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An Unhappy Union

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 27, 2006; 2:21 PM

President Bush will have two major audiences when he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and one of them is a lot more disappointed in him than the other.

But for a few anemic signs of independence, the Republican-controlled Congress seems happy following his lead. Not so the American public.

A slew of polls are out today telling the story of a people who are decidedly dour about Bush's performance at almost every level. One suddenly mounting area of concern: ethics. His last source of strength: national security. But even that is something of a mixed bag.

Widespread Discontent

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush "faces widespread discontent over his job performance and the nation's direction that could threaten his party in the 2006 election, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found."

Bush's approval rating came in at 43 percent, his weakest showing ever in that particular poll.

Brownstein writes: "He received even lower marks for his handling of the economy, healthcare and Iraq -- especially from women, who the poll found had turned against him on several fronts. And by a 2-1 ratio, those surveyed said the nation needed to change direction from the overall course Bush had set.

"But most of those surveyed believed Bush's policies had made the nation more secure. And a plurality say they trusted him more than they did Democrats to protect the country against terrorism -- advantages that could help Republicans defend their House and Senate majorities in November."

You can see some results here.

Fox News finds Bush's approval at 41 percent.

Wording Matters

Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder write in the New York Times: "Americans are willing to tolerate eavesdropping without warrants to fight terrorism, but are concerned that the aggressive antiterrorism programs championed by the Bush administration are encroaching on civil liberties, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"In a sign that public opinion about the trade-offs between national security and individual rights is nuanced and remains highly unresolved, responses to questions about the administration's eavesdropping program varied significantly depending on how the questions were worded, underlining the importance of the effort by the White House this week to define the issue on its terms. . . .

"The results suggest that Americans' view of the program depends in large part on whether they perceive it as a bulwark in the fight against terrorism, as Mr. Bush has sought to cast it, or as an unnecessary and unwarranted infringement on civil liberties, as critics have said."

The Times poll finds Bush's job approval at 42 percent, up 1 point from early December, "a lackluster rating that could hamper his ability to rally public opinion behind his agenda and push legislation through a divided Congress. Beyond that, nearly two-thirds of the country thinks the nation is on the wrong track, a level that has historically proved to be a matter of concern for a party in power."

Here are a graphic and the complete poll results .

You can track some of the wording used in various eavesdropping-related questions in the past several weeks on PollingReport.com .

The Times acknowledges the importance of how its questions are framed. In short, if you pit civil liberties against fighting terrorism in the public's mind, terrorism generally wins.

But that's not actually the central drama here.

Yet, as far as I know, none of these polls ask whether the public thinks Bush was wrong to embark on this program purely on his own executive authority, rather than asking Congress or the courts for their approval.

Critics of the program are not questioning the underlying intent -- to eavesdrop on the communication of suspected terrorists -- they're challenging Bush's unilateral authority to do so, without judicial or congressional approval. There's also a concern that, because of the lack of checks and balances, the program may be straying more widely than has been publicly acknowledged.

If you pit the Constitution against fighting terrorism, who wins?


Richard Morin writes for washingtonpost.com this morning: "A strong bipartisan majority of the public believes President Bush should release records of meetings between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and White House staffers despite administration claims that media requests for details about those contacts amount to a 'fishing expedition,' according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"The survey found that three in four--76 percent--of all Americans said Bush should disclose contacts between aides and Abramoff while 18 percent disagreed. Two in three Republicans joined with eight in 10 Democrats and political independents in favoring disclosure, according to the poll. . . .

"The new poll found that 56 percent of the public disapproved of the way that Bush is handling ethics in government, up seven percentage points in the past five weeks."

Executive Power

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush set limits yesterday on White House cooperation in three political disputes, saying he is determined to assert presidential prerogatives on such matters as domestic eavesdropping and congressional inquiries into Hurricane Katrina.

"In a mid-morning news conference, Bush told reporters he is skeptical of a proposed law imposing new oversights on his use of the National Security Agency to listen in on electronic communications. He also said that he will block White House aides from testifying about the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and that he will not release official White House photos of himself with former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff."

Bush made it sound like his pictures with Abramoff were purely from assembly-line style receiving lines. But that's not necessarily so. Some of the pictures appear to have been taken at the more intimate sort of events typically reserved to reward political allies.

