Who Needs Good Press?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; 11:00 AM

We here in the media have been abuzz for months now about how the Bush White House has been suffering one public relations disaster after another.

But guess what? It may not matter.

Because advertising really does work.

USA Today's Susan Page, reporting on a new Gallup poll, writes: "A week of hearings on Capitol Hill and criticism from a former counterterrorism aide have eroded President Bush's poll standing on fighting terrorism. But that's nothing compared to the damage that Bush's campaign ads may have done to Democratic candidate John Kerry."

Page says the key is "a remarkable turnaround in 17 battleground states where polls and historic trends indicate the race will be close, and where the Bush campaign has aired TV ads. Those ads say Bush has provided 'steady leadership in times of change' while portraying Kerry as a tax-hiking, flip-flopping liberal."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "Most Americans still approve of President Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism, even after a week of accusations that he failed to pay enough attention to intelligence warnings before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Although a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll finds that 53% believe the Bush administration is 'covering up something' about its handling of intelligence before 9/11, 67% say it could not have prevented the attacks. But 54% say Bush still could have done more beforehand.

"For the first time since mid-February, Bush leads Democrat John Kerry, 51%-47%. With independent Ralph Nader in the race, Bush leads 49%-45%, and Nader receives 4%."

As CNN.com puts it: "The poll results suggest that the Bush campaign's attempts to paint Kerry as a tax-raising liberal who flip-flops on the issues has affected the race more than recent charges that the Bush administration didn't put enough focus on the threat of terrorism before 9/11."

Here are the complete results. Bush's overall approval rating is up 4 ticks to 53 percent.

And the new survey of 1,501 Americans by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 22-28, also finds that the "week's worth of criticism of his pre-Sept. 11 record on terrorism has had little impact on President Bush's support among voters."

Where there is impact, presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry hasn't been able to capitalize. "Notably, the president has lost ground on terrorism among swing voters, just half of whom say he could do a better job than Kerry on this issue, down from 72% in mid-March. Yet Kerry has not gained ground on terrorism. Instead, a growing number of swing voters (37%, up from 17%) are undecided as to whether Bush or Kerry could do a better job of defending the country against future attacks."

Rice Likely to Testify After All

John Roberts of CBS News pegged it. He reported last night that "White House officials were considering an about-face: whether to give in to demands from even Republican members of the 9/11 commission for the national security adviser to testify -- in public, under oath."

It was pretty clear that something was in the works to quell the furor over national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify under oath before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post that Bush aides say "the White House believes Rice's refusal to testify is becoming a political problem and officials are looking for a way out."

Philip Shenon and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "The chairman and vice chairman of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said on Monday that they would ask Condoleezza Rice to testify under oath in any future questioning because of discrepancies between her statements and those made in sworn testimony by President Bush's former counterterrorism chief.

"'I would like to have her testimony under the penalty of perjury,' said the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, in comments that reflected the panel's exasperation with the White House and Ms. Rice, the president's national security adviser."

Shenon and Stevenson say an "outside adviser" to the White House told them that "Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser and political strategist, wanted to move the election away from questions like 'Were there intelligence failures?' and to put the focus instead on which candidate could better protect against any future efforts by terrorists to attack the United States.

"'If we're going to have a discussion about W.M.D. and intelligence failures and Osama bin Laden, that's not an election George W. Bush wins,' the adviser said. 'If it's about who keeps you safer, that's the ground we want to be on.'"

Watch this space tomorrow for the inevitable before-and-after stories, in which we contrast all the quotes from Rice and the White House about the high moral principles that prevented Rice from testifying with their quotes about the high moral principles that obligated Rice to testify.

More Clarke Fallout

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "A senior national security official who worked alongside Richard A. Clarke on Sept. 11, 2001, is disputing central elements of Mr. Clarke's account of events in the White House Situation Room that day, declaring that it 'is a much better screenplay than reality was.'

