Is Bush Right on 'Argument of the Age'?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; 11:20 AM

As he walked two Wall Street Journal reporters out of the Oval Office yesterday after his first post-election interview -- 30 minutes that were light on news and heavy on domestic policy -- President Bush suddenly got animated explaining what he sees as his historic role in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

"I understand there are many who say, 'Bush is wrong,' " Bush said. "I assume I'm right.

"It's exciting to be part of stimulating a debate of such significance. . . .It really is the philosophical argument of the age."

John D. McKinnon and Christopher Cooper describe that exchange in their report in today's Wall Street Journal (no subscription required for this story), which leads with Bush's comments on Social Security:

"President Bush promised to offer an ambitious plan for overhauling Social Security soon, pledging to 'provide the political cover' for nervous lawmakers and warning opponents they are 'taking a risk politically' by resisting change," McKinnon and Cooper write.

"'I have an obligation to lead on this issue,' Mr. Bush said. . . .The president deflected suggestions that he plans to leave it largely to Congress to draft a detailed plan, saying, 'I have the responsibility to lay out potential solutions.' He declined to delve into specifics, but said, 'You'll find out soon.'"

Excerpts from the Wall Street Journal interview are appended at the end of the article.

Talking about Social Security, Bush said: "I'd like it to be said after, now, my 14 years in public service that when the man saw a problem, he went after it to try to solve it. That was his calling."

Bush also caught himself in a faux pas talking about the Palestinian election: "There's a lot of potential. But here is not a state there. I mean -- I shouldn't say that -- there is the beginning of a state -- please -- take that back. When I say, it is not a state, erase that. There is the beginning of a state."

The excerpts as published suggest an unusual arrangement for an interview. Interviews, even with presidents, traditionally begin with a question; this one appears to have started with a long, rambling opening statement that consumed about 40 percent of the total verbiage. It's a time-gobbling tactic that Bush has used frequently at press conferences.

Social Security: Tough Sell?

Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg that Bush today kicks off in earnest his Social Security sales job.

"Following the same format he used in his successful re- election bid to push his agenda on taxes, health care and the Iraq war, Bush will host a 'town hall' meeting in Washington featuring supporters of the private accounts. . . .

"Today's event, which brings together 500 Americans rounded up by groups in favor of private accounts, is part of a broader effort by the administration to highlight the funding shortfall, according to White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan."

Note: Dissenters not invited, as usual.

This event's particular gimmick will be that it features the participation of members of different generations.

But even as he cranks up the volume, Bush's plans are coming under increasing fire, including from members of his own party.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Many Republicans are expressing reservations about the political wisdom of President Bush's vision for restructuring Social Security, as the White House today intensifies its campaign to restructure the entitlement program for the retired and disabled.

"Bush, who relishes challenging the conventional wisdoms of Washington, has privately counseled Republicans that partially privatizing Social Security will be a boon for the GOP and has urged skeptics to hold fire until he builds a public case for change. But several influential Republicans are warning that Bush's plan could backfire on the party in next year's elections, especially if the plan includes cuts in benefits."

VandeHei and Allen quote William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, as saying that Republicans are privately "bewildered why this is such a White House priority."

Carolyn Lochhead, writing in the San Franciso Chronicle, calls Bush's Social Security ambitions "the Republican version of a domestic policy brawl that will rival in scope, intensity and political difficulty the 1993-94 effort by then-president Bill Clinton to remake the nation's health care system."

She writes that "the enterprise faces all the land mines of Clinton's failed effort: The idea of individual accounts, like universal health care, may sound popular, but the devil is in the details. The financial and technical challenges are enormous."

And, she writes: "Bush allies concede the White House got off to a bad start last week with the leak of the memo by Peter Wehner, director of the White House office of strategic initiatives, which defended big future benefit cuts that would accompany private accounts -- a detail Bush never mentioned on the campaign trail."

Tim Ahmann writes for Reuters: "President Bush's plan to move to private Social Security accounts will trigger trillions of dollars in new U.S. government borrowing that is likely to push interest rates higher, analysts say."

And Susan Page writes in USA Today about a new poll that "found that most young voters support private accounts even if that means cuts to guaranteed benefits. By 55%-42%, those under 30 call it a 'good idea.'

