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Office Politics

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 11:48 AM

When Josh Bolten took over as President Bush's chief of staff almost five months ago, there was some talk of his cleaning house.

But I've just updated my White House Floor Plan , and the fact is that Bolten's West Wing looks a lot like Andrew Card's -- with a few notable exceptions.

For instance, as soon as he took over, Bolten not only relieved senior adviser Karl Rove of his policy portfolio but of his office. Deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan got Rove's spacious digs, while Rove moved across the hall into a windowless space formerly occupied by his assistant, Susan Ralston. Ralston got former adviser Mike Gerson's smaller office next door.

Among other moves, press secretary Tony Snow took over Scott McClellan's old spot, and moved Dana Perino and Josh Deckard up from the lower press office. Jared Weinstein recently took over from Blake Gottesman as the guy the president summons when he wants a breath mint.

There are four new senior aides on the second floor: Kevin Sullivan replaced Nicole Wallace as communications director; Liza Wright now oversees presidential appointments instead of Dina Powell; Deb Fiddelke replaced Doug Badger as legislative affairs deputy; and domestic policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister now occupies the office that belonged to Claude Allen until he resigned to face shoplifting charges.

And speechwriter Bill McGurn moved from a room with no view into the much more inspiring office occupied by Hillary Clinton in the last administration, then Karl Rove until he moved downstairs.

Welcome Print Readers

Today's column coincides with the publication of the White House map on the Federal Page in the print edition of The Washington Post. Welcome, Washington Post newspaper readers! For those of you who haven't visited before: White House Briefing is a spirited review of media and blog coverage about the president and his staff. It appears on the washingtonpost.com home page every weekday around mid-day. Scroll through some of my recent columns if you have some time. The latest column always appears at this URL: washingtonpost.com/whbriefing .

Poll Watch

Carl Hulse and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times: "Americans increasingly see the war in Iraq as distinct from the fight against terrorism, and nearly half believe President Bush has focused too much on Iraq to the exclusion of other threats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"The poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed saw no link between the war in Iraq and the broader antiterror effort, a jump of 10 percentage points since June. That increase comes despite the regular insistence of Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans that the two are intertwined and should be seen as complementary elements of a strategy to prevent domestic terrorism. . . .

"Mr. Bush recorded a gain of four percentage points in how the public views his handling of terrorism, rising to 55 percent approval from 51 percent a week earlier. This was his highest approval rating on the issue since last summer and followed the arrests in Britain in a suspected terror plot to blow up airliners.

"Mr. Bush's overall standing was nevertheless unchanged from the previous week, with 57 percent disapproving and 36 percent approving, far below the level Republicans in Congress would like to see as they prepare for elections in November."

Here are the complete results .

CBS notes: "The survey also suggests that the partisan divide has grown a bit wider in recent months. The president's approval rating among Republicans has risen slightly, from 68 percent in April to 74 percent now. But only about three in 10 independents approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing, as do less than one in 10 Democrats."

Stepping in Macaca

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has no qualms about raising campaign cash for Sen. George Allen despite the Republican's widely assailed quip in which he called a rival campaign worker of Indian descent a 'macaca.' . . .

"Allen, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, has said he just made the word up. He said he didn't mean to demean Sidarth and was sorry if he was offended.

" 'Senator Allen apologized,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino . 'And I think it's in everyone's best interest, in this day and age of politics when everyone is trying to improve the tone and discourse, to accept apologies when they're offered.' . . .

" 'I was asked earlier if the president had qualms about attending,' Perino said. 'The answer is, "No." ' "

But did Allen really apologize? Arguably, his previous comments fell a bit short of a genuine apology -- until, coincidentally, yesterday.

David Lerman reports in the Newport News Daily Press that Allen "offered his most expansive public apology Tuesday for comments made to an Indian-American man.

" 'I deeply regret those comments,' Allen, R-Va., said Tuesday just before leaving the podium at a Northern Virginia retirement community. . . .

"The extended apology, which did not appear to have been scripted, went further than a written statement issued last week when video of his controversial remarks first surfaced. That statement said in part, 'I never want to embarrass or demean anyone and I apologize if my comments offended this young man.' "

Bush in Minnesota

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed a measure Tuesday ordering federal agencies to do more to inform beneficiaries about the cost and quality of their health-care services, which federal officials hailed as a major step toward bringing greater efficiency to the nation's medical system.

"The executive order requires four federal agencies that oversee large health-care programs to gather information about the quality and price of care, and to share that information with one another and with program beneficiaries."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Speaking in front of a sign intended to underscore his message for television audiences -- 'More Choice for Better Healthcare' -- Bush described the order as a step toward lowering the cost of medical care, and eventually the cost of health insurance, by increasing price competition. He also promoted the use of electronic record-keeping, rather than handwritten medical records, as 'a practical way to help control medical costs.' . . .

"Democratic critics said the executive order, which drew praise from a major health insurance association and the National Assn. of Manufacturers, did not directly address the increasing costs of health insurance."