"The official, Franklin C. Miller, who acknowledges that he was often a bureaucratic rival of Mr. Clarke, said in an interview on Monday that almost none of the conversations that Mr. Clarke, who was the counterterrorism chief, recounts in the first chapter of his book, 'Against All Enemies,' match Mr. Miller's recollection of events."

The interview, Sanger writes, "was suggested by the White House."

Miller is a senior aide to Rice, with the title of special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and arms control.

In a "Reality Check" for CBS News, Wyatt Andrews looks at the issue of executive privilege, noting that "every president says it's not about them, they're just protecting the office."

Here's how the story is playing on the NBC Nightly News. Also on NBC, Lisa Myers did some truth-squadding on some of Clarke's allegations and finds a mixed bag.

Rice: Suddenly All Smiles?

Reader Richard Panek writes from New York: "Today's Wash Post and NY Times both feature photos of Condi Rice smiling -- penance, perhaps, for previously featuring the scowl seen 'round the world?"

And by golly, he may have a point. Here's the images of the front pages from today's Post and Times.

It's a far cry from the scowls I noted yesterday in Time and Newsweek.

Cheney Attacks

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney charged yesterday that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is hiding the extent of his plans for raising taxes, but Democrats retorted that the White House is trying to divert attention from a stagnant job market."

The context: "Preparing for the monthly employment report that will come out Friday, President Bush plans to spend much of the week talking about economic issues," Allen writes.

Maria L. La Ganga writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney took the lead in a coordinated Republican attack Monday, charging that John F. Kerry has voted 'at least 350 times for higher taxes' during his Senate career. But the claim was disputed by nonpartisan watchdog groups as being based on an inaccurate interpretation of Kerry's record."

She's referring to this report from factcheck.org.

Here's the transcript of Cheney's remarks.

Cheney also weighed in on the Democratic veepstakes: "And Senator Kerry, of course, is preparing to begin the search for his own running mate, someone that I will face in the fall election. The question is, will he go for somebody who is sober, serious, well versed in policy -- or will he follow President Bush's lead and just settle for pure charm and charisma? (Laughter.)"

Live Online Today at 1

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m., taking your questions and comments about the White House.

Let's try something a little different today.

In yesterday's column, I wrote about how Karen Hughes may be coming to Bush's rescue.

So what advice would you give Bush if you were Karen Hughes?

Send in your thoughts.

And a special note: ABCNews.com has posted some excerpts from Hughes's new book.

Welcome to NATO

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush welcomed seven former Communist countries into NATO yesterday, pressing the alliance's boundaries farther into what once was Warsaw Pact territory and emphasizing its post-Cold War rebirth as a partnership aimed increasingly at fighting terrorism in Europe and beyond. . . .

"Bush pointedly noted in his remarks that all seven nations are playing supporting roles for U.S.-led military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. . . .

"'They understand our cause in Afghanistan and in Iraq because tyranny for them is still a fresh memory,' said Bush."

Here's the transcript and video of Bush's remarks.

Incoming: 'Insourcing'

Before his talk to the Detroit Economic Club yesterday, White House economic adviser Stephen Friedman went on WJR radio in Detroit.

One message: All this critical, Bush-administration-bashing talk about "outsourcing" is a distraction from the bigger issue: "insourcing."

The White House Web site is prominently featuring audio of Friedman's interview this morning.

"The thing that's important to know is the United States is actually a very strong leader in the services industry. We have insourced to the United States a large number of jobs," Friedman said.

Can you say trial balloon?

Because here's Newt Gingrich, in an op-ed in today's Washington Post: "The real debate is between those who focus on 'insourcing' jobs by making America the best place in the world to create the next high-value-added, wealth-creating jobs and those who believe that an inevitable measure of economic decay can be slowed temporarily by preventing the export of jobs to China, India, Korea, Mexico and other countries. The latter is, quite simply, a strategy that has failed consistently, most evidently in Europe."

