Losing the Spotlight

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 25, 2005; 3:36 PM

Say what you will about his policies, there is little doubt that President Bush has been the brilliantly-lit star of the Washington show ever since he moved into the White House in 2001.

But this week, the spotlight may be out of his control.

Over in Congress, there's the increased scrutiny of Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics. There's the possibly derailing nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the UN. There's the mounting pressure from the religious right and the vice president to go nuclear in the Senate and ban filibusters for judicial nominations.

The American public is preoccupied with gas prices, but in spite of Bush's meeting today with the Saudis, there's apparently little that he is willing or able to do about it.

And while people are talking about Social Security, most of the talk is not what the White House had in mind.

About the worst thing that can happen to a president is for people to stop paying attention.

A Troubled Second Term

Matthew Cooper writes for Time.com: "This is the spring of Bush's discontent. Inside the White House, there's a recognition that this is a difficult period for the president -- not 9/11 difficult, not blowing-the-first-presidential-debate difficult, but frustrating nonetheless. He must sell a Social Security package that seems to be losing ground with the public and Congress. His 60-day tour to sell the plan seems to have only diminished support for the proposal. Overall, the president's approval rating has been softening, hovering below the 50% mark in a number of public and private polls.

"And it's more than Social Security that's diminishing those numbers. There's the economy, which has shown signs of weakness -- market jitters, alarming trade deficits and high oil prices. With the Iraq issue settling into an uncomfortable background of casualties-and-baby-steps-toward-democracy, there's no galvanizing terror issue to give Bush his usual lift in the polls.

"This isn't likely to change anytime soon."

William Douglas, James Kuhnhenn and Steven Thomma write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush's bold agenda is bogged down by public skepticism about some of his proposals, growing resistance from Democrats, dissension within his party's ranks, and what some analysts consider second-term hubris.

"With gas prices near record highs and stock markets jittery, Bush's drive for privatized Social Security accounts has been met by deep public skepticism. His judicial nominees are stalled, his choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is stuck in committee, and his job-approval rating recently dropped to 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency and well below that of other recent second-term presidents.

"Recent surveys have found a disconnect between most Americans' mainly economic priorities and the White House's and the Republican Congress' preoccupation with issues including Terri Schiavo and plans to kill the filibuster."

A dissenting view from the White House: "'I think it's very unfair and shortsighted to criticize a president who has been successful in the energy arena, effective in getting meaningful litigation reform, when that was not supposed to happen,' said Claude A. Allen, Bush's top domestic-policy adviser. 'The President is still focused, he's still aggressive about pursuing an agenda that serves the American people across the board, and [he] is not distracted by what might be some critics saying that he is narrowly focused on some issues.' "

DeLay and the White House

Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek: "The fate of Tom (The Hammer) DeLay is important on its own; he is, after all, a key leader of the conservative movement. But something larger is at stake: the agenda of George Bush and the Republican Party, especially their shared goal of remaking the federal judiciary in the image of conservatism.

"Will DeLay's in-your-face approach to his own salvation help reach that goal -- or sabotage the effort by turning every news cycle into a Daily Drama of DeLay? That's clearly how the Democrats want to play it. And, indeed, some Republican polltakers are seeing evidence that public support for Bush's judicial agenda is being hampered by the visibility of DeLay and his religious allies. 'He helps us gets things done in the House, no question of that,' said a White House insider. 'But I'm not sure his strategy now is helping us -- or him, for that matter.'"

And Fineman and Isikoff write that Bush may even find the White House embroiled in the DeLay ethics controversy. A lawyer for an Indian tribe told Newsweek that tribal leaders had "three or four" meetings at the White House -- including one with Bush and another with chief political strategist Karl Rove -- after they gave a $25,000 donation to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform group at the request of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist with close ties to DeLay who is at the center of a federal criminal and tax probe.

Bolton and the White House

John F. Harris and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that Vice President Cheney spoke out on Friday in defense of Bolton, whose nomination he has aggressively promoted.

" 'I have looked at all of the charges that have been made,' he said at a conference of the Republican National Lawyers Association. 'I don't think any of them stand up to scrutiny.' "

Here's the transcript of Cheney's speech.

Harris and Wright write: "Referring to allegations that Bolton sometimes berated subordinates who presented opposing views, Cheney drew laughter from the audience by noting, 'If being occasionally tough and aggressive and abrasive were a problem, there are a lot of members of the United States Senate who wouldn't qualify.'

"Still, White House officials and Senate leadership aides yesterday were nervously canvassing GOP senators, looking for signs of weakening support."

The Filibuster and the White House

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney plunged the White House into the judicial confirmation battle on Friday by saying he supported changing the Senate rules to stop the Democrats from blocking judicial nominees and would, if needed, provide the tie-breaking vote."

Here's that transcript again.

Kirkpatrick writes: "Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader, responded by accusing . . . President Bush of lying.

