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From Hero to Goat

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 22, 2007; 1:20 PM

After six years of striding onto the House floor like a conqueror, President Bush will arrive for Tuesday night's State of the Union Speech deeply unpopular and politically crippled.

The most vivid symbol of the new order of things will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi literally looking over his shoulder. With Pelosi's Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress -- and some members of the president's own party peeling off as he pushes stubbornly ahead in Iraq -- Bush will find his friends far outnumbered by his foes.

The pomp of the State of the Union address and the deference given to Bush's office will prevent the night from turning into an outright rout.

But as a defensive measure, White House speechwriters are said to have crafted a speech that avoids the traditional laundry list of proposals and applause lines that would almost surely have fallen flat -- or even led to boos and groans -- given Bush's new circumstances.

To some extent, what's amazing is that it has taken this long.

According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Bush's approval rating, now at an all-time low of 33 percent, has been solidly in negative territory ever since April of 2005. That's 21 months. And the percentage of Americans who find him honest and trustworthy, now at an all-time low of 40 percent, has been in negative territory since November of 2005, or a little over a year.

Even as the public turned against him, Congress was there for President Bush. But no more.

USA Today Interview

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "President Bush can't guarantee that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of his presidency because 'we don't set timetables,' and said the war on terrorism will remain a 'long struggle' for his successors, he told USA Today in an interview.

"Bush believes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can clamp down on sectarian violence, and he warned Iran not to aid Iraqi insurgents. Bush's comments came in a wide-ranging chat Friday to preview his State of the Union speech, in which he'll argue 'what happens in Iraq matters to your security here at home.'"

In the accompanying story on domestic issues, Jackson writes that Bush highlighted Social Security, energy and immigration.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

"Q: Are you seeing any evidence that people are listening or responding to your argument?

"A: What matters is what happens on the ground. That would be the best way to show the American people that the strategy, the new strategy I've outlined, will work. . . .

"Q: Now I've often heard you say during the campaign, 'The job of the president is to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents or future generations.' Is Iraq going to be a problem for the next president?

"A: The war on terror will be a problem for the next president. Presidents after me will be confronting with this, with an enemy that would like to strike the United States again, an enemy that is interested in spreading their vision -- I call it a totalitarian vision of governance -- an enemy that will kill innocent people to achieve their objectives and an enemy that would like to acquire weapons that could do serious damage. . . .

"Q: Will the U.S. be out of Iraq in January of '09?

"A: That's a timetable; I just told you we don't put out timetables."

Poll Watch

Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write for The Washington Post: "President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday at the weakest point of his presidency, with dissatisfaction over his Iraq war policies continuing to rise and confidence in his leadership continuing to decline, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"Americans overwhelmingly oppose Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to the conflict. By wide margins, they prefer that congressional Democrats, who now hold majorities in both chambers, take the lead in setting the direction for the country rather than the president. . . .

"The president will use his speech to try to rally public opinion behind his troop deployment plan, but during the past 10 days he has made no headway in changing public opinion. The Post-ABC poll shows that 65 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq, compared to 61 percent who opposed the plan when the president unveiled it Jan. 10 in a nationally televised address. . . .

"Only two presidents have had lower approval ratings on the eve of a State of the Union speech. Richard Nixon was at 26 percent in 1974, seven months before he resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal. Harry S. Truman was at 23 percent in January 1952, driven down by public disapproval of the Korean conflict and his firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. . . .

"Just 42 percent say he can be trusted in a crisis, with 56 percent saying he cannot -- the first time a majority has given him a negative rating on a crucial element of presidential leadership."

Here are the complete results.

Darlene Superville writes for the Associated Press: "Americans seem sour on the state of the union in advance of President Bush's address on the subject." She has results from the Associated Press-AOL News poll.

Brian Braiker writes for Newsweek that "the latest Newsweek poll finds that Bush's call for a 'surge' in troops is opposed by two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans and supported by only a quarter (26 percent). Almost half of all respondents (46 percent) want to see American troops pulled out 'as soon as possible.'

"Bush's Iraq plan isn't doing anything for his personal approval rating either; it's again stuck at its lowest point in the history of the poll (31 percent)."

The Expectations Game

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "White House political aides always try to lower expectations for a State of the Union address. That won't be hard this year. . . .

"'It's not a pretty political picture,' one of Bush's closest confidants acknowledged last week, 'and we all know it, including him.'

"The task facing Bush is even more daunting because aides know a significant portion of his speech must reinforce the single issue that has hastened his political demise: the war in Iraq. . . .

"Bush is described by friends as realistic about his diminished clout but doggedly resolute. 'As a general matter,' said a top Republican source who talks with the White House regularly, 'everyone's pretty much down in the dumps over there, but trying to take the high ground and begin a serious dialogue with the Democrats to get something accomplished.'"