"But the older the voter, the stronger the opposition. By 63%-33%, those over 50 call it a 'bad idea.'"

Here are more poll results. This poll shows Bush's approval rating hovering at 52 percent. By topic, approval ranges from 32 percent for his handling of the deficit to 58 percent for his handling of terrorism.

New Nominee

Mark Stencel writes for "President Bush today selected Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge from New Jersey, to replace Tom Ridge as homeland security secretary.

"Bush, announcing his choice at the White House this morning, said the judge's past work at the Justice Department put Chertoff 'at the center of many homeland security improvements' after the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

The Buying of the Media

The Associated Press reports: "The White House said Monday that the case of the Education Department paying a conservative commentator to plug its policies was an isolated incident, not a practice widely used by the Bush administration.

"With the Education Department still defending its $240,000 contract with syndicated columnist and TV personality Armstrong Williams, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was cautious in choosing his comments."

Here's McClellan from the text of yesterday's briefing: "I'm not aware of any others that are under contract other than the one that's been reported on in the media. And questions have been raised about that arrangement. It ought to be looked into, and there are ways to look into matters of that nature. As a matter of principle, we believe very strongly that the media ought to be reporting in an objective, unbiased and fair manner. And so that's the principle upon which we believe people should be guided. And the government certainly has a responsibility to help when it comes to providing accurate information and helping to adhere to that principle."

Note the following non-pledges and non-answers:

"Q Just to follow up, will you check as far as you can to see if you're paying any other journalists?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know of any. Obviously, decisions are made by individual agencies. I'm not aware of any other arrangements of that nature.

"Q Was anyone at the White House aware of the fact that Armstrong Williams was on the payroll?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure that senior staff was consulted before this decision was made. I haven't heard anything to that effect."

Williams reportedly told the Nation's David Corn that "there are others."

Mind you, it is worth noting that others use money to influence the press. Steve Negus writes in the Financial Times: "The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, on Monday handed out cash to journalists to ensure coverage of its press conferences in a throwback to Ba'athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30."

Another Loyalist in the Fold

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday selected Indiana businessman Allan B. Hubbard to head his National Economic Council, bringing an old friend and fundraiser to the White House to help guide the administration's economic agenda.

"Hubbard, who raised more than $300,000 for Bush's presidential campaigns, will take over as NEC director and assistant to the president for economic policy from Stephen Friedman, a Wall Street investment banker who resigned from the post late last year."

Weisman writes that "friends and supporters said that, with a president who values loyalty and friendship, Hubbard is likely to be more influential than either [the president's first NEC director, Lawrence B.] Lindsey or Friedman. Hubbard went to Harvard Business School with Bush, and the two have maintained close personal contact for decades."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "People who have worked with Mr. Hubbard said that he was likely to be more visible than Mr. Friedman in selling Mr. Bush's agenda publicly but that his main goal was likely to be keeping the administration's economic team marching together as it confronts policy and political tradeoffs on prominent issues like Social Security and taxes.

"In that sense, they said, Mr. Hubbard's appointment continues the trend of consolidating policymaking within the White House staff and populating the administration with people of proven loyalty to Mr. Bush."

Hubbard, the president of Indianapolis-based E&A Industries Inc., built a fortune making and selling Car Brite car wax and was deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle.

He and wife were both Bush/Cheney Rangers in 2004, meaning they each raised at least $200,000 for the campaign. A Washington Post database shows Hubbard donated $140,034 of his own money to Bush, Republican candidates and the Republican Party between 1988 and 2004.

The Cheney Touch

The White House also announced that Candida Wolff will replace David Hobbs as Bush's chief lobbyist and liaison to Capitol Hill. Wolff was Vice President Dick Cheney's legislative affairs director before joining accounting firm Ernst & Young as a partner. (Note: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly described Ernst & Young.)

Here's the announcement.

National Guard Watch

What will the effect of the CBS imbroglio be on the White House and its relations with the press? A CBS-commissioned panel concluded yesterday that the network's story on Bush's National Guard service contained "considerable and fundamental deficiencies."

Howard Kurtz and Dana Milbank write in a Washington Post analysis that "although the panel's report found no political bias by anyone at CBS, it was clearly a setback for the mainstream media against an administration that has often stiff-armed or ignored journalists, whom Bush calls an unreliable 'filter' between him and the public. . . .

