On the Road Again

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; 11:21 AM

According to the polls, the more people hear what President Bush has to say about Social Security, the less they like it. But that's not stopping him. He jets off to Mississippi today to hold another "conversation on strengthening Social Security."

Susan Page writes in USA Today that the latest Gallup poll shows a whopping 58 percent of Americans now disapprove of how Bush is handling the Social Security issue.

Overall, Bush's approval rating was unchanged at 48 percent, with 49 percent disapproving.

And Page writes: "The idea he endorsed last week of 'progressive indexing' -- maintaining future benefits for low-income workers but reducing initial benefits for the middle-class and affluent -- was opposed by 54 percent - 38 percent."

Some 62 percent "say fixing Social Security will mean benefit cuts or tax increases. If they had to choose, 53 percent would choose higher taxes, 38 percent lower benefits."

Here are the complete poll results.

Bush speaks today around 1 p.m. EDT at the Nissan Motors plant in Canton, Miss.

Josee Valcourt writes in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that Bush's visit will shut down the assembly lines for at least an hour.

At yesterday's briefing, press secretary Scott McClellan said we could expect some new language on Social Security from the president today.

"Q This new phase, is he basically going to the same kinds of places and saying the same things as he already was in the first 60 days?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, because we put forward some new proposals just last week in the press conference that the President believes ought to be part of any comprehensive solution."

Bush, in his statements Friday and Saturday, did not expand on Thursday night's brief and carefully scripted endorsement of progressive indexing.

Social Security Watch

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "President Bush's plan to shore up Social Security by reducing promised benefits for all but low-income retirees is meeting resistance from some Senate Republicans, casting new doubt on Bush's top domestic priority, Republican aides and officials said."

And Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's effort to get Congress moving on Social Security by proposing cuts in benefits for high and middle-income retirees has exposed a fissure in the House Republican leadership.

"Majority Leader Tom DeLay and many conservatives unhappy with the Senate's cautious approach want a House bill on Social Security ready as soon as possible, while Speaker Dennis Hastert prefers to wait and let the Senate act first, according to Republican aides."

Cheney Talks

Tom Baxter writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Vice President Cheney's visit to Smyrna, Ga., yesterday for a talk about Social Security.

"Cheney, making his first speech on the subject since President Bush put some new proposals on the table in a news conference Thursday, invoked the bipartisan approach that then-President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill took in 1983, when they worked together to save the social insurance program from a funding crisis.

" 'We need to do that again. We need to come back together as a nation and solve this problem,' Cheney told the overwhelmingly Republican, invitation-only audience of about 700 in the gymnasium of Campbell High School."

Cheney apparently discussed the indexing proposal, and "even brought up raising payroll taxes -- something the administration consistently has opposed -- although he put the idea in a negative light: 'Frankly, we're a little nervous about that.' "

But what exactly did he say? Who knows? The White House, although it released a transcript of an event Cheney held later in the day, seems to have stopped distributing transcripts of Cheney's Social Security events. Is it because he's getting more specific than the president?

The White House does have a nice photo from the Social Security event on its Web site.

It can't be that the crowd was hostile.

David A. Markiewicz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Smyrna resident John Kendrick had heard Dick Cheney explain the White House plan for changes in Social Security funding. Now, he told the vice president, he wanted to know what 'the other side' thought.

" 'So, I get to speak for the Democrats,' the vice president retorted, drawing laughter. . . .

"That Kendrick, an avowed Republican, had to pose the question and that Cheney was left to answer it proved one thing: This audience was a stacked deck. . . .

"In a limited survey of the audience, everyone claimed to be a Republican, not to mention a Cheney fan."

The Associated Press reports: "Cheney ended his Georgia trip Monday afternoon in coastal Brunswick with a tour of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, essentially the nation's largest police academy that trains officers for 81 federal agencies from the Secret Service to the National Park Service police. . . .

"Cheney's tour with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, was closed to reporters. But center Director Connie Patrick described the vice president as being 'very hands-on.'

"At one point, Cheney got behind the controls of a large x-ray machine used to scan cargo containers entering the U.S., she said. And he even fired an assortment of handguns and rifles at one of the center's firing ranges.

" 'He was a good shot,' Patrick said."

