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Trying to Change the Subject

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; 2:30 PM

President Bush tonight will try to change the subject -- and will fail.

That's the consensus of the Washington press corps, which is nearly unanimous today in describing a badly weakened president desperate to boost his standing by talking about anything but Iraq.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Planning a State of the Union address Tuesday night heavy on health care, energy and education, President Bush will attempt to get beyond a raging debate over the war in Iraq as he faces a new Democratic-controlled Congress for the first time.

"Yet, with mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq and a majority of Americans voicing disapproval with the nation's direction, criticism is likely to remain fixed on Bush's war policy while congressional leaders attempt to swiftly discredit some of his new domestic initiatives, such as a tax deduction for health insurance to help more people obtain coverage."

Jim Rutenberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "Carrying some of the worst public approval ratings of any president in a generation, President Bush is heading into his State of the Union address on Tuesday night seeking to revitalize his domestic agenda but facing stiff resistance over the initiatives the White House has previewed so far."

White House counselor Dan Bartlett tells the Times that "a major theme of the address would be that 'divided government does not mean we cannot govern.'

"But the initial response to Mr. Bush's health care plans has not been positive, on Capitol Hill or among constituencies including employers and labor unions. And with the president's political authority diminished and the new Democratic majority in Congress emboldened, the fate of his domestic agenda, and his ability to forge compromises on his terms, is in question."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Facing a hostile Congress and a skeptical public, President Bush will use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to try to leverage his rapidly diminishing clout behind a series of new proposals. . . .

"But he's never gone to Capitol Hill under such difficult circumstances, and he's so weak politically that his effort to set the national agenda is unlikely to succeed, for Democrats didn't win power to follow his lead."

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe that "while Bush's rhetoric appears more conciliatory now that he faces a Democratic-controlled Congress for the first time in his tenure, the president has shown no sign of compromising on the substance of his domestic or foreign policy goals, according to lawmakers in both parties who have had discussions with the White House."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "When President Bush takes to the airwaves Tuesday night to deliver his sixth State of the Union address, the metamessage of the evening will be: 'I am still relevant.'"

Katie Couric asked Jim Axelrod last night on the CBS Evening News: "Is the president going to try to use the State of the Union speech to change the subject, or will he stay focused on Iraq?"

Axelrod's response: "Well, he's going to try. . . . But when we asked in our poll what is the single most important issue facing Americans, the Iraq war, 33 percent, was by far and away number one. Everything else, single digits."

The Elephant in the Room

Peter Baker and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post that "the uproar over [Bush's] decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq has eclipsed potential consensus on domestic policy.

"As he addresses a Congress controlled entirely by Democrats for the first time since he took office, Bush faces deep skepticism inside the chamber, even within the House Republican leadership, which yesterday made proposals intended 'to hold the Bush administration . . . accountable' for the progress of his latest Iraq plan. . . .

"While Bush will devote about half of tonight's 40-minute-plus speech to Iraq, the broader battle with Islamic radicals and other foreign policy matters, advisers said they understand that only sustained and visible progress on the ground in Iraq might change American minds about the war. The best Bush can hope for tonight, they said, is to prevent a wholesale defection by Republicans and buy enough time for his plan to work. . . .

"Aides said Bush will not directly engage in a debate over congressional efforts to block the troop increase. But in private briefings for administration allies yesterday, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said Bush will challenge Congress to put up its own plan if it does not like his 'new way forward,' according to people who were briefed."

Losing Warner

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, yesterday endorsed a new resolution opposing President Bush's buildup of troops in Baghdad, as even some of the most loyal Republicans scrambled to register their concerns and distance themselves from an unpopular policy."

Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "While some Republicans still vow to back the White House, the tough language from Mr. Warner, a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a onetime Navy secretary, dealt a blow to administration officials trying to salvage the Iraq plan."

Poll Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush on Tuesday night gets another shot at persuading Americans to support his Iraq war strategy and domestic agenda. His problem: Much of the public has stopped listening.

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll on the eve of Mr. Bush's State of the Union address underscores the extent to which he has lost the nation's ear. Just 22% of Americans say they want the president to set policy for the country, while 57% want Congress to do so. Two-thirds say his performance in office is unlikely to get better in his last two years as president."

