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A Test of Relevance

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 4, 2006; 12:27 PM

Is anyone paying attention to the president anymore?

Consider today and tomorrow a test of presidential relevance, as the White House tries to get the nation to turn its attention to the topic of health savings accounts.

At a White House meeting this morning, and then in a so-called "panel on health savings accounts" in Connecticut tomorrow afternoon, President Bush is trumpeting the accounts as a free-market antidote to the nation's health care crisis.

But with war raging in Iraq and pandemonium breaking out in Congress, Bush is having a harder time than usual making himself heard. And in this particular case, even if people do pay attention, it doesn't mean they'll buy his argument. Much like Bush's failed attempt to restructure Social Security, the argument for health savings accounts is, on its face, problematic.

Bush's chief economic adviser, Allan B. Hubbard , kicked things off yesterday with a New York Times op-ed in which he insisted that health insurance premiums are up because consumers of health-care services aren't being smart shoppers.

"To control health care costs, we must give consumers an incentive to spend money wisely," he wrote.

But that brings back memories of how managed-care health plans became the dominant players in the industry in the 1990s: By promising that, as super-efficient mega-organizations, they could put a needed squeeze on doctor and hospital bills.

So that didn't work -- and now we're supposed to believe that individual patients have the leverage?

Sarah Lueck writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Hubbard, a buddy of President Bush's from Harvard Business School days, is the White House's lead pitchman on the president's health-care proposals. They include providing bigger tax breaks for health-savings accounts, or HSAs, and making hospitals' and doctors' prices available to consumers.. . . .

"Democrats say the emphasis on HSAs does little to help the uninsured and favors the healthiest and wealthiest Americans."

Hubbard was formerly on the board of and an investor in Medical Savings Insurance Co., which sells HSAs.

"When Mr. Hubbard arrived at the White House, his main task was pushing Mr. Bush's Social Security plan. That fizzled, and by last summer Mr. Hubbard was chairing an internal work group on health care."

I wrote at length about health savings accounts in my January 25 column, Another Shot at the Safety Net .

This Morning's Event

Bush spoke briefly about the health savings accounts this morning. But the questions from the press corps were all about former House majority leader Tom DeLay's resignation, the situation in Iraq, and rumors of a White House staff shakeup.

Nedra Pickler reports for the Associated Press: "Signaling possible further changes to his staff, President Bush said Tuesday that he looks forward to recommendations from his new chief of staff on 'how to get the White House to function in an effective way.' "

Tomorrow in Bridgeport

The White House's version of glasnost may be coming to the test as well. At this morning's event, Bush was surrounded by people who agreed with him about health policy.

And the Connecticut Post reports that tomorrow's event in Bridgeport is not open to the public. Instead, about 150 invitations have been sent out to top executives at hospitals, universities, banks and health-care companies.

Even as Bush has on occasion started taking questions from unscreened audiences, his aides have continued to bar any dissenters from appearing on stage with him. So you can bet that, like today's "meeting" in the Roosevelt Room, Bush's "panel" tomorrow is likely to be full of ringers.

And what was the White House advance team thinking, sending Bush to gritty, industrial, non-Republican Bridgeport when there are so many swankier, friendlier venues nearby?

Peter Urban writes in the Connecticut Post: "Bridgeport would seem an unlikely place for the president to venture -- he received only 28 percent of the city's vote in 2004 and no Bridgeport resident contributed more than $200 to his 2004 re-election campaign.

"The White House had put out feelers to meet in Stamford with Fairfield County business leaders, but settled on Bridgeport due to security concerns, said Joe McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, which is hosting the event."

The Associated Press reports that it will be Bush's first visit to Connecticut since 2004, when he -- more typically -- raised over $1.1 million for his re-election campaign with a 30-minute stump speech in Greenwich.

Don't Count Him Out Yet

Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard that it's too early to count Bush out.

"The president's goals are quite simple. He has at least three in mind: improve relations with Congress, strengthen ties to the Republican base of voters, and quash the Democratic talking point that he and his administration are incompetent. To achieve these, he has to improve his popularity as measured by his job approval rating, since the political community and the media are obsessed with this poll number.

