Maybe He'll Surprise Us

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; 12:48 PM

One big advantage of having such a leak-proof White House is that President Bush maintains the ability to surprise.

So maybe in tonight's State of the Union address he'll resolve some of the mysteries that his own previous statements have spawned.

Perhaps he'll say where the money to pay for creating private Social Security accounts would come from.

Perhaps he'll acknowledge that private accounts won't resolve Social Security's long-term financing problems and explain what, therefore, he has in mind to resolve that financing problem.

Maybe he'll explain how Social Security's safety net can be maintained even as it transforms into something more like a big 401(k) plan.

And on the foreign front, maybe he'll give some concrete examples of how his inauguration speech will manifest itself in foreign policy from this point forward.

All that, indeed, would be a surprise. But it's not an absurd expectation: If Bush wants to get the nation behind his plans, shouldn't he be happy to explain precisely what they are?

More likely, however, is that Bush will attempt to reframe the debate on Social Security and liberty -- among other issues -- in a more successful way than he has framed them thus far.

Background Briefing

Over in the Old Executive Office Building yesterday, a senior White House official held court before an auditorium full of reporters, all of whom promised not to quote him by name. In return, they got a few tantalizing predictions and a lot of dexterous dodging.

The official vaguely promised there would be more details on Bush's Social Security plan tonight. But more definitively, the official said, "[T]here will be no doubt, I believe, in people's minds, by the end of this speech, that President Bush is willing to offer the political leadership necessary to get this issue done."

Yesterday's 45-minute "background briefing" is, in fact, worthy of careful study and much parsing. I hereby exclusively Web-publish the full transcript.

The official had some "process stuff" for his audience: "The first half of the speech will be domestic, second half foreign. The length is under -- right now, under current sessions, under 40 minutes without applause, which, if I recall, is pretty similar to last year. . . .

"The speech was written by a familiar team, with one great addition. Michael Gerson, obviously, is still very much involved in speech writing and has in this effort. He was joined this time, obviously, by Bill McGurn, the new presidential speech writer who is learning this process. He's kind of getting thrown right into the deep end, obviously, with the Inaugural and the State of the Union, but it gives him an opportunity to see how the system works firsthand. And John McConnell, who has been at the President's side and Mike Gerson's side for many years now, is obviously, and other members of the speech writing team contributed to this effort."

But in spite of the grant of anonymity, the official wasn't feeling particularly obliged to spill any beans.

Seriously, go read the transcript, and see the senior administration official dance around questions like:

• "On Social Security, is the President going to directly acknowledge the need for benefit cuts in order to achieve permanent solvency? What is his message going to be to members of Congress and the nation about the painful reality of dealing with this?"

• "Will he say how he proposes to replace the money that otherwise would go into Treasury in order to pay for the private accounts?"

• "Does the President think that if there is a slowing down of the now scheduled growth in benefits, that that is a benefit cut? Or is the President's view that that somehow is not a benefit cut, even though some people feel it is that way?"

• "Even Republicans who support private accounts can see that they will do nothing to shore up Social Security in the long-term. Does the President plan to provide some more details about that part of it?"

• "Are we going to hear much at all, if anything, about tax reform or maybe we're going to hear so little as to clearly indicate it's not a priority for this year?"

• "How upbeat can the President be? As you said, we're in a time of war and we have other issues that we're dealing with, like Social Security and things of that nature."

• "Will the President talk about marriage between a man and a woman? Will he talk about abortion? Will he talk about other issues of concern to conservatives?"

Will Bush essentially address these questions tonight, too? I humbly suggest that what he doesn't say will be at least as important as what he does say.

Bartlett in the Morning

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press about White House counselor Dan Bartlett's tour through the morning news shows today.

Bartlett "said Wednesday on CBS's 'The Early Show' that the president will be specific about 'how personal retirement accounts will operate' and 'why it's important to solve the problem' of Social Security," Riechmann writes.

" 'There's a way we can do it that also makes the system stronger for future generations,' Bartlett said on NBC's 'Today' show. 'But what President Bush will say tonight is now it's time to act.' "

The Coverage

Here are the big overviews from Michael A. Fletcher of The Washington Post; Richard Benedetto of USA Today; Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune; and Norah O'Donnell of NBC News.

William Douglas and James Kuhnhenn write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush will stride into the House of Representatives brimming with confidence and enhanced political strength stemming from his solid re-election victory in November and Sunday's stunning display of democracy in action in Iraq, which he takes as validation of his oft-maligned strategy there. . . .