VandeHei writes that Bush was also "adamant about not allowing top aides to testify about Hurricane Katrina. Bush, who has moved on several fronts over the past five years to strengthen the power of the presidency, said it would be damaging to him and future presidents if aides feared providing candid advice."

But what kind of advice Bush got is not the central point -- it's what kind of information he got, and what did he do with it? Isn't that fair game?

Other Abramoff News

Philip Shenon and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "The investigation of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Republican lobbyist, took a surprising new turn on Thursday when the Justice Department said the chief prosecutor in the inquiry would step down next week because he had been nominated to a federal judgeship by President Bush. . . .

"The administration said that the appointment was routine and that it would not affect the investigation, but Democrats swiftly questioned the timing of the move and called for a special prosecutor."

Scrubbing Photos?

Blogger Josh Marshall exposes the scrubbing of Abramoff photos at the Web site of Reflections Photography, a studio that does photo shoots for many Republican political events.

Wiretap Fact Check

In today's Washington Post, Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus go into some detail about "several elements in the NSA spying debate that have been clouded by apparent contradictions and mixed messages from the government since the program was revealed last month. . . .

"Many Democratic lawmakers and legal experts have seized on these and other issues in recent days to argue that the Bush administration has been misleading in its explanations of the NSA program."

For example: "Bush and his top aides have repeatedly stressed that 'Congress' had been briefed on the program over the past four years, but have often neglected to mention that the briefings were limited to the 'Gang of Eight': the speaker and minority leader of the House; the majority and minority leaders of the Senate; and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the two intelligence committees. And they were barred from taking notes or discussing what they heard with other lawmakers or their staffs. . . .

"Yet Dan Bartlett, counselor to Bush and White House communications director, said Monday that the lawmakers who had been briefed 'believed we are doing the right thing' and that Democratic leaders 'briefed on these programs would be screaming from the mountaintops' if they thought the program was illegally eavesdropping on Americans."

Whopper Watch

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "In speech after speech, President Bush claims that if the National Security Agency could have wiretapped two Al Qaeda operatives living in San Diego, the 9/11 attacks might have been thwarted.

"That's a whopper, critics say.

"'We didn't realize they were here plotting the attack until it was too late,' Bush said Wednesday at NSA headquarters.

" 'It's not true,' ex-9/11 commissioner Bob Kerrey, president of the New School in Manhattan, told the Daily News. 'We knew about those two guys - the CIA lost them.' . . .

" 'The problem was the CIA and FBI not communicating and not picking them up,' said Thomas Kean, the commission's former chairman."

Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Attorneys for Vice President Cheney's former top aide urged a court yesterday to force prosecutors to turn over all the information they obtained from reporters about their confidential conversations with Bush administration sources in the course of a two-year CIA leak investigation. . . .

"The indictment asserted that Libby leaked information about [Valerie] Plame's CIA role to two reporters but pretended he had learned the information from Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, and that he passed it along as unverified reporter chatter.

"The defense's goal is to show that Libby was not intentionally lying when he testified that many journalists had known about Plame during the spring and summer of 2003, and that he believed he had learned about her from Russert."

Leonnig notes that "the court papers filed by Libby's team highlighted Bob Woodward, a Washington Post reporter and assistant managing editor, as a crucial witness who could provide exculpatory information that might help Libby avoid a conviction."

Hamas Watch

I wrote in yesterday's column about Bush's reaction, in his morning news conference, to the Hamas victory.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The upbeat rhetoric belied the fact that the election outcome was the opposite of what the administration had hoped would happen. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials scrambled to survey the wreckage of their Middle East policy."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "The Hamas victory was the fifth case recently of militants' winning significant gains through elections. They included the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a radical president in Iran, and Shiites backed by militias in Iraq.

"As these elections unfolded, there has been increasing criticism in some quarters -- notably among the self-described 'realists' in foreign policy, many of them veterans of past Republican administrations -- that President Bush has naively pushed for democracy in countries without the civil society components to support it."

Juan Cole writes in an opinion column in Salon: "The stunning victory of the militant Muslim fundamentalist Hamas Party in the Palestinian elections underlines the central contradictions in the Bush administration's policies toward the Middle East. Bush pushes for elections, confusing them with democracy, but seems blind to the dangers of right-wing populism. At the same time, he continually undermines the moderate and secular forces in the region by acting high-handedly or allowing his clients to do so. As a result, Sunni fundamentalist parties, some with ties to violent cells, have emerged as key players in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine.

