Bush Agenda? Stay Tuned

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 22, 2004; 11:11 AM

President Bush last night had an announcement to make to the 7,000 or so Republicans at the Washington Convention Center who had paid at least $2,500 apiece to hear him: "In the weeks ahead, I will lay out an agenda worthy of this advancing and confident country."

Details were still entirely lacking last night, but a more forward-looking message was welcome news to the critics in his own party who have been worrying that Bush's intense focus on the war on terror and attacking his opponents has left the public relatively cold.

First, of course, Bush has to weather today's release of the report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He's making several public appearances today, stressing his role as defender of the homeland -- and backed by a legion of aides in full spin mode.

Then political etiquette requires him to lay low during the Democratic National Convention.

Unveiling the Fall Themes

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush turned abruptly last night from the martial rhetoric that had marked the first year of his reelection campaign and unveiled fall themes emphasizing his quest for peace abroad and his plans to make the nation more prosperous through what he called 'a new era of ownership.'

"Bush said his goals include improving accountability in high school education and making health care more available and affordable. Responding to the economic hardships that have hurt his approval ratings, Bush said he wants to make the nation 'even more job-friendly' through such longtime conservative goals as restraining regulations, taxes and lawsuits."

There were no policy specifics.

Allen writes: "One senior administration official said that much of the agenda will consist of repackaged 'smaller items played up as big-ticket.' Bush is constrained in what he can propose by a budget deficit that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated at about $450 billion for this year and expects will continue for the next decade."

Allen notes that the new agenda is heavier on business goals than the "compassionate conservatism" Bush espoused in his previous campaign. And, he writes, "Showing that he is not ending his attacks, Bush laced the 35-minute speech with barbs at Kerry and Edwards."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "When it came to laying out details of his agenda, Mr. Bush was vague in part because his advisers want to roll out his ideas between now and the Republican convention to blunt any advantage that Mr. Kerry might get from the Democratic convention next week.

"But the sketchiness of the plans he mentioned also reflected what some Republicans said was the budgetary constraint imposed by the large deficit as well as difficulty within the White House in reaching consensus on how ambitious to be in proposing second-term initiatives."

Anne Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe that Bush's remarks did not spell out "which programs would be his top priority, or how he would implement them. . . .

"In campaigning this spring and summer, Bush has not trumpeted ambitious new goals or even revived many old ones, such as catching terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or sending astronauts to land on Mars."

Richard Benedetto conveniently boils the president's speech down to bullet points in USA Today.

Here's the text of the speech.

Spin War

Thomas H. Kean, Republican chairman, and Lee H. Hamilton, Democratic vice chairman, formally handed a copy of the 9/11 commission's report to the president in a Rose Garden ceremony this morning.

Said Bush: "They've done a really good job of learning about our country, learning about what went wrong prior to September the 11th and making very solid, sound recommendations about how to move forward. I assured them that where government needs to act, we will."

Here's the text of his remarks.

Dan Eggen and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The nearly 600-page report is a broad indictment of the government's efforts to combat al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks."

Carl Hulse and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times that the report includes a call "for an office within the White House with an estimated 200 employees to coordinate the work of the 15 intelligence agencies" led by a national intelligence director who would "operate in the executive office of the president" and "have cabinet-level authority, but not to be in the cabinet itself."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "one might expect the capital to be abuzz with the big questions: Would a national intelligence czar fix a broken system? Have enough holes in airport security been closed, and does American intelligence finally have a fix on how Al Qaeda works?

"But this report comes out 103 days before a hotly contested election, and four days before the opening of the Democratic convention. So the question everyone here is asking - usually in an effort to inoculate themselves from the report's findings - boils down to this: Which administration looks like it was worse at connecting the dots, President Bush's or Bill Clinton's?"

Some scenes from the spin battle:

Sanger notes: "On Wednesday, one official, no friend of the Bush camp, quoted from a chapter that gives an account of the now-famous briefing the C.I.A. gave to Mr. Bush at his ranch on Aug. 6 -- 36 days before the attack. The report quotes Mr. Bush as saying he 'found it heartening' that the F.B.I. was following so many leads about Qaeda operations in the United States, before the president returned to the task of extracting bass from his pond."

Meanwhile, "on Wednesday night, administration officials were still poring over a copy of the report, noting its assertion that Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism head under President Clinton and President Bush, was believed by many in the C.I.A. to have blocked what they thought could be a successful attack against Mr. bin Laden in 1999, at a hunting camp."

In a photo op with the Romanian prime minister yesterday, Bush said: "Had we had any inkling, whatsoever, that terrorists were about to attack our country, we would have moved heaven and Earth to protect America. And I'm confident President Clinton would have done the same thing. Any president would have." Here's the text of those remarks.

Bill Plante reports on CBS's Early Show that "the White House was ready with a response even before the report was released -- a sort of pre-buttal. The spin from administration officials familiar with the report excuses both presidents Bush and Clinton."

Today's Calendar

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal: "By the time the 9/11 commission releases its final report today, President Bush will be well into a day of White House events designed to bolster his image as a defender of the homeland."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press that Bush "will outline a strategy to protect the country and details what he regards as the accomplishments in making America safer. . . .

"Before he leaves the White House for the Midwest, the president is signing the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, an election-year measure long sought by police officers. It gives off-duty and retired officers the ability to carry their concealed firearms nationwide."

Bush flies to Illinois this afternoon to make his speech on homeland security. His backdrop will be an audience of first responders and local leaders at the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy in Glenview. He will also take part in a training demonstration there before the speech.

