A White House Out of Step?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 28, 2005; 12:00 PM

The first-term Bush White House was justifiably renowned for its nearly flawless message execution. But in just the first few days of the second term there have been a surprising number of missteps.

The elephant in the room, as it were, is of course the very first thing President Bush said after being sworn in a second time. His soaring inaugural address about bringing liberty to the globe struck so many people as being out of touch with conditions on the ground that the White House and Bush himself have spent much of the last week qualifying it and trying to anchor it in reality.

And consider two smaller but concrete examples of Bush and Cheney being seemingly out of step with ordinary human behavior.

When Bush strode out before the press corps on Wednesday morning, his cheerful opening statement contained no recognition of the tragic overnight death of 31 Americans in the crash of a Marine helicopter in Iraq, the largest single-incident death toll since the war began. When he was asked about it, he addressed it tersely.

Bush almost never mentions specific incidents in the war, but I think it's safe to say that most people expected him to express some sorrow -- and to do so on his own. Out in the blogosphere, liberal Vanity Fair editor James Wolcott has been most outspoken on that point.

And then yesterday, there was Vice President Cheney, sitting amongst somberly dressed world leaders at the most solemn of occasions -- the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- in a blimp-like parka and embroidered ski cap.

So wrong.

Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan gives Cheney the what-for on that in this morning's Style section.

On a much bigger scale, it's possible that Bush's ambitious second-term agenda is simply so bold that the nation, and even his fellow Republicans on the Hill, haven't caught up with him yet. But it's also possible he's genuinely out of step there, too.

Mike Allen gets into that a bit today on the front page of The Post.

And the concern is not just coming from the usual suspects.

The conservative Economist magazine, for instance, opines that "the gap between Mr Bush's rhetoric and what is actually happening, or is likely to happen, is embarrassingly wide."

National Journal media columnist William Powers observes that Bush appears to have lost any trace of humility. "He's CEO of the world, and he walks and talks as if he's about to fire everybody. His indifference to tone is mesmerizing, like a work of conceptual art designed to provoke and madden his audience. He's the Marcel Duchamp of American politics."

Out of Step with Hill Republicans

Allen writes in The Post that when Bush flies to a West Virginia resort to meet congressional Republicans today, "he will encounter a party far less malleable and willing to follow his lead than it has been for the past four years.

"Bush is accustomed to getting his way with Congress and finished his first term without suffering a major defeat. But mid-level and rank-and-file Republicans have begun to assert themselves on issues including intelligence reform, immigration and a major restructuring of Social Security, the centerpiece of his second-term agenda."

Allen writes that "now that Bush has run his last campaign, he is being bolder in calling for legislative action than many lawmakers who must run every two years are willing to be."

Cheney Underdressed

Fashion writer Givhan writes: "Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults.

"Like other attendees, the vice president was wearing a hat. But it was not a fedora or a Stetson or a fur hat or any kind of hat that one might wear to a memorial service as the representative of one's country. Instead, it was a knit ski cap, embroidered with the words 'Staff 2001.' It was the kind of hat a conventioneer might find in a goodie bag.

"It is also worth mentioning that Cheney was wearing hiking boots -- thick, brown, lace-up ones."

Here's the striking Associated Press photo.

In his report on CBS News, Mark Phillips captures the dignity and sorrow of the event -- and has video of the vice president lumbering up to the memorial with a candle.

Cheney was more properly attired this morning, this Associated Press photo shows.

The Cheney Charm

Speaking of the vice president, Deb Riechmann previews his second term for the Associated Press.

"No longer trying to help President Bush get re-elected, Cheney now has more time to represent the president overseas," she writes.

Better dressed, one hopes.

Riechmann also surmises that "Cheney is also likely to spend more time on Capitol Hill, quietly lobbying for votes on Social Security, taxes and legal reforms."

And we all know how charming Cheney can be when he's on the Hill. Remember what he told Sen. Patrick Leahy?

Well, Riechmann adds another memorable Cheneyism to the lexicon.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., told her about "calling Cheney back in June to see how he was holding up under the pressures of the campaign, when pundits were suggesting he had become a liability.

" 'How you doing, pal?' Simpson asked Cheney.

" 'Same old crap, Al,' Cheney replied."

New York Times Interview

There were no obvious false steps in Bush's 40-minute interview with the New York Times yesterday. But not much news, either.