"Democracy depends not just on elections but on a rule of law, on stable institutions, on basic economic security for the population, and on checks and balances that forestall a tyranny of the majority."

Ducking Objects and Questions

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The best-laid plans for President Bush's news conference went awry just 30 seconds into the event. An Associated Press camera and tripod broke free from their bracket on the ceiling and, in view of the TV cameras, dangled menacingly over reporters from Bloomberg News and the New York Daily News."

Milbank's assessment of the event: "In all, Bush uttered nearly 7,000 words in his 45-minute Q and A. But his message could be summed up with a brief phrase in his least-favorite language: L'Etat c'est moi (I am the state). . . .

"Midway through this Bourbonic performance, the Los Angeles Times's James Gerstenzang offered an observation on Bush's surveillance policy: 'This seems to sound like something President Nixon once said, which was: 'When the president does it, then that means that it's not illegal.' ' Whispered 'oohs' could be heard in the room. Bush gave a look indicating he wished the dangling camera had fallen on Gerstenzang."

John Dickerson , writing in Slate, examines how Bush ducks questions.

"The pause to think gives him away. When he doesn't punch out a response, he's not puzzling out the answer. He's puzzling out the spin."

Among his tactics: "Distract the questioner with something else. Show reporters a sparkly ornament, and hope we'll forget the tree it's hanging on. (Talking about Saddam Hussein has served this purpose in ducking tricky Iraq questions.) When talking about Jack Abramoff, Bush focused on the pictures of the two together rather than the larger issue of what influence the lobbyist had with White House officials and what, if anything, he may have gotten in return for all of that campaign cash."

Then there's the answering-the-question-would-help-the-terrorists dodge.

"This doesn't avoid the question so much as it makes asking too many pointed ones an act of treachery."

Editorial Watch

Karl Rove's speech last week seems to have really gotten under the skin of an increasing number of editorial boards.

The Washington Post writes: "The Bush administration's distortion, for political purposes, of the Democratic position on warrantless surveillance is loathsome. Despite the best efforts of Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, to make it seem otherwise, Democrats are not opposed to vigorous, effective surveillance that could uncover terrorist activity. Nor are the concerns that they are expressing unique to their party. . . .

"Believing there should be constraints on unchecked executive power is not the same as being weak-kneed about the war against terrorism."

The Philadelphia Inquirer writes: "Here's a statement with which no American concerned about preventing terrorist attacks would quarrel:

" 'President Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.'

"Thus said chief presidential adviser Karl Rove last week. True to his partisan form, Rove then went on to claim that 'some important Democrats clearly disagree.'

"Rove clearly has that wrong. The objections are not to the idea of spying on al-Qaeda. It's about the unaccountable, constitutionally dubious way the Bush administration put that idea into practice."

Newsday writes: "In politics, a strong offense may well be the best defense. But in this fight Bush is peddling two false dichotomies.

"First, that the debate is simply Republicans for, Democrats against. It isn't. Second, that the public must either accept this off-the-reservation electronic snooping or, as Gen. Michael Hayden, the administration's No. 2 intelligence official intimated, remain vulnerable to terrorist attack. That ignores the fact that there are well-established legal avenues for monitoring suspected terrorists that Bush simply chose to avoid.

"Given Bush's claimed authority to spy on Americans without court oversight, the nation needs a sober debate on the limits of presidential power. What it doesn't need is a cynical appeal to partisanship and fear."

The San Francisco Chronicle writes: "President Bush's public-relations offensive on behalf of his warrantless surveillance program is an insult to the intelligence of the American people. . . .

"The talking point often parroted by Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush allies on Capitol Hill -- 'If al Qaeda is calling you, we want to know why' -- is a classic red herring. There is no doubt that such an eavesdropping request would fall within the 99-plus percent the FISA court is approving.

"The question is: Will Congress have the fortitude to rein in a presidency that is acting as if it is above the law?"

Opinion Watch: The Fear Factor

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Once upon a time we had a great wartime president who told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Now we have George W. Bush, who uses fear as a tool of executive power and as a political weapon against his opponents."

Leonard Pitts Jr. writes in his Miami Herald column: "Karl Rove said in a speech last week that this year's midterm election will be about security. So you know it will be about fear. . . .

"The choice is simple: remain true to the ideals that have guided us for 230 years or surrender them on the altar of expedience because we were too scared to live up to them."

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