The Hill's Josephine Hearn first spotted Republicans testing out the phrase two weeks ago.

The Politics of Science

In the New York Times, James Glanz profiles Dr. John H. Marburger III, President Bush's science adviser, who "has become the first line of defense against accusations that the Bush administration has systematically distorted scientific fact and stacked technical advisory committees to advance favored policies on the environment, on biomedical research and on other areas like the search for unconventional weapons in Iraq."

Many influential scientists are dismayed by the positions Marburger defends. But Bush likes him.

Glanz writes: "'He is closer to the pulse in the White House than any of his predecessors, to my knowledge,' said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff. . . . Not only does Dr. Marburger typically attend each morning meeting for the senior staff in the Roosevelt Room, Mr. Card said, but also 'the president enjoys Jack Marburger.'"

"'He's a little bit of a character, which is fun,' Mr. Card said."

Today's Calendar

If it's Tuesday, it must be a swing state.

Terence Hunt writes on the Associated Press wire that Bush is off today to Appleton, Wis., for a trip billed as an official visit but carrying political overtones.

The president's goal is "promoting lower taxes and free-trade policies in a state that has lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs since he took office."

The trip is Bush's ninth to Wisconsin. "Bush lost the state by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000 and it is regarded as a battleground again this year," Hunt writes.

"The president had only one appearance, a speech at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, and was to be in Wisconsin a total of 90 minutes from landing to takeoff."


From yesterday's gaggle with press secretary Scott McClellan:

"Q Scott, does the President now remember that September 12th discussion with Richard Clarke, the pull-aside where Clarke says --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, look --

"Q Initially you said he didn't remember it.

"MR. McCLELLAN: There were some media reports that failed to report everything that we said last week. We pointed out what was recalled, and what the record showed, but at the same time, we made it very clear from the beginning that regardless, of course the President was asking people to explore all possibilities of who might have been responsible for the attacks of September 11th. It was important to have an open mind in the immediate aftermath and to explore all possibilities of who might be responsible.

"We said that from the very beginning, yet some media outlets refused to report that part of what we said last week. So the idea that all of a sudden there was a change, we simply said what we said: Regardless of whether or not there was a meeting, let's get to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter is that of course in the immediate aftermath of a terrible and tragic attack like that -- like what happened on September 11th, you want to explore all possibilities.

"Q But didn't Rice say last evening that there was -- that the President did ask Clarke to pursue whether or not Iraq had a role in 9/11?

"MR. McCLELLAN: She was saying that the President thought it was important to explore all possibilities.

"Q But didn't you say that the President didn't recollect that meeting?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think she was saying that that -- she was talking about whether or not that meeting happened, she was just saying, look, we'll accept the premise, if that's what you want. We've said that from the beginning, regardless of whether or not that occurred, it was important to explore all possibilities. And some media outlets refused to report that. And I've said that from the very beginning.

"Q Some did report it. But regardless, there seemed to be a change in tone in what Dr. Rice said last night. So just to be clear, it's not that anyone's recollection has now changed about that meeting. She's not saying that some sorts of records or some questioning of the President --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm not aware of anything different there. But I am -- she did say the same thing that we have said from the beginning: of course the President was asking people to explore all possibilities.

(For some context, here is yesterday's lead story from the New York Times, by Eric Lichtblau, and McClellan's very first briefing on the Clarke book, in which he says: "There's no record of the President being in the Situation Room on that day that it was alleged to have happened, on the day of September the 12th. When the President is in the Situation Room, we keep track of that. But put all that aside, let's go to the heart of the matter. This was supposedly the day after the September 11th attacks. And, of course, you want to look at all possibilities of who might be responsible. It would be irresponsible not to consider all responsibilities.")


Richard Leiby, the Washington Post's Reliable Source, reports that White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett and his wife, Allyson, had twin boys on Friday, Jacob and Sutton.

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