Whiplash at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 3, 2004; 10:01 AM

The comings and goings this week at the White House are enough to make your head spin.

Mike Allen and John Mintz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush settled yesterday on Bernard B. Kerik, the New York police commissioner during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, to take over the Department of Homeland Security from its first leader, Tom Ridge, administration officials said. . . .

"Bush also surprised Republicans yesterday by naming Nebraska Gov. Michael O. Johanns, 54, a dairy farmer's son who was the party's leading candidate in an upcoming U.S. Senate race, as secretary of agriculture."

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post about John C. Danforth's surprise resignation less than six months after taking the job of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, citing personal reasons.

Lynch notes: "Danforth said in a recent interview that while he 'admired' Bush and considers him a friend, they never had a close personal relationship and they rarely spoke while he was serving as U.N. ambassador."

Richard W. Stevenson and Christopher Drew write in the New York Times: "In addition, a Republican with ties to the White House said he expected Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, to announce his resignation within days, with Mr. Thompson most likely to be replaced by Mark B. McClellan, the administrator of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

"Mr. Thompson would be the eighth cabinet secretary to leave since Election Day, part of what has become a wholesale reshaping of the administration and an effort by Mr. Bush to rejuvenate its ranks for policy and political battles in the next four years."

Caren Bohan and Glenn Somerville write for Reuters: "Expectations that U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow would survive President George W. Bush's Cabinet make-over for at least six months are rapidly yielding to a belief he may make a hastier exit, people close to the Bush administration said on Thursday. . . .

"White House chief of staff Andrew Card was among those cited as a possible replacement for Snow if he leaves. Other names floated were former Sen. Phil Gramm, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and White House budget chief Joshua Bolten."

John Harwood, in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire column, writes that conservatives are pressing Bush to pick Gramm to succeed Snow. "The former Texas senator isn't close to Bush, but the Republican right believes it has little to show from Cabinet shuffle so far."

Christopher Drew profiles Kerik in the New York Times; Edwin Chen profiles Johanns in the Los Angeles Times.

Here is the transcript of Bush and Johanns' remarks at the White House yesterday.

Mr. President, Will You Answer the Question?

Mike Allen's piece in Wednesday's Washington Post about the "dark art" of asking questions at news conferences had sparked a lot of conversation.

Some people, including participants in my Live Online discussion yesterday, wonder if the press could ask better questions -- or whether there's even any point.

Well, as luck would have it, Salon.com today publishes a long essay precisely on that topic -- by me. It's called: Mr. President, will you answer the question?

My premise, based in part on interviews with some of the great White House correspondents of yore, is that the corps could in fact ask more effective (shorter, pithier) questions -- and could do so more strategically. I also argue that Bush should be pressured to meet with the press more often.

The essay is also available on the other Web site I work for, NiemanWatchdog.org. There, readers can post comments -- and I'd particularly love to hear from members of the White House press corps, past, present and future.


Amidst all these high-level moves, there's a lower-level one that is worth noting here.

Jimmy Orr, the enthusiastic young White House Internet director who brought fun (Barney Cam) and interactivity (Ask the White House) to the staid White House Web site, has left his job after a nearly four-year run.

Under Orr's direction, the White House Web site developed personality, dramatically increased in popularity and actually became a valued part of the message machine.

You can't talk about Orr's legacy without mentioning Barney. Who will ever forget the holiday videos of the First Dog scrabbling across White House floors and playing poker with senior staff? Thanks to Orr, Barney has his own Web site, Barney.gov, with a daily photo and corny captions.

But more significantly, Orr also persuaded White House officials to use the Internet to reach out directly to ordinary citizens.

"We brought government close to the people," Orr said. "I'm very pleased with that, and it is the future of the Internet. If you want to be successful, you've got to interact with the people, and you have to listen to them -- you absolutely have to listen to them, and you have to show that you're listening to them."

Orr's job had its challenges. He was charged with driving more traffic to the Web site, but he couldn't exactly go overboard. "Trust me, when you work for the White House, there are some serious restraints," he said. "You've got to be really creative."

So what does the future hold for government Web sites? Orr sent me an e-mail on that topic: "You want to put the power of the Internet behind you? A Congressman/Senator should write his/her own blog daily. Daily? Yes. They don't have to write a new essay everyday, but why not say hello to your constituents and answer a question daily? That's good government. That is just one small step in better using this great communications tool."

Blogger in the White House, Chapter II

So far, however, the closest thing the White House has to an in-house blogger is Rex Hammock.

Longtime White House Briefing readers will recall how in this February column, I wrote about how Hammock -- a publishing company president from Nashville -- blogged a closed-door confab between President Bush and some regular Americans about the economy.