"Bush likes to say that, by his re-election, voters gave him political capital. Wednesday night he'll outline how he wants to spend it."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "As he delivers his fifth State of the Union address tonight, three days after Iraqis turned out by the millions to vote in an election many predicted would be a disaster, Bush will exude the confidence and appetite for big ideas that have turned him from a stilted speaker to one who even Democrats grudgingly concede is effective."

James Harding, Holly Yeager and Christopher Swann write in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush will seek to use tonight's State of the Union address to restore the fiscal credibility of his administration, calling on Congress to support a tough budget which reins in domestic spending."

The Big Domestic Issue: Social Security

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush will not endorse any detailed approach to how benefits should be cut to bring the retirement system's finances into line and meet the president's goal of making Social Security permanently solvent, administration officials and Republicans who have been consulted by the White House said. . . .

"Instead of dwelling on the need for cuts in benefits, officials said, Mr. Bush will frame the situation as an opportunity. They said he would emphasize that the current system promises ever-increasing benefits to future generations, but cannot meet that commitment, and that the nation has a chance to minimize the scale of the required reductions and perhaps make people better off through the addition of personal accounts - if it acts now rather than waiting."

Charles Babington and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Senate Democrats said yesterday that they have more than enough votes to block President Bush's bid to allow private accounts in Social Security, increasing pressure on the president to begin outlining a plan tonight that might offer enough compromises or incentives to win over at least a handful of Democrats."

Ken Fireman writes for Newsday: "The question of whether Social Security truly faces a crisis is central to the emerging political fight over its future. As a predicate for selling private accounts -- and the resulting trade-offs in reduced guaranteed benefits and higher government debt -- to a skeptical public and Congress, Bush must convince them that the system's fiscal problems are so severe that only a major overhaul will suffice.

"As a consequence, the president can be expected to spend considerable time and effort tonight making that case."

Fireman notes: "Bush's critics ridicule such rhetoric as factually wrong -- and politically motivated."

Viewer's Guides

Ken Herman offers up a "viewer's guide to the State of the Union" for the Cox News Service. Among his bits of advice:

• "Get out the stopwatch during the State of the Union address tonight and clock it issue-by-issue. Assume the longer President Bush talks about a topic, the more important it is to him. . . .

• "In addition to keeping an ear on what Bush does say tonight, keep an ear out for what he doesn't say or for what gets relatively little prime-time attention.

• "See how often and how emphatically he talks about hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion."

On that last point, Joanna Chung writes in the Financial Times: "The State of the Union address will indicate how seriously President George W. Bush plans to pursue initiatives important to the 'moral values' voters who take credit for helping re-elect him president."

Mark Halperin, Lisa Todorovich and Marc Ambinder have a few viewing tips of their own write in ABC News's The Note:

• "Watch how often the pool director chooses Sen. Clinton as the reaction cut-away."

• "Look for the grudging Charlie Rangel-style forced clapping by some. (That is when the hands say 'clap' but the eyes say 'shrug.')"

What Won't Make the Cut

From that background briefing:

"Q Will the President be talking about atrocities such as Darfur, or genocide or anti-Semitism? Will he mention those?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, those are obviously very important issues to this President and to this administration. And if there was an opportunity to talk about everything, he would. But I don't believe in this speech that he'll be talking about Darfur."


"Q In his inaugural address, the President had messages for unnamed reformers, unnamed tyrants. Condi Rice, however, mentioned specific outposts of tyranny and named names. Any chance -- you said the President is going to be specific about the highly significant ones. Can you give us anything more than that? I mean, is he going to name the outposts of tyranny? Can we expect that phrase? Is he going to point to any specific countries?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would not expect that phrase."

My Advice: Watch the First Lady

First lady Laura Bush was on the morning shows yesterday -- NBC, ABC and CBS.

She announced that she will be joined in the first lady's box tonight by a voter from Afghanistan and another from Iraq.

Will the Iraqi's finger still be stained with purple ink? Will the voter raise said finger for the cameras? That could provide the biggest drama of the night.

The visitors in the first lady's box, by the way, are sometimes called Skutniks. For an explanation of the genesis of the term, read this 2004 Washington Post story by David Montgomery and Linton Weeks.

How the Sausage Is Made

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "What emerges from Bush's lips as smooth rhetoric and well-rehearsed cadence is in part the result of a fiercely competitive lobbying contest among the president's closest advisers, interest groups and sometimes even ordinary citizens who have pressed for a spot on the nation's most influential to-do list. . . .

