Not Exactly Must-See TV

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 29, 2005; 1:24 PM

The television networks -- and, by extension, the American viewing public -- got snookered last night.

Strong-armed, beguiled and wheedled into pre-empting an hour of prime-time national programming last night for President Bush's news conference, the networks were assured they would be getting must-see TV. Instead, they got a clip show.

The White House had promised that Bush would unveil new specifics about how he proposes to resolve Social Security's future funding shortfalls. And he did that -- but only briefly, and using language that was disingenuous at best.

Here, in fact, is the sum total of what Bush had to say that was new regarding Social Security: "I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off. By providing more generous benefits for low-income retirees, we'll make this commitment: If you work hard and pay into Social Security your entire life, you will not retire into poverty. This reform would solve most of the funding challenges facing Social Security."

You could have easily fit that into a commercial break, with plenty of time left over for a talking head to explain what it really meant -- namely, that Bush is finally, officially endorsing very significant benefits cuts for the wealthy and middle class, relative to what they are currently being promised.

Other than that, Bush's comments about Social Security could have been cut and pasted from the speeches he has been making across the country these past 60 days in his unsuccessful attempt to get people behind his proposal to carve out private accounts. And most of those lines went over a lot better in rooms full of supporters than they did last night, in a room full of increasingly skeptical reporters.

Bush was asked about several other topics, and made some news here and there, but it didn't amount to much. The biggest takeaways:

Asked about the role of religion in politics, he distanced himself from those who have said that Democrats who oppose his judicial nominees are attacking people of faith. "I don't ascribe a person's opposing my nominations to an issue of faith . . . I think people oppose my nominees because of judicial philosophy," he said.

Asked about the continued troubles in Iraq -- the No. 1 topic on American minds, according to the polls -- he maintained, "we're making really good progress."

Asked about the recent increase in terrorist attacks, he said that when it comes to the war on terror "we are making good progress."

He acknowledged that "millions of American families and small businesses are hurting because of higher gasoline prices" and vowed "my administration is doing everything we can to make gasoline more affordable." But he allowed it isn't much.

He vigorously defended John Bolton, his embattled nominee for U.N. ambassador. "John Bolton is a blunt guy. Sometimes people say I'm a little too blunt," he said.

In some ways, there was more drama in front of Bush's podium: Members of the White House press corps last night threw off Bush's post-election proscription against follow-up questions, and tried repeatedly to get straight answers to their own individual questions as well as those of their fellow reporters.

Bush ordered up last night's press conference in a bold move to reclaim the spotlight, reassert his leadership and regain control of the national agenda, just as the press was increasingly focusing on congressional infighting and his dismal approval ratings -- and just before the inevitable, portentous assessments marking the end of his 60-day Social Security barnstorm and the first 100 days of his second term.

But what the spotlight showed was an increasingly assertive press corps in front of him, and behind him, at least literally, no one.

What He Said vs. What He Meant

Bush's short and meticulously crafted statement about his position on future Social Security benefits presented editors and reporters with a choice: Should they lead with what he said, or what he meant?

Most, thankfully, chose the latter.

Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Bush called on Congress last night to curtail future Social Security benefits for all but low-income retirees in an urgent new effort to address the popular program's shaky finances. . . .

"Bush said his plan would ensure that 'future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today's seniors get.'"

But even after Social Security reaches the point that Bush refers to as bankruptcy, "benefits would be almost three-quarters what is currently promised, and considerably higher in inflation-adjusted terms than they are now," VandeHei and Fletcher write.

Richard W. Stevenson and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "Saying the retirement program is headed for 'bankruptcy,' a term his opponents say is an exaggeration, Mr. Bush edged tentatively -- but for the first time explicitly -- into the most politically explosive aspect of the debate over how to assure Social Security's long-term health: the benefit cuts or tax increases needed to balance the system's books as the baby boom generation ages and life expectancy increases."

David E. Rosenbaum and Robin Toner write in the New York Times: "The Social Security proposal President Bush seemed to embrace Thursday night to make the system solvent would have the effect of significantly limiting the rise in retirement benefits for most workers, analyses show. . . .

"Only people with the lowest wages would be distinctly better off under the president's plan than they would be if Social Security reserves were allowed to run out, as is projected happen in about 2040 or 2050. When there are no reserves left, enough money from Social Security taxes will be raised each year to pay about 70 percent to 80 percent of scheduled benefits."

In other words, while what Bush is proposing is better than nothing, for most workers it's actually worse than doing nothing.

Peter G. Gosselin and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "The president went to extraordinary lengths during his televised news conference to accentuate the positive."

Indeed, "the political explosiveness of suggesting benefit cuts was evident as the president avoided any mention of cuts. Instead, he flipped the matter on its head."