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "After his health care event, Bush attended a fundraiser in nearby Wayzata to raise an estimated $425,000 for Minnesota Republicans and state Sen. Michele Bachmann, who is running for an open seat in the House. The event, attracting about 300 people to Jim and Joann Jundt's home on Lake Minnetonka, cost $1,000 a person. Photographs with Bush were going for $5,000.

"Bachmann is being challenged by Democrat Patty Wetterling, who raised almost twice as much money in the second quarter as Bachmann. By pairing an official event with a campaign fundraiser, the White House can reduce the amount of money a political campaign must pay for Bush's attendance. How much a campaign pays for Bush's appearance is determined by a complex formula that calculates how much of the day's travel was political versus official."

Eric Black, Patricia Lopez and Glenn Howatt write in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Bush came and went without encountering any protesters, taking any questions from the media, nor from the invitation-only audience at the Minnetonka event."

Backfires in the Middle East

Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be quite right about a new Middle East being born. In fact, their policies in support of the actions of their closest regional ally, Israel, have helped midwife the newborn. But it will not be exactly the baby they have longed for. For one thing, it will be neither secular nor friendly to the United States. For another, it is going to be a rough birth.

"What is happening in the broader Middle East and North Africa can be seen as a boomerang effect that has been playing out slowly since the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of those attacks, there was worldwide sympathy for the United States and support for its declared 'war on terrorism,' including the invasion of Afghanistan. Then the cynical exploitation of this universal goodwill by so-called neoconservatives to advance hegemonic designs was confirmed by the war in Iraq. The Bush administration's dishonest statements about 'weapons of mass destruction' diminished whatever credibility the United States might have had as liberator, while disastrous mismanagement of Iraqi affairs after the invasion led to the squandering of a conventional military victory. The country slid into bloody sectarian violence, while official Washington stonewalled and refused to admit mistakes. No wonder the world has progressively turned against America."

Katrina Watch

Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "As next week's anniversary of Hurricane Katrina triggers recollections of rooftop refugees and massive devastation along the Gulf Coast, the White House has begun a public relations blitz to counteract Democrats' plans to use the government's tardy response and the region's slow recovery in the coming congressional elections.

"President Bush will visit the area Monday and Tuesday, including an overnight stay in New Orleans. He probably will visit the city's Lower 9th Ward, the heavily black area that remains mired in debris, and is expected to meet with storm victims. . . .

"The White House announced Bush's visit Tuesday as a phalanx of administration officials stood before reporters to argue that billions of dollars had flowed to the region and millions more was on the way."

The Rockey and Bush Show

Bush memorably declined to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq. But somebody at the White House evidently felt a photo op with a persistent survivor of Hurricane Katrina would serve the PR offensive.

And boy, were they right.

Bruce Alpert writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Rockey Vaccarella, who clung to the rooftop of his flooded Meraux home for more than four hours after Hurricane Katrina hit before swimming to safety, said he felt compelled to come to the nation's capital with a mock but realistic-looking FEMA trailer to pass on a message to President Bush."

That message: Not exactly critical. Here's the transcript of this morning's event on the White House lawn. Vaccarella stood next to Bush and said: "You know, I wish you had another four years, man. If we had this President for another four years, I think we'd be great."

Noted CNN anchor Daryn Kagan: "If every meeting went like that, the president would invite everyone in to come and see him."

Reality Check

Bill Walsh writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "According to figures compiled by the Bush administration, only about 40 percent of the money available -- or about $45 billion -- has been doled out by the federal government. And the bulk of that money has gone for the initial rescue efforts, debris removal and the emergency repairs to New Orleans' ruptured levees. . . .

"Meanwhile, signs of storm blight remain: Debris is still piled on sidewalks, tens of thousands of displaced residents are living out of temporary FEMA trailers, businesses are shuttered, hospitals are closed and violent crime is on the upswing.

" 'It's slow and it's been frustrating,' Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said. 'We are grateful at the generosity of Congress, the administration and the American people. $110 billion is a huge amount of money. But it's more than just about the number. It's the quality of the programs, the efficiency that is used in getting it out to the people who need it.' "

Rukmini Callimachi writes for the Associated Press: "No less than a half-dozen reports on the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort are being released to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the storm -- and nearly all criticize the sluggish pace of the response."

Wallsten and Reynolds write in the LA Times: "A report being released today by top Democrats, titled 'Broken Promises: The Republican Response to Katrina,' features a picture of Bush during his Sept. 15, 2005, speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square, in which he promised to oversee 'one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.'

"The report argues that every aspect of recovery -- including housing, business loans, healthcare, education and preparedness -- 'suffers from a failed Republican response marked by unfulfilled promises, cronyism, waste, fraud, and abuse.' "

About Those Anniversaries

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Election day may be shaped significantly by how Republicans and Democrats frame public perceptions of two coming dates: the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Democrats hope to gain advantages by highlighting the storm, with a series of events reminding Americans of the government's initially bungled response to the emergency. Republicans hope President Bush can sustain a new round of Katrina criticism, then use the Sept. 11 anniversary to remind voters of his party's hawkish security credentials.