" 'Last week, I met with the president and was encouraged when he told me he would not become involved in Republican efforts to break the Senate rules,' Mr. Reid said in a statement, referring to a breakfast held between President Bush and Congressional leaders. 'Now it appears he was not being honest, and that the White House is encouraging this raw abuse of power.' "

Charles Babington and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Until now, President Bush has avoided being drawn into the fracas by signaling it was up to Senate GOP leaders to find the votes needed to change the rule despite vehement Democratic opposition."

Gas Prices and the White House

Richard W. Stevenson and Jeff Gerth write in the New York Times: "When he meets at his ranch here on Monday with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Bush will confront one of his trickiest diplomatic relationships. . . .

"Their meeting is unlikely to result in any big breakthroughs. When it comes to oil, the Saudis have less ability to drive down global prices by increasing output than at many times in the past, because they are already pumping closer to their maximum sustainable capacity than during past price spikes.

"But in part because of the growing domestic political pressure on Mr. Bush to show that he is doing everything possible to help bring down crude oil and gasoline prices, oil issues will play a more prominent role at this meeting than at the previous one here, in 2002."

Guy Dinmore and Kevin Morrison write in the Financial Times: "The American motorist is hoping that President George W. Bush will focus on getting Saudi Arabia to boost oil production when he meets Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch today, but the kingdom's efforts at internal reform and the 'war on terror' are likely to eclipse any discussion of prices at US pumps. . . .

"Diplomats said the oil issue was of less importance to the US than maintaining a close relationship with a stable nation undergoing reform."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Running for president five years ago, George W. Bush pledged to jawbone energy-exporting nations to keep oil prices low and to win passage of legislation to spur more domestic energy production.

"Delivering on either count has proved difficult for the former Texas oilman."

Norah O'Donnell reported for NBC News last night: "With Americans feeling pain at the pump, the president has stepped up his rhetoric."

Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report offered up a sound byte: "When a president's approval rating starts dropping down into the mid-40s and below, it starts oozing away his political capital and his ability to get things done on Capitol Hill."

"And tonight," O'Donnell said, "a senior administration official concedes that when people have to pay a lot for gas, quote, it's a political problem."

Social Security Watch

Meanwhile, Susan Page writes for USA Today: "As he nears the end of a 60-day cross-country campaign, President Bush appears to be further from achieving his signature goal of transforming Social Security than when he began.

"On the horizon: stalemate."

Larry Eichel writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Faced with unified Democratic opposition, lukewarm Republican backing, and dwindling public support in the polls, the Bush administration has some decisions to make.

"Does it forge ahead and make a serious run at legislation this year, perhaps by presenting a full-fledged bill to Congress? Does it signal a willingness to abandon or modify the personal-account concept? Or does it opt to concentrate on other issues and put off Social Security for another year?"

Eichel also truth-squads a few of the statements often made by supporters and opponents of the Bush approach.

A Close Look at Bush's Lobbying

So is Bush giving up? The White House is going to great pains to show that he is not, offering unusually detailed information about Bush's intensive, small-bore lobbying efforts -- albeit with members of his own party.

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times that according to White House spokesman Trent Duffy, "about 132 House Republicans -- more than half the party's caucus -- and 33 Senate Republicans have come to the White House for small group meetings with Bush on Social Security. Bush typically meets with them in the Cabinet Room or in the more informal setting of his residential quarters. And as Bush traveled the country as part of his 60-day campaign, more often than not he invited members of Congress to fly with him on Air Force One."

But the unprecedented outreach "has apparently done little to change minds and bump up the congressional vote count," Hook writes.

And here's something you haven't heard before: "Whereas some analysts and associates have portrayed Bush as a brusque manager impatient with policy details, lawmakers see a different picture when he discusses Social Security. He has become a master of actuarial arcana, such as the concept of a 'bend point' -- a feature of the complex formula for calculating benefits.

"And unlike most of his first-term initiatives such as tax cuts and the war in Iraq, on which Bush had a clear idea of where his policies were headed, lawmakers say he is pointedly open to their suggestions about how to handle Social Security as a policy and political matter."

Iraq: The Bright Spot?

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Hardly a day goes by without Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or another senior administration official speaking publicly about the 'march of freedom' and the success of the Iraq invasion in securing peace."

Of course, as Sandalow writes: "The notion that the world is more peaceful as a result of the U.S. invasion, let alone that the mission was a success, is far from universally accepted."

Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Joel Brinkley write in the New York Times that the White House isn't entirely resting on its laurels.

"Worried about a political deadlock in Iraq and a spike in mayhem from an emboldened insurgency, the Bush administration has pressed Iraqi leaders in recent days to end their stalemate over forming a new government, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney personally exhorting top Kurdish and Shiite politicians to come together."


Viveca Novak and John Dickerson write in Time that at least four U.S. delegates to an international telecommunications conference have been bumped by the White House because they supported John Kerry's 2004 campaign.