Hitt writes: "The theatrics underscore the lengths to which the White House will go to protect what have been Mr. Bush's biggest political assets: his launching of the war on terrorism and his image of resoluteness. But the need to go to such lengths also suggests that the Bush team worries that the president's edge on national-security issues may be eroding."

After his speech, Bush will headline a fundraising dinner in Winnetka. Lynne Stiefel of the Northbrook (Ill.) Star reports his host will be Patrick G. Ryan, chairman and chief executive officer of Aon Corporation.

The Berger Story and the White House

Eric Lichtblau and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "The White House said Wednesday that senior officials in its counsel's office were told by the Justice Department months ago that a criminal investigation was under way to determine if Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, removed classified documents about Al Qaeda from the National Archives."

The Kerry campaign "accused the White House of deliberately leaking news of the investigation and said that Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in strategies to divert attention from the Sept. 11 report to be issued Thursday."

Press secretary Scott McClellan, asked about the source of the Berger story, had this to say: "I know of no one in the White House that is aware of how this story came about." Here's the text of his press briefing.

Bush himself called it "a very serious matter" in his photo-op yesterday.

Juan Williams of NPR spoke with Karl Rove and asked about the suggestion that the leak was engineered by Republicans to distract attention from the 9/11 report.

"I say that's ridiculous," Rove said. "This is a serious, criminal investigation, some serious questions have been raised. If true, this would be a troubling way of handling secure government documents."

(Williams also asked if the war on Iraq an asset or liability to the Bush campaign. "It is what it is," Rove said. And Rove said the campaign is "delighted to be neck and neck" with Kerry given all the bad news over the past several months and the pounding from opponents.)

Meanwhile in blogland, National Review's The Corner and Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit, among other conservative sites, are gleefully examining such issues as how many pieces of paper one can stuff in one's socks.

Howard Kurtz's Media Notes column for washingtonpost.com has much more on Berger.

A Familiar Plane

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about new details released yesterday about the "bin Laden flight," in which at least 13 relatives of Osama bin Laden were allowed to leave the United States on a chartered flight eight days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Among other things, it turns out the plane, a 727 owned by DB Air and operated by Ryan International "has been chartered frequently by the White House for the press corps traveling with President Bush."

Halliburton Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. writes in The Washington Post that testimony from former Halliburton employees "will be the focus of a hearing today by the House Committee on Government Reform, as it examines allegations of waste, abuse and profiteering related to the Army's contracts in Iraq with Halliburton, the oil services company that Dick Cheney ran from 1995 to 2000. . . .

"The hearing is shaping up as a political sparring match over Halliburton because of the Cheney connection. The minority Democrats, led by Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), pressured Republican leaders to allow whistle-blowers to testify, in part to promote the company as an election year issue.

"Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said 'the so-called whistle-blowers' simply misunderstood the logistical reality of life during wartime. He said he was giving the Democrats a chance 'to put up or shut up' on an issue that won't go away."

In an op-ed in The Washington Post today, Davis writes: "I understand why my committee's ranking Democrat and others feel the need to say 'Halliburton' as often as humanly possible."

Tax Cut Brinksmanship

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday scuttled a Republican agreement to extend three expiring middle-class tax cuts for two years, deciding instead to push for a more costly five-year extension when Congress returns in September. . . .

"Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. put in a round of angry phone calls Tuesday night, several Senate aides said. Then White House counselor Karl Rove and Bush himself called GOP tax writers yesterday urging them to kill the deal."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said the administration was still trying to negotiate. But Republican Congressional officials said the administration did not want a deal that Democratic lawmakers might support, giving them a tax-cutting credential, too."

Big Concession

Jim Abrams writes for the Associated Press: "Congressional negotiators are trying again to move a massive, jobs-creating highway bill, energized by White House concessions that eased a veto threat and opened the way for more generous spending. . . .

"For months the White House has insisted that the president would issue the first veto of his presidency on any highway bill that went much beyond $256 billion."

But Abrams reports that Bush, in an Oval Office conversation with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), indicated he would now find $284 billion acceptable.

Let's do some math. That's a $32 billion concession. Or about $109 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Pretty big concession.

Poll Watch

A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds Bush and Kerry in a statistical tie. But "President Bush's overall job rating still hovers below the 50% mark, and his ratings on individual issues -- with the exception of terrorism -- remain lackluster at best."

Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) holds a strong lead over President Bush among the nation's Hispanic voters, with a majority rejecting the president's handling of the economy and the war in Iraq, according to a survey by The Washington Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute."

Only 36 percent of Hispanic voters approve of the job Bush is doing, compared to 54 percent who disapprove. Among the overall population, 48 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove.

Here is the poll data.

Caption Contest Redux

No, I'm not launching another caption contest.

If you missed the winners of the last one, I published them in Tuesday's column. They were captions for this photo. One of the winning entries pointed out the eerie similarity with this Stuart Carlson cartoon.

Now along comes this Reuters photo from yesterday.

Spooky, isn't it?

Michael Moore Watch

Mike Glover writes for the Associated Press that Republicans are getting nervous as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" settles into the American mainstream.

"Two senior Republicans closely tied to the White House said the movie from director Michael Moore is seen as a political headache because it has reached beyond the Democratic base. Independents and GOP-leaning voters are likely to be found sitting beside those set to revel in its depiction of a clueless president with questionable ties to the oil industry."

Meanwhile, Arthur Spiegelman writes for Reuters: "Singer Linda Ronstadt's eviction from a hotel in Las Vegas, America's 'sin city', for praising filmmaker Michael Moore during a stage show has mushroomed into the latest celebrity free speech controversy to dog the highly-charged 2004 presidential campaign."

© 2004 washingtonpost.com