Dissenters Not Invited

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; 11:36 AM

Get ready for some White House razzle-dazzle tomorrow as a carefully selected group of economic leaders and administration supporters attend a two-day event intended to pass for a consensus-building national celebration of President Bush's economic agenda.

Here's a work-safe drinking game: Take a belt every time someone goes off message.

Sure, there'll be an undercurrent of concern -- it's hard for actual business leaders who know the importance of balancing their books not to be deeply worried about soaring federal deficits. But this "White House Conference on the Economy" at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington is going to be more party than summit.

Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen wrote in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "The White House will try to shift the focus of its economic agenda from the messengers to the message next week with a two-day conference featuring hand-picked panels of business supporters and contributors. . . .

"The list of participants, released by the White House late Friday, consists of 35 corporate executives, business economists, academic experts and policy advocates, some of whom have close ties to the Bush administration. . . .

"Independent analysts said it appeared the conference was designed to provide a highly visible forum for the administration to make the case for its existing initiatives, rather than an attempt to develop new policy proposals for a second term."

Here (exclusively on the Web) is the full schedule of events and list of participants.

Barrie McKenna writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Eager for Wall Street's blessing, President George W. Bush has summoned a knot of blue-chip business leaders and economists to Washington this week to help unveil Act II of his economic agenda.

"But on the eve of the invitation-only affair, business leaders are already grumbling that Mr. Bush may be glossing over what really ails the U.S. economy -- most notably, government's deteriorating finances."

McKenna notes that Bush has "shown no hint he's prepared to tackle the deficit, which hit a record $413-billion (U.S.) this year."

And yet, he writes: "Many analysts suggested the two-day meeting, which begins tomorrow, will focus on style over substance."

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks writes: "The first thing you need to know is that the subject of the summit is not the subject of the summit. That's because the subject of all executive branch dramaturgy is the president himself. No matter who is talking, all cameras will be fixed on him.

"As the first pseudo-event of the second term, this gabfest is meant to give President Bush a chance to show his more deliberative, bipartisan and intellectual side. . . .

"Second, it's important to understand that this week's summit (unofficial title: Why President Bush Is Right About Everything) may not feature the widest possible range of views. This is true of all presidential policy summits. That's in part because the staff members who organize these things are rightfully terrified that something newsworthy might happen, and have taken precautions."

Press secretary Scott McClellan didn't even try to spin terribly hard at Friday's press briefing.

"The President has outlined six very clear proposals for strengthening our economy even more," McClellan said. "And he wants to talk about those. And he wants to talk about how we keep our economy growing. And this is an opportunity for him to sit down with people from across the business sector and other people to talk about ways that we can continue to strengthen our economy. It's a top priority for the President. . . .

"Q Can I ask one other thing about it. Is there any chance that there's going to be anybody speaking at these conferences who, for example, doesn't think private Social Security accounts are a good idea or doesn't think making the tax cuts permanent is a good idea?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're going to see the list of people that are participating in this, and I think it will resemble -- or that there will be a wide range of people from the business community participating in this."

Then McClellan explained what he meant by "wide range": "I think that generally speaking, there are going to be people there who are supportive of ways we can continue to move forward on these policies together to keep the economy growing stronger."

The Social Security Argument

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times that lacking details, Bush's Social Security plan sounds an awful lot like a free lunch.

"Mr. Bush, who is likely to step up his call for private accounts when he acts as host of a two-day conference on the economy this week, has steadfastly avoided any reference to cutting future benefits. Instead, he has repeated a two-part message, that Social Security faces a financial crisis, and that people should be allowed to put some of their payroll taxes into private accounts and earn higher returns by investing in stocks. . . .

"But nearly every leading Republican proposal on Capitol Hill acknowledges that private accounts by themselves do little to solve the system's projected shortfall of at least $3.5 trillion. Instead, those proposals rely on deep cuts in benefits to future retirees."

Andrews notes that to support their position, "White House officials scheduled a single mother from Iowa, Sandy Jaques, to speak on the advantages that private accounts could offer to divorced spouses and widows."

Here's someone who you probably won't be hearing at the conference: the comptroller general. Susan Cornwell reports for Reuters: "The creation of personal investment accounts advocated by President Bush would not be a cure-all for the problems facing Social Security, which needs other reforms as well, the U.S. comptroller general said on Monday.

"Fixing Social Security 'should have happened already' since it was a relatively small part of the country's long-term fiscal problem, David Walker told a meeting of accountants."

About that Agenda

Mark Silva wrote in Monday's Chicago Tribune that Bush may have a hard time achieving his domestic agenda.

"[T]he president's concept of reform, in some cases, means little more than 'sabotage' to his opponents. Democrats say his changes would help the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else. What few dispute is that Bush is seeking ambitious overhauls in long-established systems.

"It's not only entrenched Democratic opposition that Bush faces. If the hard-fought rearrangement of the nation's intelligence community is any measure, the president faces a challenge in a Congress solidly controlled by his party -- especially because many Republicans are deeply concerned about the ballooning budget deficit."