A Gamble to Save the Second Term

Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush made a huge gamble last night in a bid to restore momentum to his flagging proposal to restructure Social Security -- and to his presidency."

Rather than fold what increasingly looks like a losing hand, "Bush held a prime-time news conference and doubled down on his bet. He continued to press for private accounts while adding a proposal that would cut Social Security spending by $3 trillion over 75 years -- openly defying the longtime belief that proposing cuts in the beloved program is bad politics. . . .

"The outcome of Bush's bet will have an impact far beyond Social Security. If he succeeds, he will regain control of a national agenda that has slipped from his grasp in recent months. If he fails, he risks early admission into the lame-duck status that eventually afflicts all second-term presidents. . . .

"Aides who dismissed talk of a second-term funk only weeks ago grant that the coming weeks represent a crucial test of Bush's strength."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "With his presidency at best becalmed - and at worst beset - just 99 days into his second term, President Bush seized the prime-time power of an East Room news conference for only the fourth time in his tenure in an effort to show that he could still do what he has always done in the face of storms around him: make his own weather.

"But even after his hour-long encounter with reporters was over on Thursday night, the atmosphere remained unsettled."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The rare prime-time news conference represented one of Bush's most dramatic attempts to regain the initiative after a dreary spring of declining job approval ratings, rising economic anxiety keyed by soaring gas prices, continuing violence in Iraq and intensifying partisan hostility on Capitol Hill. . . .

"But none of that pressure was apparent Thursday. Bush was relaxed and frequently joked with reporters during an hour-long session that never generated sparks or tension. Through 18 questions on subjects that included Social Security, Iraq and the political mood in Washington, the president appeared determined above all to project the two personal qualities that have served him best with his supporters: resolve and optimism."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush on Thursday used a format he does not like to discuss issues he cannot resolve in hopes that he can sell the American people on policies most say they don't want."

The Documents in the Case

Here is the transcript of the news conference. Here's the video . And here's the accompanying White House handout .

The handout provides a few more details, i.e. that "low-income workers should receive benefits that grow faster than inflation. In order to return the system to solvency, the benefit increases for wealthier seniors should grow no faster than the rate of inflation. This would be accomplished by adopting a sliding-scale benefit formula, similar to the Pozen approach." That's an explicit reference to the "progressive indexing" plan championed by Robert C. Pozen, an investment company executive from Boston.

Here are two analyses of the Pozen plan, one from Social Security's chief actuary, Stephen C. Goss and one from Jason Furman, Robert Greenstein, and Gene Sperling of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Doctrine of Preemption

Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes has the blow by blow of yesterday's battle over network airtime.

"One by one the broadcast networks caved yesterday and agreed to preempt the first night of the May ratings race to make way for President Bush's non-news conference, after 'Sopranos-style arm-twisting' by the White House, as one network suit described it."

It was, after all, the first night of the May ratings sweeps, and a Thursday to boot.

ABC, de Moraes writes, "as a rule, can't get arrested on Thursday nights," so they caved first. The other networks balked until the White House blinked -- and moved the start time back from 8:30 to 8. Then they fell, one by one.

De Moraes writes: "Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, 'We were in touch with some networks and starting on the hour was more accommodating, so we decided to move to 8.'

"We told McClellan that we thought it was extremely brave of the White House to risk incurring the wrath of 'Survivor,' 'C.S.I.' and 'The Apprentice' fans, not to mention 'The O.C.' fans,' to hold a news conference that's an attempt to increase the president's approval rating. McClellan laughed and said he didn't know what shows were on, but he also said, 'We want to reach the largest audience.'"

But as David Bauder writes for the Associated Press, the network executives ultimately lost their patience.

"Three of the nation's four biggest broadcasters gave the president a quick hook, however, by cutting away to entertainment programming before his session was finished....

"Shortly before 9 p.m., both CBS and NBC shifted away from Bush for analysis as the next-to-last question of the news conference was being asked. The networks ignored the last two questions and were airing 'Survivor' and 'The Apprentice' before the president finished talking.

"Fox anchor Shepard Smith abruptly cut into Bush's answer of the final question to shift away to Paris Hilton and 'The Simple Life: Interns.'. . . .

"Although networks generally cover presidents' speeches and news conferences when requested, there is precedent for turning them down if there's no national emergency or if the request comes during a political campaign, said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Baltimore."

Following Up

In his first press conference after the 2004 election, an obviously pumped-up Bush instituted a "no follow-ups" rule. And a seemingly cowed press corps didn't object.

Last night, with Bush's approval ratings at an all time low, an apparently emboldened press corps followed up over and over again.