"To capitalize on voters' security concerns, House and Senate Republicans are developing legislation to take up during September, including measures supporting the administration's terrorist wiretapping program and its treatment of suspected terrorists.

"But Republicans may not have as much success playing the security card this time as they have in the past. Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, weakened Mr. Bush's image as a leader, at least partly neutralizing the Republicans' advantage on security issues. While the aftermath of Sept. 11 marked the highest ratings of Mr. Bush's presidency, Katrina ushered in some of the lows."

On Mortality

But as Cass Sunstein writes in the New Republic, psychological research into "mortality science" finds that if people are simply reminded of their own mortality, their views and behavior tend to change.

"Once so reminded, ordinary people are significantly more likely to show racial prejudice. Once so reminded, people show more physical aggression toward other people with different political beliefs."

So any mention of Sept. 11 and terrorism "triggers a kind of visceral fear and outrage, and that visceral fear and outrage lead people to support the leader who seems firmer, stronger, and more aggressive."

Stranger Than Camus

Garrett Epps writes in Salon: "News reports about President Bush's tragically short and recently concluded Crawford vacation were dominated by the bizarre information that the president's apr├Ęs-brush-clearing reading included 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus. But lost amid the resulting snark was another item on the president's alleged summer reading list: 'Lincoln' by Richard J. Carwardine. It would be pleasant to believe that Bush was learning about this great leader in an attempt to upgrade his own modest executive skills. It seems more likely, however, that Bush is attempting to console himself by imagining ways that he is like the Great Emancipator. Alas, those similarities are either superficial or illusory. If anything, Bush is the anti-Lincoln; he bears far more resemblance to another 19th century statesman, Lincoln's inept successor Andrew Johnson."

Hecht of a Job

Remember Nathan Hecht, the Texas Supreme Court justice who publicly supported the doomed nomination of his close friend and White House counsel Harriet Miers for the U.S. Supreme Court last year?

Max B. Baker writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Hecht "testified Tuesday before a special court of review that he didn't believe he was violating any judicial canons when he gave more than 120 interviews with newspaper, television and radio reporters to talk about Miers' personal background. . . .

"At the request of presidential adviser Karl Rove, Hecht said he told conservative leaders such as James Dobson, founder of the conservative religious group Focus on the Family, that Miers opposes abortion. But he couldn't say exactly how she would rule in an abortion case. . . .

"The commission said that Hecht, in a 'willful and persistent' manner, violated canons of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that say judges can't use their office to advance the private interests of themselves or others and can't endorse another candidate for office."

Idiot Watch

Alex Koppelman interviews MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, in the wake of the conservative TV host's segment last week entitled: "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?"

Says Scarborough: "We Republicans, during impeachment, were so outraged that Democrats would bitch and moan behind the scenes and talk about what a disgrace Bill Clinton was, but then when they went on the House floor and the Senate floor, would fiercely defend him. . . . We would all scratch our heads and say, 'How could they do that? How could they go out and circle the wagons and say something they didn't believe?'

"And yet here we have a Republican administration and a Republican Congress doing basically the exact same thing, where staying in power is more important than staying true to the values that put you in power in the first place. Again, there are more and more conservatives behind the scenes that are voicing concerns, but most of them are afraid to say anything publicly, because they know if they do they'll be branded as traitors to the cause."

Press Conference Fallout

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate: "Among the many flabbergasting answers that President Bush gave at his press conference on Monday, this one -- about Democrats who propose pulling out of Iraq -- triggered the steepest jaw drop: 'I would never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.'

"George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like . . . well, it's like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world. It's sui generis: No parallel quite captures the absurdity so succinctly."

Bob Harris , on Huffington Post, tries to read Bush's notes for his press conference on Monday and writes: "Pretty convenient, btw, that the first two reporters' questions just happened to lead directly to the empty responses Bush was already planning to use, right there on the top left of his cheat sheet. Gosh, that must have been terribly lucky."

Late Night Humor

From Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show": "There comes a point in every president's career when he has to reassure the people that he isn't the thing that everybody thinks that they are. Richard Nixon famously said 'I am not a crook.' Bill Clinton assured us 'I did not have sex with that woman.'

"What point does this president have to clear up?"

Stewart then played a clip of Bush saying: "Nobody likes to see innocent people die."

Stewart also played this clip from the press conference:

Bush: "You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine [in Iraq] until we arrived, and kind of 'we're going to stir up the hornet's nest' theory. It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

Cox News Service reporter Ken Herman: "What did Iraq have to do with that?"

Bush: "What did Iraq have to do with what?"

Herman: "The attack on the World Trade Center?"

Bush: "Nothing."

Stewart's coda: "So why did you bring it up?"

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