"Those jockeying for a mention this year include conservative social activists concerned about gay marriage and health-industry groups eager for mention of an information-technology initiative Bush touched on last year.

"Health-care industry leaders have been button-holing 'anybody and everybody' they can find in the administration to ensure a prominent mention, said Bill Head, vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Alliance for Health Information Technology."

Matthew Scully, who was Bush's deputy director of speechwriting until last August, has an op-ed in today's New York Times full of insider lore:

"Mike Gerson and another senior writer, John McConnell, have together given us some of the most memorable words of the Bush presidency, including their recent collaboration on the second inaugural address. The setting from which these lofty words issued, however, is not quite as one might imagine. The work was done mostly in narrow quarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. With heaps of coffee-stained papers strewn about, a few days' worth of crumbs and other food scraps accumulating, and an unobstructed view of the White House trash bins, the place brought to mind, as John McConnell remarked, 'the back room of a cheap restaurant.' "

Striving for GOP Dominance

Peter Wallsten and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's agenda for the next four years, much of which he will highlight in his State of the Union address tonight, includes many proposals that would not only change public policy but, the GOP hopes, achieve an ambitious political goal: Stripping money and voters from the Democratic Party and cementing Republican dominance for years after he leaves office. . . .

"On issue after issue, the White House is staking out positions that achieve a policy goal while expanding the GOP's appeal to new voters or undermining the Democrats' ability to compete. Interviews with Bush advisors, a recent memo drafted by a senior White House strategist and a speech last month by the Republican Party's new chairman show that the political advantages are very much part of the calculation."

Ownership Society: Two Primers

Hooray. It's about time we started trying to figure out what an "ownership society" really is.

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Franklin Roosevelt had his New Deal, John F. Kennedy his New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson his Great Society. Now comes President Bush, using his State of the Union address Wednesday to outline his vision of an 'ownership society.'

"What's that? Where did it come from?

"The central idea, uniting Bush's proposals from health care to retirement security, is that Americans will have better lives and be better citizens if they have more control over their financial futures. He'd help them do that by providing new incentives for savings and investment. That would help them shift toward self-reliance rather than dependence on federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. . . .

"Yet the president's proposals wouldn't necessarily benefit everyone. To restrain costs, he may be forced to couple his pitch for new Social Security investment accounts, for example, with cuts in now-promised pension benefits. Some projections show that combination could leave many people with less money than they'd receive under the current system."

Nancy Benac of the Associated Press also sees a historical context for Bush's slogan, but she groups it with the ones that had a bit less enduring stature.

"Richard Nixon promised a 'new American revolution.' Ronald Reagan pushed his 'new federalism.' Bill Clinton invoked a 'new covenant.' Now, George Bush is offering Americans a new, expanded 'ownership society.' . . .

"Bush has tried to turn the notion of an 'ownership society' into the unifying theme for a host of proposals that would give individual Americans more control -- and risk -- in programs such as Social Security and health care savings accounts. . . .

"Bush's detractors say the president is taking the noble idea of an 'ownership society' and using it to sugarcoat a scheme that would unwisely saddle ordinary Americans with even greater risks and costs for Social Security, health care, retirement benefits and other programs."

Jeff Gannon Watch

Charlie Savage and Alan Wirzbicki write in the Boston Globe about what the blogosphere has taken to calling "Gannongate."

"The Bush administration has provided White House media credentials to a man who has virtually no journalistic background, asks softball questions to the president and his spokesman in the midst of contentious news conferences, and routinely reprints long passages verbatim from official press releases as original news articles on his website.

"Jeff Gannon calls himself the White House correspondent for, a website that says it is 'committed to delivering accurate, unbiased news coverage to our readers.' It is operated by a Texas-based Republican Party delegate and political activist who also runs, a website that touts itself as 'bringing the conservative message to America.'"

The Globe spoke with press secretary Scott McClellan -- who often calls on Gannon at his briefing.

"McClellan said Gannon has not been issued -- nor requested -- a regular 'hard pass' to the White House, and instead has come in for the past two years on daily passes. Daily passes, he said, may be issued to anyone who writes for an organization that publishes regularly and who is cleared to enter the building. . . .

"McClellan said it is not the White House's role to decide who is and who is not a real journalist and dismissed any notion of conspiracy."

I've written about Gannon quite a bit since this column started.

Valerie Plame Watch

In today's Washington Post Style section, Peter Slevin profiles Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney serving as special prosecutor in the investigation of the leaking of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak.