Andrew Balls, James Harding and Christopher Swann wrote in Monday's Financial Times: "US business has little appetite for fundamental tax reform, seeing deficit reduction and government entitlement programmes as priorities for President George W Bush's second-term agenda."

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum wrote in Monday's Washington Post about the annual legislative roundup from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's R. Bruce Josten. "The continuing flow of red ink," Josten said, "has the potential to interfere with any plans to overhaul Social Security or the tax code."

Cabinet Watch

Peter Baker and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post: "President Bush tapped Mike Leavitt, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be his next secretary of health and human services yesterday as the White House sought to put its Cabinet selection process back on track after the collapse of its Department of Homeland Security nomination.

"The surprise selection of Leavitt put another fellow former Republican governor and Bush loyalist into the president's top tier for the second term, supervising an agency that handles some of the most politically sensitive domestic issues. . . .

"The White House defended its vetting process, which failed to uncover the fact that Kerik, a former New York police commissioner, had employed an illegal Mexican immigrant as a nanny without paying employment taxes. White House officials said they knew in advance about other disclosures now emerging about Kerik's background, including alleged extramarital affairs and reported ties to a construction company with supposed mob connections, but had concluded that they were not disqualifying."

Judy Keen and Traci Watson write in USA Today: "During Leavitt's tenure at EPA, there were no public disagreements with the White House and no controversial new policies to anger industry groups. . . .

"Leavitt is known for his loyalty to the White House and for finding industry-friendly solutions favored by the administration. He also is known for his political skills, including his deft handling of tough questions during his EPA confirmation hearing."

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Elizabeth Shogren write in the Los Angeles Times: "The morning announcement at the White House underscored Bush's determination to move beyond the withdrawal Friday of Department of Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerik amid disclosures that a nanny he had hired may have been an illegal immigrant and that he had not paid all her Social Security taxes."

Wait -- are they suggesting the White House rushed the Leavitt announcement? Well, let's see. McClellan yesterday avowed that the Kerik nomination had been in the works for several weeks. So how long has the Leavitt nomination been planned?

Seth Borenstein reports for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush called Leavitt on Sunday evening and surprised him with his request, Leavitt told EPA employees Monday."

Here's the transcript of comments by Bush and Leavitt.

As for the Kerik controversy, Ken Fireman writes in Newsday: "Despite a raft of new disclosures about the financial and personal background of former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, the White House yesterday defended its procedures for checking potential high-level appointees like him."

Eric Lipton and William K. Rashbaum write in the New York Times: "The White House said yesterday that its check into Mr. Kerik's past had actually been more extensive than officials had indicated earlier."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing.

In other coming-and-going news, Roll Call reports that David Hobbs, the chief White House lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said he plans to leave to spend more time with his infant son.

Watchdog Wakes?

Helen Dewar writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Democrats announced plans yesterday for wide-ranging hearings to examine Bush administration policies and conduct, saying the Republicans who control both houses of Congress have abdicated responsibility for oversight of the GOP administration."

The senators "listed possible targets for the hearings, including contract abuses in Iraq, the administration's use of prewar intelligence, misleading cost estimates for the Medicare drug benefit, the cost of the administration's plan for private Social Security accounts, the implementation of the No Child Left Behind education bill and administration policies on global warming."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The announcement, which came on a sleepy afternoon in an otherwise deserted Capitol, amounted to a throwing down of the gauntlet by Democrats, who are struggling to find a voice in Washington with Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress."

International Resentment

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "International resentment of the Bush administration has spilled over to include bad feelings for the American people, too -- at least in three European countries that opposed U.S. policies in Iraq."

Please Ignore Me

Traditionally, when the president of the United States blatantly skips a country during an international visit, it's considered a snub. But by not going to England on his February tour of Europe, Bush is doing British Prime Minister Tony Blair a favor

Patrick Wintour writes in the Guardian: "President George Bush is to steer clear of Britain in a new year re-election tour of Europe, partly to give Tony Blair space to rebuild his damaged foreign policy around the Middle East peace process, climate change and aid to Africa. . . .

"Mr Blair has predicted privately that the second Bush administration will prove to be different from the unilateralist first term. But an early visit by Mr Bush to Britain would remind the electorate of Mr Blair's close relationship with the president."

Euphemism Watch

Dana Milbank writes in his White House Notebook column in The Washington Post that at the White House, the phrase "full confidence" doesn't really mean full confidence.

"In fact, the phrase has become a Bush euphemism, a warning to the person in question that this might be a good time to circulate the résumé. . . .

"The phrase is one of several creative euphemisms the White House has adopted to get it through awkward moments. Death in Iraq is gently described by the 'folded flag' given to parents and spouses. Federal borrowing for Social Security is called 'upfront transition financing.' The absence of forbidden weapons in Iraq has become the presence of 'weapons of mass destruction program related activities.' . . .

"At the moment, the most favored euphemism is 'We never speculate.'"

That, of course, really means "we won't answer your question."

Froomkin Watch

Today's column is my last until Jan. 10. I'm taking some time off. Happy holidays!

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