The New Sales Pitch

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 17, 2005; 12:00 PM

President Bush launches a much-ballyhooed new public-relations campaign next week -- but is it just going to be more of the same?

On the CBS Evening News last night, John Roberts reported that Bush's solution to his current, highly embattled state is to "sharpen his focus and ramp up his sales pitch in the coming weeks, telling Americans why it's important to stay the course in Iraq, pressuring Congress to get some of his agenda passed by the August recess.

"But on the surface, at least, it appears as though this sharper focus doesn't include anything that the president hasn't already been saying, and in a case of deja vu all over again, his new PR campaign on Iraq seems remarkably similar to one he launched almost two years ago, citing the progress in Iraq, while at the same time reminding Americans that difficult times still lie ahead."

On CNN, Dana Bash talked to anchor Tom Foreman:

"So the White House communications team is telling reporters today that they have a new message, and essentially it is the president is going to say 'he gets it'. They understand. . . .

"As one senior official who was just briefing us said . . . Americans don't necessarily see all of the details, everything that is going on in Iraq and that it's the president's responsibility, and it's time for him to actually get that message out. . . .

"But one key thing to keep in mind, here, this is a communications strategy -- even telling reporters that they are going to do that is part of that strategy. They are not, as we understand, going to announce any new policy, any new shift in strategy, when it comes to the meat on the bones, if you will, when it comes to the substance both on Iraq and the economy.

"FOREMAN: Dana, don't they have any worries about that? Because it seems like the public, certainly the congressional people, are asking for meat on the bones. They are saying enough of the talk, tell us a plan.

"BASH: When it comes to Iraq, that is something that some of us were just pressing a senior official here on, [that] the American people have been hearing about the progress that the White House says is going on in Iraq for some time. And that, as we are hearing from Capitol Hill, perhaps some Americans want to hear a date certain for an exit strategy. They say that is simply [not] going to happen. And the president simply feels that . . . he has to at least explain better what is going on on the ground. And they think that could help."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: " 'One of the things we have to do is get out and explain to the American people where we are,' a senior administration official said yesterday. 'It's incumbent on the administration once again to explain to the American people where we are in this process, what the way forward is, why we think we're making progress, but -- at the same time -- be very clear that this is a difficult situation.' "

All this more-of-the-same-only-different talk led one reporter at yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan to ask:

" Q So are you suggesting, then, that the current concerns of the American people are because they are either uninformed or misinformed about the situation in Iraq and the President is going to try to correct them?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Look, we have scores of troops in harm's way in Iraq. We have families here at home that are making tremendous sacrifices. Everybody wants to see the troops return home sooner than later. But the way to returning home is to complete the mission. That's the way to honor their service and sacrifice. And so it's simply what I was saying. This is a top concern for the American people. It's a top priority for the President of the United States. And he's just sharpening his focus on that important priority, along with the economic priority, economic priorities, that have always been at the top of his agenda."

Should we take that as a 'yes'?

Bring the Troops Home

John Hendren and Cynthia H. Cho write in the Los Angeles Times: "Apprehension over the war in Iraq surged Thursday as a group of lawmakers demanded that President Bush develop plans to withdraw troops and a top Pentagon official expressed concern about sagging public support for the U.S. military effort.

"After a deadly increase in violence in Iraq, congressional critics of the war grew more vocal in demanding a change in policy, and antiwar activists staged a rally near the White House."

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "A conservative, a moderate, a liberal and a libertarian teamed up in the House yesterday to prod President Bush to set a timetable to withdraw from Iraq, striking a rare tone of unity on a day when tensions about national security provoked marathon brawling on the floor."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Two years after the Iraq invasion, America seems to be losing its stomach for war."

Downing Street Memo Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Amid new questions about President Bush's drive to topple Saddam Hussein, several House Democrats urged lawmakers on Thursday to conduct an official inquiry to determine whether the president intentionally misled Congress.

"At a public forum where the word 'impeachment' loomed large, Exhibit A was the so-called Downing Street memo, a prewar document leaked from inside the British government to The Sunday Times of London a month and a half ago. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, organized the event. . . .

"Conyers and a half-dozen other members of Congress were stopped at the White House gate later Thursday when they hand-delivered petitions signed by 560,000 Americans who want Bush to provide a detailed response to the Downing Street memo. When Conyers couldn't get in, an anti-war demonstrator shouted, 'Send Bush out!' Eventually, White House aides retrieved the petitions at the gate and took them into the West Wing."

Paul Koring writes for Toronto's Globe and Mail: "The emotive and charged word 'impeachment' was voiced yesterday on Capitol Hill as a clutch of Democratic congressmen, backed by distraught mothers of soldiers slain in Iraq, put together a piece of theatre that could become the summer's political drama."

But Dana Milbank of The Washington Post saw yesterday's event more as farce: "In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe."

No Response Necessary

From yesterday's briefing:

"Q Scott, on another topic, has the President or anyone else from the administration responded to the letter sent last month by Congressman John Conyers and signed by dozens of members of the House of Representatives, regarding the Downing Street memo? Has the President or anyone else responded?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Not that I'm aware of.

