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Beats Governing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 12:40 PM

It's often said that President Bush is better at campaigning than governing. He certainly seems to enjoy it more.

Five years into his presidency, he still speaks with great contempt about "Washington" -- as if he wasn't running the place.

And while the war in Iraq isn't going well, a political fight is just his speed.

So it's no surprise that the same man who on Tuesday morning was listlessly flogging his economic policy to conservative wonks in Washington was pumped up last night at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis as he served up red meat to major Republican donors.

The approval-rating bumps Bush was counting on, first from his White House staff shake-up and then from the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, never really materialized, leaving the president in deeply unpopular territory.

Theoretically, Bush could get himself out of this mess by trying to solve some of the problems afflicting his presidency. But campaigning is easier.

[The hugely significant Hamdan decision and Bush's morning press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came down too close to my deadline for me to write about today -- but check back tomorrow.]

Fire One! Bash the Press!

Charles Babington and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush rallied Republicans with another attack on the media last night, in remarks that highlighted efforts at the White House and on Capitol Hill to gain momentum from recent disclosures about classified programs to fight terrorism."

Bush and his fellow Republican are "working to fan public anger and reap gains from the controversy during a midterm election year in which polls show they are running against stiff headwinds," Babington and Abramowitz write.

" 'This is all so people don't realize what else is going on,' especially in Iraq, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is heading [the Democratic Party's] efforts to regain control of the House in the November elections. 'This is disingenuous of both the White House and House Republicans.'

"The White House dismissed such claims. 'This is not press-bashing. This is a clear disagreement about a decision to reveal a classified program,' White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in an e-mail exchange. 'Are we supposed to just sit back and take it?'"

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Ever since President Bush vowed days after the Sept. 11 attacks to 'follow the money as a trail to the terrorists,' the government has made no secret of its efforts to hunt down the bank accounts of Al Qaeda and its allies.

"But that fact has not muted the fury of Mr. Bush, his top aides and many members of Congress at the decision last week by The New York Times and other newspapers to disclose a centerpiece of that hunt: the Treasury Department's search for clues in a vast database of financial transactions maintained by a Belgium-based banking consortium known as Swift. . . .

"Experts on terror financing are divided in their views of the impact of the revelations. Some say the harm in last week's publications in The Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal may have been less in tipping off terrorists than in putting publicity-shy bankers in an uncomfortable spotlight."

Here's a story that I unwittingly left out of yesterday's column : Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe that "a search of public records -- government documents posted on the Internet, congressional testimony, guidelines for bank examiners, and even an executive order President Bush signed in September 2001 -- describe how US authorities have openly sought new tools to track terrorist financing since 2001. That includes getting access to information about terrorist-linked wire transfers and other transactions, including those that travel through SWIFT."

Here's the transcript from last night. Setting up his attack on the press, Bush started with some background:

"The 9/11 Commission took a look and said, you need to do more on cutting off the money of the terrorist organizations. Newspapers editorialized, make sure you do what you need to do to cut off their funding. One way to win the war on terror is to starve the enemy of money. I thought that made a lot of sense."

"And so the Treasury Department launched a program to track the flow of terrorist money. See, we wanted to watch the money that the terrorists were moving around. It's one way to help protect the American people. It's one way for us to do the job that you've expected us to do."

But Bush's suggestion that the tapping of the Swift databases began after the 9/11 Commission report -- which was issued July 22, 2004 -- is just plain wrong. According to the Eric Lichtblau and James Risen story in the New York Times about the program, it dates back to the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bush continued: "This program has been a vital tool in the war on terror. Last week, the details of this program appeared in the press. There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it, and no excuse for any newspaper to print it. (Applause.)"

Fire Two! Vilify the Opposition!

Bush also ramped up his attack on Democrats for being weak in the face of peril.

"There's a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done. They're willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off. These are historic times. We will defeat the enemy by, one, bringing them to justice before they hurt us again, and we will defeat the enemy, we will defeat their hateful ideology by spreading liberty. (Applause.)

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's tone has turned tougher as he appears at more political events. . . .

"Sharpening his rhetoric as the midterm congressional campaign season accelerates, Bush offered a robust defense of his decision to invade Iraq even though, ultimately, no weapons of mass destruction were found, and drew standing ovations for his attacks on those who question his leadership of the war or the fight against terrorists."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "With opposition to the war threatening to hurt the GOP in this fall's congressional elections, Bush gave an impassioned plea for voters to reelect Republicans who had supported his national security policies.