"Whether in a slump or not, Bush or any president has extraordinary power to change the subject in Washington and indeed around the country--that is, so long as he's willing to be bold, as Bush often is."

For instance, should he choose to make some sweeping personnel changes, "Bush can create the aura and energy of a new presidency, one ready to overcome troubles and do big things again."

But by contrast, "The president shouldn't expect too much from his [recent off-the-record] sitdowns with reporters. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton tried to revive their flagging presidencies this way. They hoped to get reporters to like them or sympathize with them. The tactic failed."

Speculation Watch

As loosely-sourced and conflicting rumors swirled about the fate of White House spokesman Scott McClellan, McClellan himself gamely faced the media horde yesterday, in his daily gaggle .

"Q Have you had any thoughts that you might be leaving soon?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't speculate on any personnel matters.

"Q You're not speculating for yourself.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm focused on helping the President advance his agenda, just like the rest of the team at the White House."

Scooter Libby Watch

Pete Yost wrote Friday for the Associated Press: "Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is narrowing the description of his powers in an effort to counter calls for dismissal of the criminal case he brought against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, defense lawyers said Friday. . . .

"The defense attorneys say assignment of unsupervised and undirected power to Fitzgerald requires that he be relieved of his duties in the investigation and that all actions he has taken be voided."

Just One Minute blogger Tom Maguire has Web-posted the Libby filing.

Firedoglake Blogger Christy Hardin Smith doesn't think much of Team Libby's argument.

Missing Trustees

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and the Senate are at an impasse over the appointment of trustees for Social Security and Medicare, crippling the panel that supervises the two programs.

"This, in turn, has delayed the annual reports on the financial condition of the programs, which together account for more than one-third of all federal spending. Under federal law, the reports are supposed to be sent to Congress by April 1."

Bush has apparently violated precedent by renominating the most recent pair of trustees.

"Under federal law, the two public trustees 'may not be from the same political party.' The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has recommended a Democratic candidate to the White House, but has not publicly identified the person. Republicans said they understood that the White House found the candidate too partisan."

Not the House of Card

Peter S. Canellos writes in his Boston Globe column that dumping Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was not a dramatic move, because it's Cheney who runs things over there.

"Even if Bush wanted to marginalize Cheney, and there's no evidence that he does, he would have to remove all the Cheney loyalists from the defense secretary on down and still wake up to Cheney sitting in the West Wing every morning. Only Congress can remove a vice president, and only then for 'high crimes and misdemeanors.'

"Cheney seems happy to swim along with an approval rating lower than Bush. He isn't running for office. He's running the country."

The Pitch

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "George W. Bush, briefly setting aside troubles that have beset his presidency, indulged his passion for baseball on Monday by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of America's 2006 Major League season. . . .

"With Secret Service snipers watching from the stadium roof, the crowd, festooned with small American flags, roared with approval, drowning out a smattering of boos, as Bush's pitch soared past the plate into Reds catcher Jason LaRue's glove.

"Bush smiled in apparent relief. Both he and his father, former President George Bush, had bounced ceremonial pitches to the plate in the past."

Why so few boos, given Bush's dismal approval ratings?

Lonnie Wheeler writes in the Cincinnati Post: "When the President strode to the mound to throw out the first pitch . . . he was accompanied by two injured American soldiers (Mike McNaughton, Afghanistan, and Paul Brondhaver, Iraq) and the father (John Prazynski) of another (Taylor Prazynski) who was killed in action (Afghanistan). If anyone in the capacity crowd had been predisposed to boo George Bush, that notion was dashed by the company the prez was publicly keeping."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush, the former Texas Rangers owner, told Fox Sports Network in a gametime interview that he has been a baseball fan since birth.

" 'I was born when my dad was in college, and he was the first baseman for the Yale Bulldogs, and mother used to take me to the games,' Bush said. 'So it was like immersion from a young age.'

" 'I've got the dish at home at the White House, and so, when I'm doing my work, I keep a game on. And there's nothing better than opening day,' the president said."

Paul Sullivan writes in the Chicago Tribune about Bush's visit to the Cubs' clubhouse.

"President Bush greeted every player and tried to personalize every greeting. It didn't always work, as with Todd Walker.