"Q Why not?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Why not? Because I think that this is an individual who voted against the war in the first place and is simply trying to rehash old debates that have already been addressed. And our focus is not on the past. It's on the future and working to make sure we succeed in Iraq.

"These matters have been addressed, Elaine. I think you know that very well. The press --

"Q Scott, 88 members of Congress signed that letter.

"MR. McCLELLAN: The press -- the press have covered it, as well.

"Q What do you say about them?

"Q But, Scott, don't they deserve the courtesy of a response back?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this has been addressed. Go ahead."

A Classic Exchange

Appearing on CNN with Larry King on May 30, Vice President Cheney asserted: "I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

It appeared to be an entirely unsupported assessment. If the White House has evidence to back it up, however, that would certainly be news worth reporting.

So at yesterday's press briefing, ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran decided to try to find out.

Unlike some recent lines of inquiry in the briefing room, this one didn't end after one question. Moran was dogged.

Here's the transcript . Here's the video (the exchange starts at 8:10 and lasts for two and a half minutes.)

Not surprisingly, it still didn't work. McClellan said exactly nothing that was remotely new. But the following exchange certainly does call attention to McClellan's inability to answer what ought to be a simple question.

"Q Scott, is the insurgency in Iraq in its last throes?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, you have a desperate group of terrorists in Iraq that are doing everything they can to try to derail the transition to democracy. The Iraqi people have made it clear that they want a free and democratic and peaceful future. And that's why we're doing everything we can, along with other countries, to support the Iraqi people as they move forward. The fact that they are making great progress on the political front is significant because that helps defeat the terrorists, because the terrorists don't want to see democracy take hold. They don't want lasting democratic institutions to be put in place. And that's why we are standing with the Iraqi people as they move forward on the political front.

"We're also standing with the Iraqi people as they move forward on -- to address the security situation. We are working side by side with Iraqi forces now to defeat those terrorists and regime elements who want to derail the transition to democracy. And every day we move forward on democracy and training Iraqi security forces is every day closer that we are to succeeding in Iraq.

"Q But the insurgency is in its last throes?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The Vice President talked about that the other day -- you have a desperate group of terrorists who recognize how high the stakes are in Iraq. A free Iraq will be a significant blow to their ambitions.

"Q But they're killing more Americans, they're killing more Iraqis. That's the last throes?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Innocent -- I say innocent civilians. And it doesn't take a lot of people to cause mass damage when you're willing to strap a bomb onto yourself, get in a car and go and attack innocent civilians. That's the kind of people that we're dealing with. That's what I say when we're talking about a determined enemy.

"Q Right. What is the evidence that the insurgency is in its last throes?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just explained to you the desperation of terrorists and their tactics.

"Q What's the evidence on the ground that it's being extinguished?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, we're making great progress to defeat the terrorist and regime elements. You're seeing Iraqis now playing more of a role in addressing the security threats that they face. They're working side by side with our coalition forces. They're working on their own. There are a lot of special forces in Iraq that are taking the battle to the enemy in Iraq. And so this is a period when they are in a desperate mode.

"Q Well, I'm just wondering what the metric is for measuring the defeat of the insurgency.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you can go back and look at the Vice President's remarks. I think he talked about it.

"Q Yes. Is there any idea how long a last throe lasts for?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Steve."

More Trouble Ahead?

In today's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviews "Squandered Victory," a new book by Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and a leading American scholar on democracy and democratic movements.

"In this book, Mr. Diamond contends that the postwar troubles in Iraq -- a bloody and unrelenting insurgency, the creation of a new breeding ground for terrorists and metastasizing ethnic and religious tensions -- are the result of 'gross negligence' on the part of a Bush administration that rushed to war. He asserts that 'mistakes were made at virtually every turn' of the occupation, and that 'every mistake the United States made in Iraq narrowed the scope and lengthened the odds for progress.' "

Medicare Watch

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "Mark your calendar, call your parents and do some homework for the fall signup of a new Medicare prescription drug program, President Bush said yesterday in the first of a series of events aimed at revving up interest in the benefit that becomes effective Jan. 1.

"Few details are available on the choices seniors will face when registration begins in November, but the administration hopes that publicizing the drug coverage now will boost enrollment later."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA TODAY: "President Bush kicked off Thursday what he called a 'massive' nationwide outreach to millions of seniors to make sure they are enrolled for the first-ever Medicare prescription-drug benefit that begins in January. . . .

"Bush, who takes to the road today to carry the message to Maple Grove, Minn., said he is personally spearheading the 11-month education effort because he is worried that those low-income seniors who most need coverage might not get it. He said he is concerned potential beneficiaries may be confused by the forms or unaware of the benefits and how to apply for them."

Bush's speech was just 20 minutes long yesterday.

Plan B for Social Security

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Congress's Republican leaders, convinced they are staring into the jaws of defeat on overhauling Social Security, are scrambling for an alternative approach to President Bush's top domestic priority that would allow him -- and them -- to seize some measure of victory."