The Atmosphere

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Seated behind Bush and next to Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be an on-camera symbol of the challenge ahead for the president."

Karen Tumutly and Massimo Calabresi write for Time: "As George Bush takes the lectern in the House chamber for his State of the Union address, he can finally claim that he is fulfilling the promise of his 2000 presidential campaign to be a uniter and not a divider. With his proposal to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Bush is indeed bringing Democrats and Republicans together. The problem for him is that the bipartisan front they are forming is against him. It has the potential to lead to the most serious foreign policy confrontation between a President and Congress since the Vietnam War."

The Agenda

Gerald F. Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal that the speech will have "more focus on fewer items that have some actual chance of success, and less focus on a wish list of items dear to the president but with little chance of bipartisan support. So you'll hear plenty about balancing the budget, but more interesting is how energy and immigration come into play. White House officials have been signaling that the president plans to aggressively pursue what everyone in Washington euphemistically calls 'energy independence.' That means reducing America's need for foreign oil. . . .

"Immigration may be the only issue where the change of power on Capitol Hill has brought Congress closer to the president, not farther away."


Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "In previewing the State of the Union address the president will deliver tomorrow, administration officials have strongly hinted that Bush would outline steps the government will take to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which most scientists believe contribute to global warming.

"The White House has refused to discuss details in advance of the president's speech, though many in Congress and the energy industry expect it to include raising fuel-economy standards for automobiles, more support for renewable energy sources, and efforts to control emissions at utility plants and other big polluters.

"The commitment to addressing global warming marks a shift for the White House, which critics say has consistently tried to undermine scientific evidence of the link between air pollution and disturbing trends in the environment."

But Klein writes that Bush's resistance to economy-wide caps on carbon dioxide emissions is galling to many members of Congress, "who argue that the time for voluntary programs has passed and that only swift, dramatic actions can avert catastrophic consequences. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bluntly warned the president on Friday that lawmakers will act on global warming, with or without his help."

And it's not only Congress. Caroline Daniel writes for the Financial Times: "Ten of the biggest US companies, including Alcoa, General Electric and Lehman Brothers, will on Monday pile pressure on President George W. Bush to take more aggressive action on climate change.

"They will urge him to embrace a system of mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions designed to cut them by up to 30 per cent over the next 15 years."

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press that "when it comes to weaning the country away from oil, the president's critics say his rhetoric has not been matched by action."

Bush's Health-Care Proposal

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush will propose a deep tax break for Americans who purchase their own medical insurance and would finance it with an unprecedented tax on a portion of high-priced health-care plans that workers receive from their employers, according to the White House.

"'Today, the tax code unfairly penalizes people who do not get health insurance through their job,' Bush said [in his radio address]. 'It unwisely encourages workers to choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans. The result is that insurance premiums rise and many Americans cannot afford the coverage they need.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "The basic concept is that employer-provided health insurance, now treated as a fringe benefit exempt from taxation, would no longer be entirely tax-free. Workers could be taxed if their coverage exceeded limits set by the government. But the government would also offer a new tax deduction for people buying health insurance on their own. . . .

"The proposed plan is a startling move for a president who has repeatedly vowed not to raise taxes. And it is certain to run into opposition from business groups, labor unions and, most of all, the Democrats who now run Capitol Hill."

In a nutshell, people with very expensive health plans would be penalized and people who don't have insurance now could buy it with tax-free dollars.

The biggest savings would go to people who could buy very low-cost health insurance, but deduct the full $7,500 per person (or $15,000 for family) anyway.

Who does that help? My insta-analysis suggests the new plan would create:

* An enormous financial incentive for those mostly young, healthy people who choose not to buy health insurance even though they can afford it, to instead buy super low-cost catastrophic policies and get the full tax deduction.

* An enormous financial incentive for young, healthy people who have employer-paid health insurance to opt out of those plans and instead buy super low-cost catastrophic policies and get the full deduction.

* An enormous financial disincentive for companies to provide particularly generous health-insurance options.

* Not much incentive at all for low-wage and/or ailing folks who pay little if any income tax already, and who are uninsured because they simply can't afford it.

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) with a blistering critique.

Quoting from Bush's radio address, Krugman writes: "Those are the words of someone with no sense of what it's like to be uninsured.

"Going without health insurance isn't like deciding to rent an apartment instead of buying a house. It's a terrifying experience, which most people endure only if they have no alternative. The uninsured don't need an 'incentive' to buy insurance; they need something that makes getting insurance possible.

"Most people without health insurance have low incomes, and just can't afford the premiums. And making premiums tax-deductible is almost worthless to workers whose income puts them in a low tax bracket.

"Of those uninsured who aren't low-income, many can't get coverage because of pre-existing conditions -- everything from diabetes to a long-ago case of jock itch. Again, tax deductions won't solve their problem.

