office.

All this, of course, on top of the bread and butter of the site, which is news and speeches, press briefings and photos.

Internet director Orr says the site generally gets 10 million to 20 million page views a day.

Its goal, not surprisingly, is to communicate the president's message. But for it to attract repeat users, it's important for it "not to look like a typical government site," Orr says. "It's a juggling act."

So . . . will we ever see the president himself on "Ask the White House"? Orr says yes. "I think we'll see that . . . sooner rather than later," he says.

In the meantime, Barney will have to serve as the big draw.

Bad Numbers for the Master

In a Washington Post news analysis this morning, Dan Balz writes: "Six months before the November election, President Bush has slipped into a politically fragile position that has put his reelection at risk, with the public clearly disaffected by his handling of the two biggest issues facing the country: Iraq and the economy.

"Bush continues to run a close race against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in national polls, and his reelection committee has spent prodigiously to put Kerry on the defensive in the opening phase of the campaign, with some success. But other indicators -- presidential approval being the most significant -- suggest Bush is weaker now than at any point in his presidency."

Pollingreport.com keeps meticulous tabs on Bush's approval ratings.

It seems like everybody's writing about those job-approval numbers today (I wrote about them yesterday.)

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "for the first time, even some of the most loyal administration aides, who have regularly defended every twist in the Iraq strategy, are conceding that the president and his top advisers are stuck in what one of them called 'the perpetual debate' about whether to change strategy or soldier on. Mr. Bush's usually sunny campaign advisers make no effort to hide the depth of the problem.

" 'Look, obviously events and the coverage and what's reported are going to have an effect on how people see the direction of the country,' said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for Bush-Cheney '04. 'In the last two months or three months, there hasn't been a wealth of positive news. It was bound to have an effect, and we expected that.'

"But Mr. Dowd said that changing Mr. Bush's tone on the campaign trail was not an option. So with some modifications, Mr. Bush is following the script he and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, drafted as the prisoner scandal emerged: He repeats his disgust with the abuses, then turns the subject immediately back to his broader goals in the war on terrorism, merging it with the action in Iraq. He did so again on Thursday in a West Virginia school gymnasium."

And Sanger writes that "[s]ome Republicans close to Mr. Bush's campaign" are concerned that Kerry's comments on Wednesday about Abu Ghraib prison "are the beginning of a new effort to fuel the notion that Mr. Bush's take-no-prisoners attitude created the conditions that allowed prisoner abuses to flourish."

Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times also writes about the approval-rating drop today. He notes that "Republican strategists argue that the timeline over the next few months favors Bush. . . . An appearance in Normandy at the end of the month marking the D-day invasion will serve to 'remind us why we fight,' one strategist said. The campaign also is hoping that the June 30 handover of sovereignty in Iraq will knock the prison case off the front pages."

Here's more stories about the approval-ratings drop, from Knight Ridder Newspapers, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun.

The Straight Dope

The Washington Post's Mike Allen was Live Online yesterday, answering reader questions.

An excerpt:

"Arlington, Va.: Mike, you've been hanging out in the White House for some time now. Based on that experience, is this a White House in crisis mode?

"Mike Allen: They have televisions, so I think it is safe to say the answer is 'yes.' But there's almost always a crisis for any White House. Only the severity varies and let's just say they are not in denial about the ramifications of this one. The first court-martial will be held next week, and it is unclear to people close to the president when public attention will move to another issue. They recognize that they cannot change or evade the subject and realize that they will just have to ride this out while also talking about their other priorities."

Out in West Virginia

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post from West Virginia: "President Bush sought Thursday to answer the criticism from his Democratic rival for the White House that his administration has failed to devote enough money and ingenuity to improving public education, visiting a high school here that the president said is a model of how to elevate secondary school standards."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks in West Virginia.

Although education was the theme, Bush made some comments about Iraq as well. He seemed to be on message:

"And we're being tested, see. We're being tested because there are people who cannot stand the thought of free societies growing up in a part of the world that is used to hatred and tyranny. We're being tested because there are cold-blooded killers that cannot stand the thought of freedom becoming the norm. . . .

"No, these are historic times. We're being tested. People are testing our mettle. And I will not yield to the whims of the few."

Conservative Night

Caren Bohan covered Bush's speech at the American Conservative Union 40th Anniversary Gala dinner for Reuters. She writes that "Bush invoked former President Ronald Reagan and conservative icon Barry Goldwater on Thursday as he sought to reassure Republicans nervous that Iraq could doom his presidency."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks.

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost of the Associated Press writes: "Bush returns for the second time in a week to Wisconsin, delivering a commencement speech in a state he lost by 6,000 votes four years ago.

"Appearing at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., the largest Lutheran university in North America, the president will speak to the obligation of individuals to help make the country a better place and a more compassionate society, and he will detail the role he feels the government should play in those efforts, White House aides say."

Bush, by contrast, is not planning on attending either of his twins' graduations, at Yale and the University of Texas, where he might have faced hostile crowds.

Concordia is safe in the heart of the heavily Republican Milwaukee suburbs.

And the university is preparing a love-fest.

Bush will receive an honorary doctorate of laws. And Mike Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel reports that Bush will meet with one Concordia student and recognize her for her dedication to volunteer service.

Rebecca Haupt, who chairs Concordia's Volunteer Outreach in Christian Enthusiasm project, said she's not quite sure what she will ask Bush.

"But I want to thank him for the work he's done to encourage people to do volunteer and service work," she said.

Probably not a Kerry voter, Haupt will intern this summer with U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.)

Bush starts his day by greeting the G-8 foreign ministers in the Roosevelt Room. Then it's off on Air Force One to a Republican fundraising luncheon in Missouri, then Concordia in the afternoon, and back to the White House at night.

Vice President Cheney is off to Boca Raton, Fla., to deliver remarks at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

Bush Books

Book critic Caryn James writes in the New York Times about how serious political books have flooded the best-seller lists -- and how the television book tour has been more crucial than ever in generating news from these works.

"It isn't surprising that so many books are anti-Bush when he is the incumbent in a fast-approaching election," she writes. "There are still some pro-Bush best sellers around, but they are flabbier, as preaching-to-the-converted works tend to be. They take equal advantage of TV, though."

She offers up a Bush reading list.

Redskins Watch

Sam Hananel writes for the Associated Press: "Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is considered a football legend for winning three Super Bowls, but a White House ceremony Thursday night honored him for another achievement -- helping hundreds of at-risk youths lead healthy, productive lives."

$200 Million Man

Sharon Theimer of the Associated Press reports: "Bush's campaign has hit the $200 million mark, doubling his 2000 record in less than a year of fund raising, donations through April posted on the campaign's Web site and tallied by The Associated Press show. The Republican incumbent has raised almost twice as much as Democratic rival John Kerry."

Counterterrorism Job: No Fun

Thanks to blogger Kevin Drum, I was led to a posting by Ryan Lizza in the New Republic's Campaign Journal, in which he chronicles the short and not particularly happy tenures of Bush's five counterterrorism chiefs, who "all seem to disappear under unusual circumstances." No wait, make that six.

Rumsfeld's Trip: Not the President's Idea

From yesterday's press gaggle with McClellan:

"Q Scott, back to Secretary Rumsfeld's trip. Did the President ask him to make this trip, or was it the Secretary's suggestion?

"MR. McCLELLAN: This was a decision made by the Secretary. He has traveled there before, and --

"Q So the President did not ask him to go?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, this was a decision made by Secretary Rumsfeld. The President was very well aware that he was going."

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