Tax Reform Delayed

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday pushed back the deadline for the release of tax recommendations by two months, to Sept. 30, hoping that by then, more pressing priorities -- such as Social Security and energy policy -- will have been cleared from Congress's plate.

"By executive order, Bush extended the life of his tax panel, even though it is on track to complete its work by the original July 31 deadline."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The decision means that Mr. Bush is unlikely to propose a big tax measure until next year, mainly because administration officials have been bogged down far more than they expected on efforts to overhaul Social Security.

" 'From the White House perspective, the president and the Congress have a lot on their plate right now,' said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman."

Iran Watch

Robin Wright and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "On the eve of Iran's presidential election, President Bush yesterday denounced Tehran's theocracy for manipulating the vote by eliminating candidates and ignoring the 'basic requirements' of democracy. . . .

"The White House statement yesterday came down particularly hard on Iran and pledged that the United States will stand with the Iranian people as they struggle for freedom -- language reminiscent of the prewar talk on Iraq. Yet the statement fell short of suggesting that Washington is seeking a regime change."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's criticism of Iran came in sharp contrast to the praise that members of the administration have showered on Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their modest moves toward elections, and it appeared to amount to a pre-emptive American effort to challenge Friday's vote. But at a briefing on Thursday, Scott McClellan, Mr. Bush's press secretary, said that 'different circumstances require different strategies' and denied that Mr. Bush was muting criticism of allies while stepping up pressure on countries like Iran."

Here is Bush's statement on Iran.

White House v. Durbin

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) drew a White House rebuke yesterday for comparing the treatment of prisoners at the naval detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the interrogation tactics of the Nazis and the Soviet gulags. But Durbin defended his comments and said conditions there were not worthy of a democracy such as the United States.

"In a Senate floor speech Tuesday, Durbin cited an FBI report describing Guantanamo Bay prisoners chained to the floor in the fetal position without food or water and sometimes in extreme temperatures.

" 'If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control,' he said, 'you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings.' "

Meet Ben Bernanke

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times about Ben S. Bernanke, who is taking over next week as chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

Bernanke "has studiously avoided partisan political issues, at least in public. He has said little about issues at the top of Mr. Bush's agenda, like Social Security and tax cuts, and his economic writing betrays few hints of political ideology. . . .

"Mr. Bernanke enjoys enormous credibility among economists in academia as well as on Wall Street -- an advantage for him that may also pay off for Mr. Bush. . . .

"The disadvantage is that Mr. Bernanke may not be able to build up close ties in the White House, where Mr. Bush's inner circle places high priority on personal loyalty and passionate support for the White House's policy goals."

Poll Watch

Robin Toner and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times: "Increasingly pessimistic about Iraq and skeptical about President Bush's plan for Social Security, Americans are in a season of political discontent, giving Mr. Bush one of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and even lower marks to Congress, according to the New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"Forty-two percent of the people responding to the poll said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling his job, a marked decline from his 51 percent rating after of the November election, when he embarked on an ambitious second term agenda led by the overhaul of Social Security. . . .

"Despite months of presidential effort, the nationwide poll found the public is not rallying toward Mr. Bush's vision of a new Social Security that would allow younger workers to put part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Two-thirds said they were uneasy about Mr. Bush's ability to make sound decisions on Social Security. . . .

"Moreover, 45 percent said the more they heard about the Bush plan, the less they liked it."

Here are the complete results .

CBS reports: "Iraq and the economy -- not the President's signature issue of Social Security -- are most important to Americans, and Americans' assessments of both remain mixed, with support for the decision to send troops to Iraq matching its lowest percent ever."

The Wall Street Journal 's new poll shows Bush's job approval at 45 percent, with 55 percent disapproving.

At the same time, Vice President Cheney's approval rating slipped to 38 percent from 45 percent in February.

Fox News has a new poll out as well, which finds: "President Bush's job rating is essentially unchanged from late April and currently stands at 48 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove. The president's ratings continue to show a huge partisan gap, with his approval among Republicans at a lofty 86 percent compared to 14 percent among Democrats and 46 percent among independents."

Here are the complete results .

One interesting finding: "Virtually all of Bush and Kerry voters (94 percent) still agree with their vote. Four percent of Bush voters say they regret how they voted, as do 3 percent of Kerry voters."

Future White House Briefing?

The Fox News poll also has some unusual question in it. Among them:

"If Hillary Rodham Clinton were elected president, then Bill Clinton would return to the White House as first gentleman. Which comes closer to how you feel about the possibility of Bill Clinton being back in the White House?"

The options: Enthusiastic, scared, mixed, or other.

The winner: Enthusiastic (38 percent), with scared coming in second at 33 percent.

Next question: "If Hillary Clinton were elected president, would you see it more as her first term or as a third term for Bill Clinton?"

And it was "Hillary's first term" in a walk, with 67 percent, compared to 19 percent for "Bill's third term."

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