Right off the mark, Terence Hunt of the Associated Press followed up his own question about Bush's polling numbers and inability to get traction on his agenda. When Bush initially didn't touch on the issue of poll numbers, Hunt asked again.

Then David Gregory of NBC got into a bit of a back-and-forth with Bush, insisting on a response to his question on the role of faith in political debates.

When John Roberts of CBS asked if Bush was trying to suggest a relationship between passage of the energy bill and gas prices, Bush rambled on for a while, then tried to punt to Terry Moran of ABC News. But Roberts jumped right back in, trying to get Bush to clarify.

Then when it was Moran's turn, he asked about a new report that terrorist attacks are at an all time high. When Bush used that question to talk about how his strategy is "to stay on the offense," Moran followed up with the most aggressive question of the night: "So in the near-term you think there will be more attacks and more people dying?"

"I can't predict that," replied Bush, somewhat flummoxed.

By the time it got to David Sanger of the New York Times, whose question was about whether Bush could commit to withdrawing a substantial number of American troops from Iraq within a year, Bush had given up his resistance to follow ups. In fact, he invited one.

"Go ahead; I can see you've got a follow-up right there on the tip of your tongue," he said.

Bill Sammon of the Washington Times followed up on a question by Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times about who is responsible for all the partisan rancor in Washington.

And Olivier Knox of AFP followed up on a question from Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post, who had asked about Bush's policy towards North Korea.

"I want to make sure I understand your answer to Mike about North Korea," Knox said. "Did you mean to say that you will neither refer North Korea to the U.N. for sanctions, nor take military action unless you have the agreement of all the other partners abroad?"

Bush's intriguing reply: "No, I didn't speak about military -- I'm speaking about diplomatically."

So did it work? Did all the follow-ups force Bush to confront issues he danced around the first time he was asked?

Not a whole lot, no. But a little. It's progress.

Trust Fund Watch

This was the first time a lot of people actually heard Bush's dualistic approach to Treasury Bonds with their own ears. (I've been writing about it for a while.)

On the one hand, Bush last night disparaged the value of Treasury bonds when held by the Social Security Trust Fund, saying, "all that's left behind is file cabinets full of IOUs."

On the other hand, he excitedly announced that one investment option for his proposed private accounts should "consist entirely of Treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government."

Judging from my e-mails, hearing this first-hand hit some nerves. "Dear God, is anyone paying attention? Why didn't one of those so-called journalists call him on this?!" reader John Nowicki e-mailed me.

Kaiser's View

Robert G. Kaiser , associate editor of The Washington Post, fielded questions Live Online right after the speech last night. Among them:

"Des Moines, Iowa: Mr. Kaiser, The President stuck with some of the same talking point lines he has for the last 60 days on Social Security. Does the White House believe people just haven't heard them yet?

"Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. I had the same reaction exactly. I'd guess that the president likes those lines he keeps using. He may be baffled about why they haven't worked yet, but he obviously isn't prepared to give them up yet.

"Our polls keep showing that support for his position not only isn't growing, it is steadily declining. This pitch is not working.

"That said, the president's not-entirely-clear revisions of his position tonight will at least alter the discussion for a while. But my conversations with politicians here in Washington have convinced me that there is simply no chance that a reform such as Bush has been pushing will be adopted in this congress."


"Washington, D.C.: Did you notice a more aggressive press corps than in the past? Do they 'smell blood in the water?' And did the president seem to be intimidating them in the way he called their names? He strikes me as a bit of a bully; are the journalists less cowed today than in the past?

"Robert G. Kaiser: It's hard for me to make comparisons to past performances, but I thought the reporters did a good job tonight.

"And yes, I think the mood has changed. David Broder 's column this morning was a powerful indicator of that. . . . David is the dean of commentators in Washington, and when he writes a column like this, it makes a big difference."

Saturday Night Follies

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The Secret Service has requested racial information on journalists and guests scheduled to attend a reception tomorrow night with President Bush.

"White House reporters said they were offended that after furnishing the customary information -- name, date of birth and Social Security number -- they were also asked for the race of each person expected to attend the small reception scheduled before the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner.

"The Secret Service said that it has been routine for many years to request such information of people who will be near the president, and that the information allows for quicker and more accurate searches of criminal databases. The policy has not been applied universally, however."

And Page Six of the New York Post reports: "Disgraced former White House reporter/male escort Jeff Gannon can't believe no one has invited him to tomorrow's White House Correspondents Dinner. 'It seems to me to be odd to exclude the one person who has brought more attention to the White House press corps than anyone else in years,' Gannon tells Page Six's Jared Paul Stern."

I'll be there, though. You can look for me at Table 242.

What He Said vs. What He Meant.
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