Here's the transcript of Cheney's speech at the law enforcement center.

Reuters reports: "Al Qaeda is still 'very active' recruiting and seeking to attack the United States, although it has been hurt since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Monday.

" 'The enemy that appeared on 9/11 is wounded and off-balance, and on the run -- yet still very active, still seeking recruits, and still trying to find ways to hit us,' said Cheney, who reviews intelligence on threats daily."

Trust Fund, Baby

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing by McClellan.

Here's a simple question:

"Q Scott, I'm confused by something the President said in his press conference the other night where he's talking about Social Security and he says that it spends the money on current retirees and with the money left over, it funds other government programs, and all that's left behind is file cabinets full of IOUs. Those IOUs are U.S. Treasury obligation, and it's the sovereign debt of the United States. Is he saying something about something the U.S. possibly defaulting on those IOUs? Isn't that guaranteed?"

And here's the first of several non-answers:

"MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I think that the President, if you'll recall, went to West Virginia and stood in front of the file cabinet to point out to people what the trust fund really is. I mean, most people when they think of a trust fund, I think you would agree, believe that money is being set aside in account, and that it's their money and that they're going to receive that money back. Well, that's not the case. In terms of the so-called Social Security trust fund, it is a file cabinet of paper IOUs. And that's what it is."

Here's one of several attempts to clarify:

"Q Just to follow up, Scott. But even if you have your money in dollar bills, if the United States decides that they aren't going to guarantee that dollar bill, that money is worthless, too -- the same way with U.S. Treasury obligations. People buy them. They used to buy them for 30 years, because they were confident that the U.S. was not going to default on them. And what the President seems to be indicating is that that possibility does exist. What does he mean by that?"

And here's the response -- more of a non sequitur than a non-answer, really:

"MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it's the difference between real savings and phantom savings. It's what I just explained."

Military Capacity

At Thursday's press conference, Bush was asked if he felt the number of troops stationed in Iraq is limiting his military options elsewhere in the world.

Bush replied: "No, I appreciate that question. The person to ask that to, the person I ask that to, at least, is to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, my top military advisor. I say, do you feel that we've limited our capacity to deal with other problems because of our troop levels in Iraq? And the answer is, no, he doesn't feel we're limited. He feels like we've got plenty of capacity."

Fast forward to Monday.

Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the U.S. military to a point where it is at higher risk of less swiftly and easily defeating potential foes, though officials maintained that U.S. forces could handle any military threat that presents itself.

"An annual risk assessment by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that commanders are having difficulty meeting the higher standards imposed on them by conflicts around the world, including the military effort against terrorism."

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "The general's report appears to provide a slightly different assessment than President Bush offered at a news conference last week when he said the number of American troops in Iraq would not limit Washington military options elsewhere. . . .

"Late Monday, a Pentagon official dismissed any serious contradiction between the president and the general. 'The two comments are consistent in that no one in the military feels at all limited in the ability to respond to any contingency,' the official said. 'What the risk assessment discusses is the nature of the response.' "

Laura 'Leno' Bush

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "With Washington, and the rest of the nation, still buzzing over her hilarious stand-up routine Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' annual dinner, first lady Laura Bush dropped more witticisms Monday during a Rose Garden ceremony commemorating National Preservation Month."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Rose Garden, it's the comedy stylings of George W. and Laura Bush, America's new first family of funny.

"In the best traditions of George Burns and Gracie Allen, they traded quips during a ceremony Monday honoring historic preservation efforts.

"Laura Bush, on a roll after her show-stopping stand-up routine at Saturday's White House correspondents dinner, instigated the exchange with a not-so-subtle glance at the president as she touted the nation's historic sites."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's event.

"It's a great month for Americans to visit Preserve America sites. They're wonderful destinations for school field trips, for family adventures, or even for a romantic getaway," the first lady said, casting a look in her husband's direction.

"A couple of funny lines one evening, and she gets carried away," the president replied. "Laura 'Leno' Bush."

Bush later teased back: "When we first moved to the White House, she was reading Edith Wharton's books. Sometimes it was hard to get her to turn off the light," he said.

And in an unscripted moment, Bush dropped a word in referring to "the restoration of the 18th Bolduc House" in St. Genevieve, Mo.