"The only people the Bush plan might move out of the ranks of the uninsured are the people we're least concerned about -- affluent, healthy Americans who choose voluntarily not to be insured. . . .

"What's driving all this is the theory, popular in conservative circles but utterly at odds with the evidence, that the big problem with U.S. health care is that people have too much insurance -- that there would be large cost savings if people were forced to pay more of their medical expenses out of pocket."

The Speechwriters

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The address on Tuesday comes 13 days after Mr. Bush's prime-time speech on his new strategy in Iraq, one that even some Republicans have criticized as uninspiring, a rhetorical dud.

"For the people who get paid to put words in the president's mouth, the pressure is on,"

And yet, as Stolberg herself acknowledges, the heavy lifting is long past.

"At this point, Mr. Bush is well into rehearsing. By Friday, he had already had several run-throughs in the family theater of the White House, with officials including Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, listening in."

Karl Rove Watch

Holly Bailey writes for Newsweek: "After the GOP's midterm thumping, President Bush's top aide fell out of the spotlight. But behind the scenes, according to administration officials (anonymous in order to discuss White House matters), Rove has been laying the groundwork for Bush's State of the Union address and mulling how the GOP can regain momentum in 2008."

Iran Watch

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday sharply criticized the Bush administration's increasingly combative stance toward Iran, saying that White House efforts to portray it as a growing threat are uncomfortably reminiscent of rhetoric about Iraq before the American invasion of 2003."

Thomas Omestad writes for U.S. News: "The Bush administration's military campaign in Iraq -- and its broader approach to the Middle East -- are morphing into a head-on struggle against Iran's growing influence. The shift portends either peril or promise. Critics fear President Bush has made another dangerous gamble that is more likely to expand the conflict than to bring Iran to heel. The clarifying focus on Iran, officials counter, offers an opportunity to block the region's leading provocateur from fomenting extremism and pursuing nuclear weapons."

Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Bush once again risks confusing his destiny with that of the nation. His presidency is running out of time. The United States is not. An all-or-nothing confrontation with Iran that has to be resolved before Bush leaves office is an artificial concept that will deepen American problems abroad."

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Across a broad spectrum of policy levers, Mr. Bush is raising the pressure on Iran, increasing the risk that he will drag the U.S. into a third war in an Islamic country in six years. Instead of disengaging from war, he could end up starting another."

Legacy Watch

From Bush's USA Today interview:

"Q: Did you see The Washington Post historical forum on your legacy, because one of the historians, Eric Foner, called you the worst president ever.

"A: No, I didn't see it.

"Q: Is that something that bothers you?

"A: My legacy will be written long after I'm president.

"Q: I know you're a fan of history, though. Do you see yourself as a possible Truman?

"A: I've got two years to be president. I guess people with idle time like yourself can think about this. I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do it.

"Q: Have you read about Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam?

"A: Yes.

"Q: Do you draw any lessons from that?

"A: Yes, win. Win, when you're in a battle for the security . . . if it has to do with the security of your country, you win.

"Q: Are you worried about suffering LBJ's fate?

"A: You can ask the legacy question 20 different ways. I've got a job to do as president. People are going to analyze my presidency for a long time. All you can do is do the best you can, make decisions based upon principles, and lead. And that's what I have done and will continue to do."

Speaking of History

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush has called Iraq a crucial battleground in a decades-long struggle against Islamic terrorism. . . .

"Historians and Middle East experts, however, say that America's last 'long war,' the four-decade Cold War against Soviet communism, offers some cautionary lessons as the nation debates its next moves in Iraq.

"Previous presidents, they note, made many of the same arguments about Vietnam that Bush and his aides are making about Iraq: The war there was part of a larger struggle against a monolithic enemy, and Vietnam's neighbors would fall to communism like dominoes if the U.S. were defeated.

"That turned out not to be true: The U.S. lost the battle in Vietnam but won the war against communism anyway.

"Indeed, critics argue that Bush is making some of the same mistakes in Iraq that his predecessors made in Vietnam, seeing a monolithic enemy where none exists, backing questionable allies, overlooking some of the causes of the conflict and believing that victory is essential to America's future."

And Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News about how Bush increasingly sees himself in the mold of Harry Truman.

"The problem is that at least some presidential scholars believe Bush may be exaggerating the parallels. They wonder whether his response in Iraq or his approach to terrorism measures up to the sort of hard-eyed realism or long-term vision displayed by Truman. . . .

"[Presidential scholar Robert Dallek] has reached his own controversial conclusion, and Bush would not be pleased. 'Bush will be remembered more for the war in Iraq than the war on terrorism,' the historian told U.S. News. 'The war in Iraq is a disaster. And there is no grand strategy for the war on terrorism.' Unless Bush can turn Iraq around or somehow elevate the war on terrorism to a historic level, 'he will be seen as a failed president,' Dallek contends.