There's no news in it about the Plame case, though.

Slevin writes: "He sees his task as getting to the bottom of things in ways as creative as the law allows. The law doesn't say you can't question a sitting president about his contacts or an investigative reporter about confidential sources. So Fitzgerald has done both, including quizzing Bush for more than an hour in the White House last June. His assiduous demands for answers from journalists alarms critics who believe he has created the greatest confrontation between the government and the press in a generation. . . .

" 'Do I have zeal? Yes. I don't pretend I don't,' Fitzgerald says. 'As a prosecutor, you have two roles: Show judgment as to what to go after and how to go after it. But also, once you do that, to be zealous. And if you're not zealous, you shouldn't have the job. Now sometimes "zealous" becomes a code word for overzealous and I don't want to be overzealous. I hope I'm not.' "

Gonzales Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Democrats angrily denounced White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday as an advocate of prisoner torture but said they would not block his confirmation as attorney general."

Milbank writes that "it appeared yesterday Gonzales was in danger of receiving even more than the 42 'no' votes John D. Ashcroft got in 2001, the most opposition ever to a nominee to head the Justice Department.

" 'Mr. Gonzales is at the center of a torture policy that has run roughshod over the values that Americans hold so dear,' Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said on the floor."

Chertoff Watch

Michael Powell writes in The Washington Post: "Michael Chertoff, who has been nominated to run the Department of Homeland Security, gave the Senate conflicting answers last spring when asked whether a government ethics office had warned against interrogating John Walker Lindh -- an American captured while fighting for the Taliban -- without a defense attorney present."

And here's an interesting White House mini-saga.

On Sunday, David Johnston, Neil A. Lewis and Douglas Jehl wrote in the New York Times that Chertoff "advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the legality of coercive interrogation methods on terror suspects under the federal anti-torture statute, current and former administration officials said this week."

But the story also quoted Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, saying: "Judge Chertoff did not approve interrogation techniques as head of the criminal division. . . . We're not aware that anyone in the criminal division was involved in approving techniques because that responsibility would have belonged in the Office of Legal Counsel."

Yesterday, at his daily briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan touched on this issue. Here's what he said, from the transcript:

"Well, the Office of Legal Counsel in the intelligence community simply asked him his opinion, as a prosecutor, of how he would approach the statute relating to these issues, the anti-torture statute. And so that's what they were asking him. And he made it very clear that those who are conducting interrogations need to know very clearly where the line is, and they need to not get close to that line, because as a prosecutor -- if you get close to that line, that could lead to action by the prosecutor."

Here's how Eric Lipton and David Johnston interpreted that in the New York Times: "The White House spokesman said on Tuesday that Michael Chertoff, the nominee for homeland security secretary, had advised intelligence agencies on how far interrogators could go in questioning terror suspects without violating the federal anti-torture statute."

But Mimi Hall, writing in USA Today, saw it otherwise. She wrote: "The White House denied on Tuesday a report that Michael Chertoff, its pick to be Homeland Security secretary, once advised the CIA on how far interrogators could go in questioning terrorism suspects without violating federal anti-torture statutes."

They report, I link, you decide.

Sharansky Watch

Did you know that Bush has embraced a book by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident? OK, maybe a few people have written about that already.

Steven Erlanger of the New York Times is the latest to weigh in with a story about the media darling of the moment.

I'm not complaining. Heck, the Times hadn't written about Sharansky for two whole days.

The White House Kibosh

Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column about how the White House put the kibosh on George Franklin, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez's pick to be his senior adviser.

"Seems the White House, presumably counselor Karl Rove, had heard from Michigan Republicans who opposed Franklin."

Twins Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House aide Henry Hager may be flying high, considering he's dating the president's daughter, but maybe he shouldn't get too comfortable with Jenna Bush on his arm. Yesterday on ABC's 'Good Morning America,' Charlie Gibson broached the topic of the twins' dating with Laura Bush, noting: 'I've read in the social pages that one of your daughters has a new boyfriend.'

"The first lady, referring to the 26-year-old Hager, who has been seen regularly in Jenna's company, said: 'This is not a serious boyfriend -- I hate to have to be the one to say it on television. But he's a very nice young man.' "

Castro's View

Vanessa Arrington writes for the Associated Press: "Fidel Castro said Tuesday that U.S. President George W. Bush appears deranged, and that Cubans would much rather live in the Caribbean island's 'heaven' than try and survive in what he said was Bush's corrupt, capitalist 'hell.' "

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