Hammock -- who Bush at the time immediately nicknamed "Hammock Man" -- was invited back yesterday for a White House holiday reception. He not only blogged it, he photoblogged it.

Bravo, Rex. And thanks to Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis for pointing it out.

Prophetic Spelling

The first transcript of Bush's remarks at the Pageant of Peace came over with this phrase: "We think of the patient hope of men and women across the centuries who listened to the words of the profits and lived in joyful expectation."

Nineteen minutes later, a new version went out with this note: "*CORRECTION: PROFITS has been changed to PROPHETS."

Intel Watch

Walter Pincus and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "President Bush is beginning a last-ditch effort to get intelligence restructuring legislation passed by Congress next week, bolstered by the nation's top military officer, who said yesterday that congressional negotiators had addressed his concerns about the bill and that he is dropping his opposition to it."

CNN reports: "Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Bush was launching a 'full-court press' to get wavering Republican lawmakers to support the stalled intelligence reform bill.

"She told CNN that senior White House adviser Karl Rove called her early Thursday morning to stress that the president considers finishing the 9/11 legislation during next week's lame-duck session of Congress an urgent matter."

Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A showdown in Congress next week over plans to overhaul the nation's intelligence network is shaping up as a crucial test of President Bush's clout and his approach to governing in his second term. . . .

"Defeat would set the stage for a difficult second term, especially as Bush's power wanes."

Big Winners

Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column: "President Bush announced yesterday he'll be awarding the presidential Medal of Freedom to the Tres Amigos of Iraq: former CIA chief George J. "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who gave him bad information; retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who didn't have enough troops for the postwar occupation; and former Iraq viceroy L. Paul Bremer, who complained about the troop levels too late."

Cheney to Kabul

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney will travel to Afghanistan to attend the inauguration Tuesday of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's first directly elected president."

The Role of Economic Theory

Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum wrote in The Washington Post two weeks ago that the Bush administration was considering paying for cuts in investment taxation by eliminating the deduction of state and local taxes on federal income tax returns and scrapping the business tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance.

Today, Weisman explains that the theoretical reasoning behind that proposal can be found in this year's Economic Report of the President.

"There, White House economists assert that the [health insurance] deduction unfairly subsidizes employees of some companies while encouraging overly generous health policies that focus on routine medical care" and "that the deductibility of state and local taxes -- especially property taxes -- 'lowers the price of local public services' and unfairly favors local government services over privately provided services."

Weisman writes that Bush supporters say people don't appreciate that "[i]n crafting a broad agenda for his second term, Bush is trying to adhere strictly to economic theory, perhaps even more so than during the Reagan administration's early battles over deregulation and taxes."

And yet, Weisman notes: "Critics say the White House's theoretical arguments may fly in the face of empirical evidence."

Social Security Watch

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Calling the current system of Social Security benefits unsustainable, a top economic adviser to President Bush on Thursday strongly implied that any overhaul of the system would have to include major cuts in guaranteed benefits for future retirees.

" 'Let me state clearly that there are no free lunches here,' said N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, at a conference on tax policy. . . .

"Mr. Mankiw's remarks suggested that President Bush's plan to let people put some of their Social Security taxes into 'personal savings accounts' would have to be accompanied by changes in the current system of benefits."

Summit Coming

Edwin Chen and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House announced Thursday that President Bush will convene a high-profile forum later this month to lay the groundwork for his top economic initiatives: the partial privatization of Social Security and an overhauling of the tax code."

AFP writes: "It was unclear whether guests would include officials or experts who disagree with the president's policies. In the past, the White House has carefully screened such events in an effort to avoid criticisms."

Iraqi Elections

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday flatly ruled out any delay in Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 despite the unrelenting insurgency, rejecting Sunni Muslim boycott threats and casting the vote as a critical step toward bringing U.S. troops home. . . .

"Bush said last week that he 'would hope they would go forward in January,' but yesterday's statement made clear he will brook no delay."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks in an Oval Office photo-op yesterday.

Christmastime at the White House

Richard Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Laura Bush on Thursday showed off a holiday display depicting 13 well-known seasonal tunes, including 'Frosty the Snowman' and 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' . . .

"She led a tour Thursday through the mansion's first-floor rooms, festooned in snow white, cranberry red and traditional gold. More than 51 volunteers had hung 245 wreaths, 221 bows and 660 feet of garland among the 41 Christmas trees."

Hot Seat

Astute Wonkette operatives found something odd about the Reuters photo I pointed out yesterday of Bush, before his speech in Halifax, sitting next to a White-House designed backdrop featuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Bush would appear to be sitting in Joseph Stalin's spot.

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