A Tougher Press Corps?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 10, 2005; 11:47 AM

Press coverage of President Bush's second term is shaping up to be distinctly more questioning than that of the first, as major media outlets are increasingly giving voice to skepticism about White House policies, methods and even motives.

In stark contrast to the coverage of the march to war in Iraq, for instance, many reporters covering the White House are explicitly calling attention to what they now see as a classic Bush tactic: Insisting that a dangerous crisis looms where, arguably, there isn't one.

Perhaps Bush himself said it best in 2002, in one of his classic Bushisms: "There's an old saying . . . that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

Jim VandeHei wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "President Bush had great success in his first term by defining crises that demanded decisive responses. Now, as he begins a second term, Bush is returning to the same tactic to accomplish three longtime conservative goals.

"Warning of the need for urgent action on his Social Security plan, Bush says the 'crisis is now' for a system even the most pessimistic observers say will take in more in taxes than it pays out in benefits well into the next decade.

"He calls the proliferation of medical liability lawsuits a 'crisis in America' that can be fixed only by limiting a patient's right to sue for large damages. And Bush has repeatedly accused Senate Democrats of creating a 'vacancy crisis' on the federal bench by refusing to confirm a small percentage of his judicial nominees.

"This strategy helped Bush win support for the war in Iraq, tax cuts and education policies, as well as reclaim the White House. What is unclear is whether the same approach will work, given the battering to the administration's credibility over its Iraq claims and a new Democratic campaign accusing Bush of crying wolf."

VandeHei even raises the prospect that the tactic could backfire. "Painting a grim picture of problems is as old as politics itself. But Democrats and some presidential scholars say there is a danger for Bush if he appears to stoke fears for political gain."

Edmund L. Andrews picks up the baton in today's New York Times: "In the first phase of a strategy to build support for overhauling Social Security, White House officials are planning to describe the retirement program as a system in 'crisis' whose promises to younger workers are a 'fiction.'

"Beginning Tuesday, when President Bush will hold a public meeting with people worried about their retirement, White House officials plan to hammer home the message that Social Security is 'headed toward an iceberg' and will collapse as baby boomers enter retirement.

" 'We need to establish in the public mind a key fiscal fact: right now we are on an unsustainable course,' wrote Peter Wehner, a White House political strategist, in a memorandum to conservative groups last week. 'The reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness.' "

But how bad is the Social Security problem?

"Outside analysts say Social Security's long-term financial gap, which the government estimates to be $3.7 trillion over 75 years, is smaller than the projected cost of Mr. Bush's tax cuts or the Medicare prescription drug program that he pushed through Congress in 2003," Andrews writes.

And, he notes: "White House officials privately concede that the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's approach to Social Security -- letting people invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts -- would do nothing in itself to eliminate the long-term gap."

Andrews gives advance warning of another unnerving pronouncement in the making: "Mr. Bush's Social Security campaign is also likely to include assertions that the trust fund is 'empty,' because the government has already used the annual surpluses to finance its operating deficits. . . .

"But analysts say it is wrong to imply that the trust fund will not pay benefits, because the government could avoid payment only by defaulting on its Treasury bonds, in effect declaring bankruptcy. The consequences of that would be so catastrophic for the government and world financial markets that few economists consider it plausible."

And Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times column today that it is the national debt that bears the most watching: "The combined cost of the tax cut and prescription drug benefit is about five times larger than the projected gap between Social Security's revenue and its promised benefits over the next 75 years. Yet Washington has decided that the Social Security shortfall is the real crisis. . . .

"All this comes while bills mount for the global war against terrorism. In essence, we've voted ourselves more services and lower taxes and billed both to our children through a higher national debt that is soaring again after shrinking in the late 1990s."

It seems like everyone has been quoting from Wehner's leaked e-mail memo. Bloggers had a blast with it last week, in some cases reprinting the e-mail in its entirety. Wehner, a top aide to Karl Rove, was profiled by Dan Balz last month in The Washington Post.

Trying to Buy Good Press

Nothing breeds skepticism among good journalists more than propaganda, of course.