"The State Department has traditionally put together a list of industry representatives for these meetings, and anyone in the U.S. telecom industry who had the requisite expertise and wanted to go was generally given a slot, say past participants. . . .

" We wanted people who would represent the Administration positively, and -- call us nutty -- it seemed like those who wanted to kick this Administration out of town last November would have some difficulty doing that,' says White House spokesman Trent Duffy."

Valerie Plame Watch

Murray Waas writes in the American Prospect that a Bush administration official has admitted to federal prosecutors that he leaked Valerie Plame's identity as part of an aggressive administration campaign to discredit her husband.

"But the official just as adamantly denied to the federal investigators that he had ever told [anyone] that Plame was a clandestine CIA operative."

To make their case, prosecutors need to prove that the official knew Plame was under cover before he outed her. And apparently only Judith Miller of The New York Times and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper can shed light on that.

Robert Novak, in the column that disclosed Plame's identity, called her "an agency operative," but later said his sources had told him only that Plame was an analyst.

In his blog , Waas expands on the political ramifications of this admission.

"[T]he grand jury clearly did uncover evidence that the official was part of a concerted campaign to silence and discredit Wilson and others critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy. And whatever the official's intentions, his reckless actions may have played some role in the disclosure that Plame was a clandestine CIA officer; impaired then ongoing U.S. intelligence operations; endangered sensitive intelligence sources; and undermined the war on terrorism. Most of the rest of us would be in a little trouble at our work if we got caught doing something like that!

"It would nice to see a reporter for some major news organization ask during tomorrow's White House press briefing, what, if any, disciplinary action, President Bush might take against this official, and why none has been taken already. (Word of warning: If nobody asks this question, I am going to get White House press credentials of my own. . . . "

The Denver Three

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. Secret Service is investigating whether a Republican volunteer committed the crime of impersonating a federal agent while forcibly removing three people from one of President Bush's public Social Security events, according to people familiar with the probe. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the man who removed them was a GOP volunteer, but he refused to divulge his name or whether he works in Colorado or Washington. 'If someone is coming to an event to disrupt it, they are going to be asked to leave,' McClellan said. . . .

"Bush travels to events with a protective guard of Secret Service agents, but the White House relies on paid advance staff members, who organize and oversee travel, GOP volunteers and local authorities to police crowds."

The "Denver Three," as they call themselves, now have their own Web site , and one of them, Leslie Weise , writes in Salon today: "Despite the support we have received from elected officials in our request for answers from the White House regarding this incident, Karen Bauer, Alex Young and I still await a satisfactory explanation of why our First Amendment rights were violated."

Gannon Watch

The mainstream media -- and heck, even the print-based alternative media -- seem to have lost interest in the Jeff Gannon saga. But the online alternative-news sites are still going strong.

John Byrne , editor of the Raw Story Web site, has just Web-published extensive Secret Service records documenting numerous White House visits by the man named James D. Guckert -- who called himself Jeff Gannon.

"The Secret Service furnished the records after a Freedom of Information Act request from Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY)," Byrne writes.

"Guckert made more than 200 appearances at the White House during his two-year tenure with the fledging conservative websites GOPUSA and Talon News, attending 155 of 196 White House press briefings. He had little to no previous journalism experience, and previously worked as a male escort."

And Michael Dietz , writing on AlterNet, delves deep into Guckert's background.

Jimmy Carter and the Pope, an Epilogue

Hugh Sidey writes for Time.com: "The absence of Jimmy Carter, 80, at the Pope's funeral brought out the usual political accusations of snubbery but in fact Carter was asked twice to go and decided, perhaps in one of his quaint bouts of political pique, not to join the delegation. Carter lobbied the world both in the Clinton and the elder Bush presidencies and again in George W's time against U.S. policy, which did upset all three Presidents. (They complained a little bit among themselves in Rome.) But the Clinton and the Bushes are forgiving people and would have locked arms and marched off in harmony as a threesome, the world's most exclusive fraternity."

Cheney Humor

From the vice president's talk to Republican lawyers on Friday: "But anyway, delighted to be here today. This is a great organization. And I appreciate the welcome so much I'm almost tempted to run for office again. (Laughter and applause.) But just to make certain there's no confusion, let me be absolutely clear about my plans. (Laughter.) I'm not going to run for the presidential nomination in '08. We've a lot of great candidates out there, and I've got so much confidence in the field that I've agreed to lead the search committee to pick the nominee. (Laughter.) It's a joke. (Laughter.)"

Cheney Humor

From the vice president's talk to Republican lawyers on Friday: "But anyway, delighted to be here today. This is a great organization. And I appreciate the welcome so much I'm almost tempted to run for office again. (Laughter and applause.) But just to make certain there's no confusion, let me be absolutely clear about my plans. (Laughter.) I'm not going to run for the presidential nomination in '08. We've a lot of great candidates out there, and I've got so much confidence in the field that I've agreed to lead the search committee to pick the nominee. (Laughter.) It's a joke. (Laughter.)"

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