"Republican leaders were confident the report would add weight to their charge that the media have long been unfair and inaccurate in reporting about Bush. After four years in which Bush's truthfulness has been questioned by the press on matters including economic projections and the threat posed by Iraq, the White House can point to a high-profile episode in which it was indisputably wronged by a major media outlet."

But Kurtz and Milbank also note: "Although CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves made no attempt to defend the story, credible reporting by other media outlets has raised questions about whether Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard."

Tsunami Help

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush promised yesterday to continue U.S. aid to tsunami-ravaged South Asia well after the initial attention fades, saying a 'long-term commitment' is required to allow the millions of victims to rebuild their lives."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Elizabeth Becker write in the New York Times that the president also "asked that Americans not let their contributions to the relief effort replace their charitable giving to other parts of the world."

Here is the text of Bush's speech to aid workers yesterday.

Soul of Discretion

Ann Gerhart writes in today's Washington Post Style section about Dina Powell, "the president's headhunter, charged with filling hundreds of jobs in the next several weeks -- ambassadors, Cabinet heads, undersecretaries, commissioners."

But Gerhart acknowledges the limitations involved in profiling Powell: "She has a talent for being warm and gregarious while staying completely disciplined. She insists that an hour-long interview be on background, with quotes needing to be approved prior to publication. Even in this format, she reveals not a single confidence or telling detail of the way she works."

One of the best quotes is from someone else. Gerhart asks about senior adviser Karl Rove's role in all this hiring that Powell is doing.

"Margaret Spellings, the domestic policy adviser tapped to become education secretary, who sits beside Powell every morning at the senior staff meeting, dismisses any suggestion that all appointments are masterminded by Rove. 'Oh, my gosh, even if you believed that,' says Spellings, 'there's just too much work. If Karl Rove had to do everything that is attributed to him, we would have to change our policy on cloning.'"

Gown Watch

Robin Givhan writes in The Washington Post on the inaugural fashion selections by the first family's women.

Halliburton Watch

Allen Sloan writes in his Washington Post column: "It's time for yet another Halliburton story -- but not the one you may be expecting. This isn't about the endlessly scrutinized Iraq contracting business of the big energy services company that Dick Cheney ran before he became vice president. And it's not about Halliburton's profit-boosting accounting change during Cheney's regime, or the scandals and problems currently affecting some of the firm's far-flung projects.

"Instead, let's talk about Halliburton's well-executed $5 billion escape from its asbestos problems, most of which Cheney created when he orchestrated Halliburton's purchase of Dresser Industries in 1998. Few people connect this problem with Cheney, but they should, given that he was in charge at the time and got a raise as a result of buying Dresser."

Rising Star

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "The man who insisted that President Bush make the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa is poised to assume a top State Department job that would make him the lead US arms negotiator with Iran and North Korea, according to administration officials.

"Robert G. Joseph, a special assistant for national security to President Bush until a few months ago, is on the short list to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, the nation's senior diplomat in charge of negotiating arms control treaties, said the officials, who spoke on the condition they not be named."

Gonzales Watch

Ken Fireman writes in Newsday: "Sen. Charles Schumer is now uncertain whether he can vote to confirm Alberto Gonzales as attorney general because of what Schumer calls Gonzales' 'lack of candor' at his confirmation hearing. . . .

"Schumer said he and other senators have submitted written questions to Gonzales. The senator said he would await the answers to those questions before deciding whether to vote in favor of reporting the nomination out favorably to the full Senate.

"The White House and most Republican committee members have strongly disputed Democratic charges that Gonzales' testimony lacked candor."

Kerik Watch

Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor writes in the New York Daily News: "An unrepentant Bernard Kerik urged a crowd yesterday to 'ignore the critics' and remember 'only the strong survive' in his first speech since his nomination as terror boss tanked amid growing scandal.

"'Ignore the press. Don't cower to criticism,' Kerik told 1,800 correction officials.

"The NYPD's former top cop - still reeling from charges he cheated on his wife in simultaneous affairs with two women and had ties to a mob-linked contracting firm - cast himself as a rags-to-riches American champ."

Nothing Good Since October?

The Daily Kos blog notes that the White House Web site page touting Progress in Iraq hasn't been updated in a while.

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