Christopher Cooper and Brian Steinberg write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration faces a closer look at how it tries to influence public opinion as it readies campaigns to overhaul Social Security and the tax code, following reports that the Education Department paid a conservative columnist to promote its policies."

Eunice Moscoso writes for the Cox News Service: "Government watchdogs, media groups and lawmakers are raising new questions about White House efforts to shape news coverage after revelations Friday that the administration paid syndicated pundit Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act."

Howard Kurtz wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the Williams contract 'is propaganda, it's unethical, it's dangerous and it's illegal' and called it 'worthy of Pravda.'

"Miller, joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats, asked Bush in a letter to put an end to 'covert propaganda.'

"In a separate letter, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked the president to recover the money paid to Williams. 'We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy,' they wrote."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan stopped considerably short of any expression of outrage during Friday's gaggle. Here's the transcript:

"Q USA Today says the Education Department paid a TV commentator, Armstrong Williams, about a quarter million dollars to promote No Child Left. And in a related matter, the GAO found yesterday the drug policy office broke federal law by using taxpayer money for covert, 'propaganda,' with made for TV story packages. Are these practices that you condone?

"MR. McCLELLAN: On the first one, that was a decision by the Department of Education, and a contracting matter. So you ought to direct those questions to the Department of Education. I know the headline said that the White House -- basically implied that it was the White House, and it wasn't. If you read the story -- if you read the story, it pointed that out.

"Q It's your administration, Scott. It's the President's administration. . . . More broadly, do you approve -- does the White House approve this practice?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think that they talked about how they had resolved that issue. I know the HHS was referenced in that story, too, and they had stopped doing it, as well. And we think those were appropriate steps to take.

"Q To stop both practices?

"MR. McCLELLAN: They both indicated that they had. We think it was an appropriate step to take by those offices."

Armstrong himself will answer questions Live Online today at noon.

Out of Sync With the Public?

And here's another growing line of critique: That Bush's priorities are out of sync with those of the American public.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Only one of Bush's top priorities -- securing Social Security -- ranks high among issues that the American public believes Congress should tackle, according to a Gallup Poll. Forty percent call Social Security a top government concern. Only 22 percent call fixing liability laws a top concern. At the same time, a slim majority -- 51 percent -- considers the situation in Iraq a top concern.

" 'If you are looking at the American public, they are not saying that these issues that he has identified are their top priority,' said Frank Newport, Gallup Poll editor in chief. 'We gave people 18 issues. The only one of Bush's issues in the top five was Social Security. Immigration and tort reform are much lower, and even taxes are out of the top five.'

"In addition, Bush's belief in a public mandate for an agenda that he sold on the campaign trail -- the source of capital that he hopes to spend in Congress -- may not square with reality. Just 52 percent of the American public approves of the job that Bush is doing, Gallup has found.

"This is the lowest starting point for any second-term president since Harry Truman, whose job-approval was 40 percent in the summer of 1948."

In fact, the Associated Press reports: "Bush's approval rating is at 49 percent in the AP poll, with 49 percent disapproving. His job approval is in the high 40s in several other recent polls -- as low as any job approval rating for a re-elected president at the start of the second term in more than 50 years."

Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush's lackluster job-approval rating will make it harder to push through his second-term tax and Social Security reforms, and could undermine House conservatives' uphill battle against runaway spending, some lawmakers say."

The Opposition Gets Tougher

One frequently mentioned factor in the algebra of White House coverage during the first term was that the opposition didn't make the anti-Bush case very forcefully.

But Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post about a "hardening of attitudes among Democrats -- from elected officials and strategists to grass-roots activists and party constituencies -- that Bush's domestic agenda presents opportunities to divide the GOP, break apart Bush's winning coalition and recapture some of the voters who supported Bush last fall. . . .

"Bush has opened the year with calls for bipartisanship, telling newly elected members of Congress last week that he hoped to work across party lines to solve the country's problems. Democrats, however, appear to have little interest in building bridges to the White House, saying they do not believe Bush is genuinely interested in cooperation or compromise with the opposition."

Trying to Soften the Corps?

Meanwhile, Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about Nicolle Devenish, the new White House communications director. (She just took over from Dan Bartlett, who last week was promoted to the job of counselor to the president.)