Elisabeth Bumiller, David E. Sanger and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "President Bush said in an interview on Thursday that he would withdraw American forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected on Sunday asked him to do so, but that he expected Iraq's first democratically elected leaders would want the troops to remain as helpers, not as occupiers. . . .

"But even while acknowledging that Iraq is at a pivotal point in its history, Mr. Bush appeared far more relaxed than he was in August, when he was last interviewed by The Times, in a changing area off a men's room, during a campaign stop in New Mexico.

"He laughed when asked about his admission on Wednesday, during a news conference, that he had not read the article in the periodical Foreign Affairs written in 2000 by Condoleezza Rice, his new secretary of state, laying out his foreign policy.

" 'I don't know what you think the world is like, but a lot of people don't just sit around reading Foreign Affairs,' he said, chuckling. 'I know this is shocking to you.' "

Here, if you're interested, is that seminal article, which outlined a very different foreign policy than that which Bush eventually pursued.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times interview:

"On the prospects for peace and democracy in the Middle East:

"I think two of the great ironies of history will be that there will be a Palestinian state and a democratic Iraq showing the way forward for people who desperately want to be free. . . .

"On whether he is willing to tell the American people that his goal of achieving permanent solvency in Social Security involves painful choices and that no one should expect to come out with everything promised to them under current law:

"You're actually right when you talk about permanent -- as I said yesterday, that the personal accounts do not permanently fix the system. . . .

"And so there's going to be some difficult choices members of Congress are going to have to make, along with the White House. . . .

"On the risk that his Inaugural Address, with its theme of ending tyranny, created a risk that people in totalitarian societies would rise up unrealistically expecting the backing of the United States:

"I do appreciate the fact that people listen to my words. I also appreciate the fact that if people rise up in a totalitarian society, they can be killed. And so it's with that in mind that I speak. . . . "

I, for one, would like to see a full transcript, including the questions. You get a better sense that way of whether the president was being responsive, which is an important part of the analysis.

A Love Fest

Here's Bush at today's swearing-in of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state:

"Laura and I are honored to be here. Over the past four years, America has benefited from the wise counsel of Dr. Condoleezza Rice and our family has been enriched by our friendship with this remarkable person. We love her -- I don't know if you're supposed to say that about the Secretary of State.

Social Security Developments

Laura Meckler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's advisers have settled on a proposal for structuring the personal accounts they hope to create in Social Security. . . .

"Under a plan recommended to Bush, the private accounts would resemble many company-sponsored retirement plans, with just a handful of investment options. . . .

"The government would be responsible for keeping track of how much money is in each worker's account and give the lump sums to a financial services company to invest, a mechanism aimed at keeping administrative fees low, they said."

Knight-Ridder's Steven Thomma explains the stakes: "When he delivers his State of the Union address next Wednesday night to Congress and the country, President Bush will call for a radical change in Social Security that ultimately could reshape the relationship that Americans have with their government.

"Bush would change not only the way this country safeguards its elderly -- letting Americans take more risk with their tax dollars, possibly to reap more reward, or possibly smaller retirement benefits -- but he also would roll back the role of government in American life.

"If the president's Social Security plan becomes law, over time it could usher in a new conservative age, one in which Americans would look to themselves and their communities rather than the federal government to provide the financial safety net that prevents people from falling into poverty. Bush's new order, which he calls the 'ownership society,' eventually could displace the New Deal philosophy that's guided Washington and shaped American society since the 1930s."

Holly Yeager and James Harding write in the Financial Times: "George W. Bush's tour of the US heartland next week to make the case for 'strengthening Social Security' will target home states of pivotal Senate Democrats.

"The itinerary underscores how his re-election has transformed the political agenda at the White House. No longer preoccupied by electoral calculations, Mr Bush is concentrating on collecting the votes he needs in Congress."

Blacks and Social Security

Bush's assertion that blacks are shortchanged by Social Security continues to burble furiously below the news reports.

William Beach of the Heritage Foundation responds to a Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial that criticized his report on the topic -- the apparent source of Bush's assertion.

New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman writes today that "the claim that blacks get a bad deal from Social Security is false. And Mr. Bush's use of that false argument is doubly shameful, because he's exploiting the tragedy of high black mortality for political gain instead of treating it as a problem we should solve."