" 'I said, "Hey, how ya doing, my name's Todd Walker,'' . . . He said, "Hey, Tom, how are ya?" So I don't guess I made too good of an impression. But it was a neat thing.' . . .

"The president briefly discussed his faith with left fielder Matt Murton, who is a born-again Christian."

Here's video of the pitch.

Twins in the Running, Redux

I linked yesterday to Shawn Fenner 's Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the Bush twins running incognito in a 10K there over the weekend -- and completing the race in under 55:00.

I challenged you readers to spot their aliases in this list of women finishers, aged 20-24.

It wasn't hard, apparently. Reader Bob Rozier was the first of many to call my attention to finishers 129 and 130: Emily Jackson and Sarah Jackson, both of Arlington, both finishing at 54:27.

Taking Sides

It's been said that Fox News is the unofficial network of the Republican Party, but it comes as a bit of a shock when a purported White House correspondent appears on the actual, official network of the Republican party.

Bill Sammon, formerly of the Washington Times, now the marquee White House correspondent for the fledgling Washington Examiner, is the star of a new podcast on GOP Radio, on the Web site of the Republican National Committee.

Sammon is flogging his new book, "Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats, and Confounding the Mainstream Media."

"I think he's on a comeback right now," Sammon tells GOP.com about the president. "I've said for some time I think they ought to let Bush be Bush," he says. (See yesterday's column .)

"One of the things that drives the media nuts is that he does have the courage of his convictions," Sammon says.

Host Kevin McLaughlin, the director of GOP radio, asked Sammon: "We know how the press treats the president. Not a lot of respect there. How does the press treat you? . . . Do they see you as a sellout, knowing you aren't buying into the liberal bias they have?"

Sammon: "I consider myself friends with almost every person in the White House press corps. . . . They're very funny, they're irreverent, they're witty, they're good people. But my problem with them is institutionally, they have this institutional bias that I can't abide."

Kessler Watch

Francis Harris writes in the Telegraph: "Laura Bush has shaken the decorous world of America's unofficial First Ladies' club by taunting Hillary Clinton about poor housekeeping and bad taste while in the White House. . . .

"According to 'Laura Bush, an Intimate Portrait of the First Lady,' published today, the trouble began when Mrs Clinton took the new First Lady on a tour of the White House after the 2000 election. Mrs Bush, famed for her impeccable presentation, disclosed that she was appalled by the state of the carpets and furniture in the West Wing. Many were described as frayed. Furnishings in the East Wing, the official quarters of the First Lady, looked dated, the book says. Mrs Bush was also taken aback by the garish, clashing colours of much of the decor, which included red, blue and gold. . . .

"The book was written by Ron Kessler, a former journalist, with White House approval. . . . The biography has been described by the book industry's bible, Publishers Weekly , as 'unsurprisingly flattering' about Mrs Bush and filled with 'unsubtle' jabs at Mrs Clinton."

Marianne Means writes in her Hearst opinion column: "Two new books meant to applaud Laura Bush's pleasant personality actually highlight how she has wasted her unique opportunity to play an influential role. We expect more of women in public life now than we did when Bess Truman was first lady. And the war in Iraq has become so all-consuming with voters that the do-good projects designed to give her increased visibility in the second Bush term seem too little, too late."

In Retrospect. . . .

As we learn more about Bush's march to war in Iraq, do the journalists and pundits who missed the real story owe us some sort of explanation?

David Corn , writing in the Nation, compares Bob Woodward's account of a January 2003 meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair with a recently leaked memo describing the same event. He concludes that Woodward got spun by his sources.

Corn updated his piece late yesterday with news that "Woodward called to tell me that he thought that the article was 'dishonest' and 'unfair' and that I owed him an apology. . . . I promised to print as long a reply as he would care to write. He said he would send something along soon."

We'll stay tuned.

Editor and Publisher columnist Greg Mitchell last week compared Richard Cohen on the war, then -- and now .

"Richard Cohen, the longtime Washington Post columnist sometimes accused of being a 'liberal,' produced a strong column today, titled 'Bush Wanted War.' In it he said he had long been skeptical of this idea, but now had come to accept it. That's all well and good, but where was Cohen a little more than three years ago, when this fact was as plain as the smirk on the president's face, and the columnist agitated for war anyway?"

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