"Yet Bush appears to believe he is destined to win the war on terrorism, according to friends. 'He believes he is there for a reason,' says a confidant, 'and he should try as hard as he can -- and leave the rest to God.'"

How Bush Chose Escalation

Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a surprise for President Bush when they sat down with their aides in the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, Jordan. Firing up a PowerPoint presentation, Maliki and his national security adviser proposed that U.S. troops withdraw to the outskirts of Baghdad and let Iraqis take over security in the strife-torn capital. Maliki said he did not want any more U.S. troops at all, just more authority.

"The president listened intently to the unexpected proposal at their Nov. 30 meeting, according to accounts from several administration officials. Bush seemed impressed that Maliki had taken the initiative, but it did not take him long to reject the idea. . . .

"Bush was headed down a path that would result in his defying critics and the seeming message of the November elections by ordering 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq. A reconstruction of the administration's Iraq policy review, based on more than a dozen interviews with senior advisers, Bush associates, lawmakers and national security officials, reveals a president taking the lead in driving the process toward one more effort at victory -- despite doubts along the way from his own military commanders, lawmakers and the public at large."

Missing from the story, however, is any acknowledgement that Bush is running around telling another story altogether. (Watch for it again tomorrow night.)

As I wrote in my Jan. 12 column, Bush is pushing a revisionist explanation not supported by the facts. For instance, here's how Bush on Jan. 11 described that same sequence of events: "The [Iraqi] Prime Minister came and said, look, I understand we've got to do something about this violence, and here is what I suggest we do. Our commanders looked at it, helped fine-tune it so it would work."

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "When the Bush administration announced that it had belatedly put its warrantless wiretapping program under court supervision, its attitude was like that of a traffic officer trying to hurry along bystanders at an accident scene: 'Move right along, folks, nothing to look at here.' . . .

"But there is no way for lawmakers to make a determination about the program on the basis of information they have and every reason for them to be skeptical of the administration's assurances, given its previous intransigence."

The New York Times editorial board sees "a familiar pattern: First, Mr. Bush and his aides say his actions are so vital to national security that to even report on them -- let alone question them -- lends comfort to the terrorists. Then, usually when his decisions face scrutiny from someone other than a compliant Republican Congress, the president seems to compromise.

"Behind this behavior are at least two dynamics, both of them disturbing.

"The first is that the policies Mr. Bush is trying so hard to hide have little, if anything, to do with real national security issues -- and everything to do with a campaign, spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney, to break the restraints on presidential power imposed after Vietnam and Watergate. And there is much less than meets the eye to Mr. Bush's supposed concessions."

Twin Watch

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News that Jeann Bush "is shopping a book proposal to major publishers in New York City. We're told that the project is vague and that she's initially gauging publishers' interest. The White House wouldn't comment, but others suggested that the former grade school teacher is interested in writing a children's book or tale about her experiences."

The Rich Little Controversy

Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post: "The White House press corps last week found itself embroiled in controversy -- a controversy over its efforts to avoid controversy at an event whose guests include President Bush.

"Stung by criticism that comedian Stephen Colbert went too far last year in his remarks at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, the group announced last week that it had lined up a different kind of entertainer for its next dinner on April 21: impersonator Rich Little. . . .

"Yet after Colbert made waves -- he compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, among other things -- some wondered whether choosing Little indicated that the rough, tough White House press corps was going soft, ensuring that its honored guests from the White House would suffer not even the slightest slight.

"That's more or less how MSNBC host Keith Olbermann read it; he nominated the entire correspondents' association as his 'Worst Person in the World' on his program last week." [Actually, Olbermann nominated Little, not the press corps.]

Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the New Yorker that Little's "jokes are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's, though without the edge."

Little in an interview, told Goldberg he would use mostly political material along these lines: "'They said we're going to send jets to Israel this year, but what the hell would they do with a bunch of football players?' Iraq jokes, however, are out. . . .

"'They know I'm a safe bet over there at the White House.'"

On Lying

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that he is seeing 2003 all over again.

"This time we must do what too few did the first time: call the White House on its lies. Lies should not be confused with euphemisms like 'incompetence' and 'denial.' . . .

"The latest lies are custom-made to prop up the new 'way forward' that is anything but. Among the emerging examples is a rewriting of the history of Iraq's sectarian violence. . . .

"An equally big lie is the administration's constant claim that it is on the same page as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as we go full speed ahead. . . .

"All of this replays 2003, when the White House refused to consider any plan, including existing ones in the Pentagon and State Department bureaucracies, for coping with a broken post-Saddam Iraq. Then, as at every stage of the war since, the only administration plan was for a propaganda campaign to bamboozle American voters into believing 'victory' was just around the corner."

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