Bumiller writes that Devenish's intentions are "to improve the contentious relationship between a secretive White House and the press.

"Whether that can happen is an open question, since the relationship between any White House and the press corps is contentious. The current 'don't ask us we won't tell you' press policy is in any case set by Mr. Bush, who distrusts the press and still blames it for his father's defeat.

"Ms. Devenish, who was the communications director for Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, begs to differ about his attitude toward the press. 'I don't think the president keeps the press at arm's length, and I think the president has a healthy respect for the press that covers him,' she said. Her view is that it is always better to engage with reporters, even if she sometimes feels like strangling them."

Iraq Watch

David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "Three weeks before the election in Iraq, conversation has started bubbling up in Congress, in the Pentagon and some days even in the White House about when and how American forces might begin to disengage in Iraq. . . .

"By all accounts, President Bush has not joined the conversation about disengagement so far, though a few senior members of his national security team have."

Cheney Watch

Eileen Putnam writes for the Associated Press: "Like the man behind the curtain working the levers in the 'Wizard of Oz,' Dick Cheney has been called the real power in President Bush's administration, perhaps the strongest vice president in U.S. history.

"But as Bush enters his second term, Cheney's role is in flux. His chief task in Bush's first administration -- mentoring a novice president with little foreign policy or legislative experience -- has been accomplished. He remains dogged by heart disease and an FBI probe of a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company he once ran.

"Indeed, some wonder whether Cheney, with no ambition to succeed his boss in the White House, will serve out his second term. And while he has redefined a job that traditionally involved attending ceremonial and campaign events or undertaking thankless policy assignments, there is speculation Cheney's influence is waning."

Well, not so fast. Some seasoned White House watchers don't agree. They see subtle signs of precisely the opposite.

In this video, for instance, David E. Sanger of the New York Times says: "Dick Cheney's role will be very central, and we're going to be looking for what kind of appointments are made, particularly at the deputies level, the people who really meet each day and get things done between departments.

"There's a lot of belief that Vice President Cheney will be putting his people in those positions, where they have the greatest chance to influence policy."

Sanger also expresses the corps's skepticism about the "new spirit of multilateral cooperation that the president talks so often about. We're not sure whether or not it's for real and that's really what the first six months of this new term may be all about."

Middle East Watch

Peter Baker wrote in a news analysis in Sunday's Washington Post: "For President Bush, back-to-back elections in the Middle East starting today represent a milestone that, for better or worse, will help shape the legacy of his presidency. . . .

"In Bush's view, successful elections in two of the world's most volatile places will ignite a chain reaction of reform and public pressure that will shake repressive governments across Arab society. Yet in this region, the term 'battleground states' takes on more ominous meaning, and the cycle of violence and terrorism threatens further destabilization that could, skeptics say, undermine Bush's 'march of democracy.' "

Michael A. Fletcher writes in today's Washington Post: "President Bush applauded the outcome of the first Palestinian presidential election in nine years yesterday, calling the healthy voter turnout and relatively trouble-free voting process 'a key step toward building a democratic future.' "

" 'This is a historic day for the Palestinian people and for the people of the Middle East,' Bush said in a statement.

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "President Bush welcomed the victory of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday as administration officials prepared to increase the tempo of American involvement in the Middle East and cautioned that Israel and the Palestinians needed to take concrete steps to capitalize on Mr. Abbas's election."

The BBC reports: "Tony Blair has predicted that George Bush will re-engage in Middle East peace efforts if the ground is prepared for a viable Palestinian state. . . .

"The work would begin at a London-based peace conference in March, he said."

The New Tax Panel

Jonathan Weisman wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Tax experts said yesterday they expected President Bush's new tax panel to recommend incremental change to the tax code, not a fundamental replacement.

"The president reiterated his intent to push wholesale changes to the tax code that would make it simpler and more conducive to economic growth, but outside experts say that is now unlikely. . . .