Pay for Play

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "One day after President Bush ordered his Cabinet secretaries to stop hiring commentators to help promote administration initiatives, and one day after the second high-profile conservative pundit was found to be on the federal payroll, a third embarrassing hire has emerged. Salon has confirmed that Michael McManus, a marriage advocate whose syndicated column, 'Ethics & Religion,' appears in 50 newspapers, was hired as a subcontractor by the Department of Health and Human Services to foster a Bush-approved marriage initiative. McManus championed the plan in his columns without disclosing to readers he was being paid to help it succeed.

Health Care

Michael Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush called on doctors and hospitals Thursday to move their medical records from paper to electronic files, a change that he said would improve medical care while shaving significant sums from the nation's spiraling health care bill."

Anne Kornblut and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "In a reprise of the presidential campaign, President Bush and Senator John Kerry offered dueling visions of health care on Thursday. It was their most direct back-and-forth -- from two different cities -- over any domestic issue since Election Day."

Bush was joined by his new health secretary, Michael O. Leavitt.

"Mr. Bush, for his part, offered his new cabinet member a wry welcome, saying, 'He's been in the job 15 hours, and he hasn't made any mistakes yet.' "

Here is the text of Bush's remarks.

A quote: "So the fundamental question facing the country is, can we have a health care system that is available and affordable without the federal government running it? I mean, it really is a philosophical challenge. There's good well-meaning folks who believe that the best health care system is run where Washington, D.C. makes the decisions. I happen to believe the best health care system is one where the consumers, the patients, make the decisions."

A Blast From Kennedy

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called on President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq after Sunday's elections and complete the pullout by early next year, declaring the president's Iraq policy 'a catastrophic failure' that is only 'fanning the flames of conflict.' . . .

"The White House dismissed Kennedy's remarks. 'I think his views are well known,' press secretary Scott McClellan said. 'The president's views are well known, as well.' "

North Korea Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan group of lawmakers that recently traveled to North Korea has written President Bush to urge him not to make provocative statements about the reclusive nation in next week's State of the Union address, on the grounds that it will hurt the prospects for resumed talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. . . .

" 'The key thing is not to make inflammatory statements,' [Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.)] said. 'We don't need to punch our chest and say how great we are and talk about the negative aspects of other societies.' "

The Other Safety Net

Maybe now the issue of Medicaid -- so far a sleeper compared to Social Security, but possibly an even bigger story -- will get some attention.

Ken Fireman writes for Newsday that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) "accused the Bush administration of threatening to 'slash the safety net' that protects the most vulnerable Americans."

The Other Clinton Likes Bush

Sebastian Rotella writes in the Los Angeles Times about Bill Clinton holding court at the World Economic Forum.

" 'I don't agree with the administration's policy on the budget, on the environment and a whole host of other issues and I have articulated them,' Clinton said. But he added: 'I do confess, I like President Bush personally. He's different from me in a lot of ways' -- there was laughter from the audience -- 'I mean psychologically. But we grew up in the same part of the world and I get him.' "

Jeff Gannon Watch

The liberal Media Matters Web site declares war on Jeff Gannon, the softball thrower of the White House briefing room.

Some Opinions About That Press Conference

Blogger Wolcott writes: "Imagine if Bill Clinton had been chirpy and chipper having just received the news of 31 soldiers dying in the theater of combat -- Rush Limbaugh would have devoted three hours to it, and Fox News would have dragged Dick Morris out of the all-you-can-eat buffet for his 'expert analysis.' "

Wlady Pleszczynski writes in the American Spectator: "Important matters of state aside, yesterday's presidential press conference was noteworthy for the easy contempt Mr. Bush displayed for the Washington press corps. I'd hate to be a mule on his ranch! Bush no longer feels the need even to pretend to be courting any of these critters. If looks could maim, there'd not be a single Washington pressy walking steadily these days."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Send me your questions and comments -- as well as questions you think Bush should have been asked at his press conference.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show:

"The president opened his conference with a bold declaration. [He shows clips of Bush saying: 'I don't think foreign policy is an either/or proposition.']

"Really? Not an either/or proposition? 'Cause I feel like there was one time when you kind of . . . [He shows clip of Bush from 9/20/01 saying: 'You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists.'] . . . Maybe what he means is, it's 'either' either/or, or . . . It isn't. Which is 'either' brilliant . . . 'or' retarded. . . .

"But for all the grilling, for all the issues, for all the problems we face at home and abroad, the president ended his comments on a familiar note. [He shows clip of Bush saying: 'When I've talked with people, I feel like people are looking forward to working with us.']

"Right. But that's because these [he shows pictures of Rice, Rumsfeld and Cheney] are the only people you talk to."

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