The first lady jumped right in: "Eighteenth century," she said, then cackled a bit.

"You've become a comedian and an editor," Bush replied with mock outrage.

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News that Landon Parvin, the Republicans' favorite humor wordsmith and the man who penned the first lady's winning lines Saturday night, "is suddenly the second-hottest news commodity in town, but like all speechwriters who want to keep their gigs, he also cultivates a passion for anonymity."

John Roberts reported on the CBS Evening News: "The White House couldn't have been happier. The first lady earned the president some much-needed good will at a time when his ratings are down, his second term agenda stalling. . . .

"It may just be the best publicity tool the president's got."

About Those Filibusters

Jeanne Cummings writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Just 10 years ago, a Senate minority had several avenues for affecting a president's judicial nominations, from closed-door maneuvers within the Judiciary Committee to quiet negotiations with the White House.

"Now there is only one sure way, and it isn't quiet at all: the filibuster.

"The gradual disappearance of other levers of influence is an often overlooked cause of the battle over judicial nominations that is raging in Washington. Both parties have played a part, with the result that the Senate stands on the brink of a government crisis."

For instance: "For decades, opposition from a home-state senator was enough to kill a nomination." But in the 1970s, the Democrats in the Judiciary Committee began chipping away at that custom and then when the Republicans took control of the Senate they also made changes in the procedures, Cummings wrote.

"In 2003, Republican Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah changed the practice further. He proceeded with hearings on Bush judicial nominees even if they were vigorously opposed by senators from the nominee's home state.

"That change reduced the need for the White House to negotiate with the Senate. The result was diminished consultation between the president and the minority within the chamber, a practice that started with President George Washington, and extended through the Clinton administration. Mr. Clinton consulted with Mr. Hatch even on his two U.S. Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer."

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "A costly advertising war erupted Monday over President Bush's controversial court nominees, with opposing groups vowing to spend at least $1 million each over the next two weeks."

Bolton Watch

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, stunned when John R. Bolton's nomination for United Nations ambassador hit a Republican road bump, is working hard to avoid a political setback at the outset of his second term when senators hold a showdown vote next week."

Hubbard's Optimism

Reuters reports: "After hitting a 'soft patch' in March due to higher oil prices, the U.S. economy should return to a higher and 'sustainable' rate of growth closer to 3.5 percent, a top White House adviser said on Monday.

" 'All the fundamentals suggest the economy will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. . . . There's no reason to believe the economy won't continue on a sustainable path,' Al Hubbard told a meeting of business reporters."

Christopher Swann writes in the Financial Times: "The administration of President George W. Bush has remained relentlessly optimistic about the outlook for the US economy. . . .

"But what initially seemed to be a short-lived 'soft patch' -- much like the blip in growth last spring -- is now looking a little more ominous."

Entree for the French

AFP reports: "President George W. Bush unexpectedly invited visiting French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to his office to discuss a wide range of international issues, from Iran's controversial nuclear program to the Middle East peace process.

"Barnier was scheduled to meet with Bush's national security adviser, Steve Hadley, at the White House, but ended up in the president's office. . . .

"The US leader usually does not receive foreign ministers in his office."

Gannon Watch

Steven C. Clemons blogs the upcoming Vanity Fair profile of Jeff Gannon: "Gannon sees his comeback happening via an interview show, or talk radio, or even the White House briefing room, saying that the person who would hire him would be 'someone who didn't care, somebody who's a maverick, who wants to create a little controversy . . . might have the stones to say, "We want him as our White House reporter." Because that's news, and that's going to attract readers.' Scott McClellan tells Vanity Fair, 'I don't think anybody expects it. It seems like he's moved on.' "

Social Security Watch

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "President Bush's plan to shore up Social Security by reducing promised benefits for all but low-income retirees is meeting resistance from some Senate Republicans, casting new doubt on Bush's top domestic priority, Republican aides and officials said."

And Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's effort to get Congress moving on Social Security by proposing cuts in benefits for high and middle-income retirees has exposed a fissure in the House Republican leadership.

"Majority Leader Tom DeLay and many conservatives unhappy with the Senate's cautious approach want a House bill on Social Security ready as soon as possible, while Speaker Dennis Hastert prefers to wait and let the Senate act first, according to Republican aides."

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