"He repeatedly gestured to emphasize his points, and at several points his voice rose to a shout."

About That War

But beyond the politics, there is a real war going on. And there were reminders of it even in St. Louis -- though not at the Ritz-Carlton.

Jo Mannies writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The human toll of the war was evident in a separate event: the arrival of the body of a local Marine killed in Iraq. As Bush finished his visit and Air Force One slowly disappeared into the eastern sky, a hearse bearing the body of Marine Cpl. Riley Baker passed beneath a giant American flag draped between two firetrucks at Lambert Field.

"The president's Boeing 747 took off at 6:30 p.m., just before Baker's 20-vehicle funeral procession began leaving a cargo terminal at the east end of the airport. Baker, 22, of Pacific, was killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, on June 22. His body was flown to St. Louis from Dover, Del., on Wednesday."

Could He End It?

Steven R. Hurts and Qassim Abdul-Zahra write for the Associated Press: "Eleven Sunni insurgent groups have offered an immediate halt to all attacks -- including those on American troops -- if the United States agrees to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq in two years, insurgent and government officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday."

The insurgents' offer, if sincere, could be interpreted two ways. One is that the reason they are willing to stand down is so they can regroup and fight harder once the troops leave. But another is that they have no beef with Iraqi democracy, just with the U.S. occupation.

If it's the latter, then one could reasonably argue that a timetable would help, rather than hurt a democratic Iraq. And it might also end deaths like this one .

Signing Statements Redux

Blogger Daniel Drezner calls attention to a quote I overlooked in yesterday's column , from Kate Zernike 's story in the New York Times yesterday.

Said Michelle Boardman, a deputy assistant attorney general testifying before the Judiciary Committee on presidential signing statements: "It is often not at all the situation that the president doesn't intend to enact the bill."

Drezner writes: "Getting rid of the double negative, and this translates into, 'the president often intends to enact the bill.' Not always, but often."

Valerie Plame Watch

With Karl Rove apparently no longer under threat of indictment from the grand jury that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has been using for the last several months, is Fitzgerald's work done -- other than the prosecution of Scooter Libby, of course? Is he finished with the grand jury?

I called Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn yesterday to find out. I knew he wouldn't tell me anything about the inner workings of a grand jury. But I figured he might be able to tell me if there was no grand jury involved anymore.

No dice.

"The only comment that I have to add is a glorified no comment," Samborn said, "which is to say that we have consistently refrained from and we do not comment in this entire matter outside of either the public court record or speaking in court."

Koizumi Watch

Come September, Bush won't have Koizumi to rhapsodize over anymore.

Mindless of the groans from the press corps that follows him around, Bush has easily more than 100 times publicly told the story of his friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as an example of the power of democracy to build peace.

He never gets tired of it.

Koizumi is paying his last visit to the White House as prime minister today -- and tomorrow he and Bush are off to Graceland.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "It is a way for Mr. Bush to thank the Japanese prime minister for sticking by the United States on the war with Iraq and, more broadly, it is a case study of Mr. Bush's own brand of diplomacy, one that relies on personal chemistry and perks.

"From invitations to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to mountain biking trips at Camp David like the one he took this month with the prime minister of Denmark, Mr. Bush showers the trappings of his office on leaders he likes, and withholds them from those he does not. . . .

"Current and former White House aides say Mr. Bush likes leaders who are decisive, optimistic and resolute in the face of criticism -- not coincidentally, qualities the president often ascribes to himself."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Bush's foreign policy aides insist that the idea for a Graceland visit came from the president himself, not from Koizumi. 'About a year ago, the president started saying to us as staff, "I would like to take him to Graceland," and we all thought he might be joking,' said one senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity in talking about Bush's foreign-policy discussions. 'But as he repeated it several times to us, we realized he indeed thought it was a great thing to do.' . . .

"Of course, President Bush can decide whom he wants to treat as his best friends among the world's leaders. But what is surprising is how small and steady that circle of friends has been. Some, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, have fallen out of favor. Only one, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems to have joined the shortlist. Bush will travel to her hometown in former East Germany next month, en route to the G8 summit hosted by his ex-friend Putin.

"There are other limits to this kind of diplomacy: a surprising reluctance to delve into sensitive problems. Given the nature of their friendship, it's remarkable to note that Bush and Koizumi don't talk much about Japan's precarious diplomatic position in its own region.

"Even as Koizumi has grown closer to Bush, Japan's relations with China and South Korea have deteriorated. At the heart of those tensions are Japan's limited steps to acknowledge its wartime atrocities, as well as Koizumi's visits to the Yasakuni shrine that honors the military, including war criminals."