"The executive order creating the panel dictated that any recommendations raise as much revenue as the current tax system, reduce the cost and burden of tax compliance, maintain 'appropriate' progressiveness in the tax code, include tax benefits for homeownership and charitable giving, and promote savings, investment and economic growth."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Republicans with ties to the administration were divided about whether Mr. Bush is serious about pushing ahead with changing the tax code, which would almost certainly ignite a prolonged lobbying battle in Congress involving armies of interest groups."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks with the tax panel leaders on Friday. Later in the day he also announced that he is nominating U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick to be deputy secretary of state.

Tort Watch

Peter Baker wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush urged Congress on Friday to find a way to settle tens of billions of dollars in claims by victims of asbestos in hopes of stanching a flood of litigation that he blamed for driving scores of companies out of business. . . .

"Along with tackling the asbestos litigation, Bush wants Congress to impose caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases and limit the ability to bring class-action lawsuits.

"These moves would effectively cut off some of the most lucrative income sources of the nation's trial lawyers, who rank among Bush's most potent political enemies and are a primary fundraising base for the Democratic Party. Democrats and trial lawyers accuse Bush of pursuing litigation restrictions to reward his own deep-pocketed backers in the manufacturing, insurance and health care industries."

Philip Dine writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "President George W. Bush's aggressive push last week to build support for capping medical malpractice awards appears unlikely to make much difference in what looms as an uphill battle for the White House."

Meet Dina Powell

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times about Dina Powell, assistant to the president for presidential personnel.

"As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his second-term team, one of the most powerful -- and purposely least known -- White House figures in the effort is a 31-year-old, Egyptian-born woman who is the administration's chief headhunter and recruiter. . . .

"Powell, the youngest person ever to hold her job, is an immigrant and the highest-ranking Middle Eastern American in the White House."

Here, by the way, is her photo.

Today's Calendar

Bush receives a briefing on assistance to tsunami survivors, then makes remarks to employees of USAID and presidents of non-government aid organizations.

National Guard Watch

CBS News reports on its own decision to oust four employees, including three executives, for their role in preparing and reporting a disputed story about Bush's National Guard service.

Bush's Reading List

The president may not read a lot, but he sometimes gets very enthusiastic when he does, reports John F. Dickerson in Time magazine:

"George Bush's critics think of his reading list as a spindly thing -- the Bible, the box scores and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his favorite choice to read to school kids. So there will be chuckles of disbelief when his detractors hear that one of his latest passions is Natan Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy" and that when it comes to approval from the intelligentsia, the President is more needy than he lets on. . . .

" 'I want you to read a book,' Bush told a TIME reporter, interrupting his own version of Sharansky's thesis. 'It will give you a sense for what I'm talking about.' Bush liked the work so much that he invited Sharansky into the Oval Office in early November for an hourlong discussion of the book and how it applies to the war on terrorism. . . .

"Authors who have talked with Bush about their writing are anxious to point out that he has done his homework. 'He obviously had read it and taken it seriously,' says [Yale historian John Lewis] Gaddis, who writes about American foreign policy after 9/11. 'The image of him as unquestioning just seems totally wrong.' But if Bush is gathering information, it often seems to be sustenance for his pre-existing views."

Clinton-Bush Relations Warming

Newsweek reports: "For two men at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the relationship between the 43rd and 42nd presidents has grown surprisingly warm and personal over the last six months. Clinton endorsed Bush's approach to the tsunami catastrophe, defending him against criticism about his initial response as well as raising cash alongside the president's father. Friends and aides say the two men enjoy each other's company and, as fellow pros, respect each other's political talents."

Karl Rove Watch

U.S. News's Washington Whispers column reports: "Somebody please tell Bush political guru Karl Rove that he's no Jay Leno. Consider this joke told to reporters last week. A glum-faced Rove remarked that his uncle Obie had been killed. Seems Uncle Obie was chopping down trees in Wyoming when he was approached by police, who called out: "Who are you, and what are you doing?' Said the uncle before the fatal shot: 'Obie. Been loggin'.' Read: 'O. bin Laden.' "

Froomkin Watch

Yes, I'm back, after three delightful weeks of vacation in South America -- without my laptop. So I'm trying to catch up. I'll be Live Online Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET -- and we can talk about everything I missed.

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