Jim Frederick explains in Time that Koizumi's appearances at the shrine "could make it more difficult for China, South Korea and Japan to focus and cooperate on North Korea's nuclear program."

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press from Tokyo: "Koizumi appears genuinely to like and admire Bush -- a stalwart member of a dwindling group of world leaders willing to stand by the beleaguered president as bloodshed continues in Iraq and anger soars over U.S. foreign policy."

About That Economy

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "All year long, in speeches and briefings and visits to factories and shops, President Bush and his aides have tried to convince Americans that the economy is in good shape -- and that the president deserves some credit for that.

"That effort is not making much headway, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. . . .

"People questioned in the poll cited several reasons for their gloomy views, but two were mentioned most frequently: fears of higher unemployment, and the high price of gasoline and other fuels."

Here are select and complete poll results.

Of course another explanation could be, as Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute blogged recently: "[T]his is an economy that looks pretty good until you take a closer look at the people in it."

And from the heartland, here's how St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan welcomed Bush to town yesterday: "Good morning, Mr. President. I figure you might want a quick note on the mood here in Missouri so when you speak in Clayton this evening at the dinner for Sen. Jim Talent, you can strike the right tone. You could ask your old friends, Stephen and Kimmie Brauer -- you've stayed at their estate on Ladue Road -- but frankly, the mood is always upbeat on the estates along Ladue Road. . . .

"But the people at the dinner are already on your side. More to the point, they're already supporting Talent. He needs your help reaching some folks who can't afford to be at the dinner. . . .

"I'd stay away from the war. Even the blockheads have gotten weary of hearing about the latest 'turning point.' This was supposed to be over in months, not years. Remember? And stay away from the economy. The rich are doing terrific, but everybody else is lucky if they're going sideways."

From Peter to Paul

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "Two Senate Democrats on Wednesday criticized a White House plan to cut money intended for food stamps, student loans and farmers to pay for credit monitoring for veterans whose personal and financial data was stolen last month. . . .

"The Veterans Affairs Department offered to pay for a year of free credit monitoring for the veterans, which it said would cost about $160.5 million. Last week, the department said it would cover most of that cost by taking money from accounts that pay health and other benefits for veterans.

"The department withdrew that idea after Democrats protested. In a letter on Wednesday, Rob Portman, director of the White House Office of Management, recommended paying for the monitoring by taking about $130 million from a food stamp employment and training program, a farmers' assistance program, student loans and a program for young people released from prison."

Twins Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Jenna Bush, the nation's most famous public-school teacher, is skipping the country and bidding a happy adios to the young-Washington social scene she once ruled. . . .

"Friends say that the blond, younger-by-minutes First Twin has been quietly making plans over recent months to leave D.C. for a teaching job in Latin America, most likely around the end of summer. . . .

"Meanwhile, Jenna's departure will mark the end of an era for Washington, which now will be completely Twinless. After several months floating around town, Barbara bailed on D.C. just weeks ago, moving to Manhattan, where she recently landed a job in education programming at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum."

Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Crooks and Liars blog has a video clip of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last night making several of the points I made in yesterday's column.

Jon Stewart and Helen Thomas

The Huffington Post has video of longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas's appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Stewart: "Is this the saddest time for you as a White House correspondent? Has this been the toughest time?"

Thomas: "It is, because I think we don't have any answers, as to why we're in the war."

Stewart: "Have you been disappointed in -- I don't want to say your colleagues, because I don't want to get you, let's say, beaten up in the cafeteria -- by the way, if anybody comes after your lunch money, you call me, and I'll come down there and knock them down."

Thomas: "We eat out of a machine."

Stewart: "Really?"

Thomas: "Reporters have no access to any kind of cafeteria, or anything like that."

Stewart: "You know what I'm doing? I'm going to write this down: Six-foot hoagie. I'm bringing a six-foot hoagie. What do you want in there?"

Thomas then described press secretary Tony Snow's recent flip-flop on the administration's position on permanent military bases, which ended with Snow demanding that Thomas define the word "permanent." (See my June 16 column .)

Stewart: "It must be very difficult not to throw something."

Political Cartoon Watch

Here's Tom Toles on Bush's signing statements; Toles on Bush and global warming; Toles on Karl Rove's strategy; Pat Oliphant on Bush and Nixon; and Mike Luckovich on politics and the war.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via Agweb : "President Bush is so angry at the New York Times he said today he's not even going to pretend to read it anymore."

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