CNN reports: "The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, released on the eve of the speech, found only 34 percent of respondents approved of Bush's job performance while 63 percent disapproved.

"Two-thirds of respondents say that Bush has done something to make them angry -- a figure that has grown six points since last year and 16 points since Bush's State of the Union in 2004."

Yes, that's right -- angry. I'd never noticed that poll question before.

Yesterday's Washington Post/ABC News Poll found Bush's approval rating at an all-time low of 33 percent, with dissatisfaction over his Iraq war policies continuing to rise.

World Poll Watch

Kevin Sullivan writes in The Washington Post: "Global opinion of U.S. foreign policy has sharply deteriorated in the past two years, according to a BBC poll released on the eve of President Bush's annual State of the Union address.

"Nearly three-quarters of those polled in 25 countries disapprove of U.S. policies toward Iraq, and more than two-thirds said the U.S. military presence in the Middle East does more harm than good. Nearly half of those polled in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East said the United States is now playing a mainly negative role in the world."

The Spin

White House press secretary Tony Snow did a tour of the morning shows today, attempting to put a happy face on tonight's speech.

CBS News's Harry Smith asked Snow about the president's mood.

Snow: "The President is exuberant and determined. When George W. Bush attacks something like the State of the Union address, it's with an eye toward action. So what he's going to do is he's going to go in front of Congress and he's going to talk about a series of important issues, domestic and obviously the war on terror and say, okay, here's a challenge. It was here before the election; it's here after the election; it's going to be around for a while. Now, you Democrats and you Republicans have said you want to get something done -- here's a way to do it. Let's work together."

Smith: "The reason I ask is his approval numbers are really at an historic low for him."

Snow: "Yes."

Smith: "Twenty-eight percent in this CBS news poll. These are almost Nixon-esque, Truman-esque sorts of numbers. Surely at some point that must rub up against him, at least a little bit?"

Snow: "You know what, you've got him confused with somebody that indulges in self-pity. And it doesn't work that way. I think what it does, it focuses for the president -- "

Smith: "[I]t's less self-pity than -- I think some people wonder, does he hear the outcry that's outside the White House that says, we're not sure you're doing the right thing?"

Snow: "Of course. But on the other hand, he also understands there's an outcry to get things done."

On ABC's Good Morning America, Robin Roberts asked Snow: "The president has said he's going to talk about mainly domestic issues tonight. Why not talk more about Iraq? Doesn't the White House still see this as the number one problem?"

Snow: "Well, Robin, the president has domestic and international obligations. He's going to talk about all of them. . . . The president is going to address those and also address another question Americans have, which is: Can these people in Washington work together? Can members of Congress work with the president or is there simply going to be partisan exchanges important the next two years?"

Here's a video clip of Snow at yesterday's briefing, talking about the speech:

"Q What's the best part?

"MR. SNOW: You know, it's difficult to say. It's like looking in a drawer full of diamonds."


U.S. News reports that "even senior Republicans with close ties to the White House are concerned that Bush's State of the Union address will be a big disappointment. Leaked details of the speech have, in the words of one administration insider, been 'underwhelming.' The major criticism from GOP sources is that Bush doesn't appear to have come up with any domestic initiatives that will persuade the country that he has any bold ideas left or convince Congress that he has the political muscle to rally voters around him any more. 'The ideas are either small bore or very familiar,' says the GOP insider. Republicans advisers express hope that Bush has something special up his sleeve that he will unveil tonight, but they aren't optimistic."

The Theatrics

Maura Reynolds writes about tonight's theatrics: "Both sides are expected to use the speech to send signals to the other -- the president with his words, and the Democrats with their applause, or lack thereof. . . .

"Some lawmakers are concerned that the shift in political fortunes -- and years of pent-up Democratic frustration with GOP hardball tactics -- could lead to a less-than-decorous atmosphere in the House chamber during the speech."

Bush's Health Care Proposal

Tony Pugh writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's plan to amend the tax code to help provide health coverage for more Americans is drawing mixed reviews from health experts who say it moves in the right direction but could one day undermine the nation's employer-based health insurance system. . . .

"Paul Fronstin, director of the health research and education programs at the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, said the Bush proposal would 'mean the end of employment-based coverage as we know it because it gives employers an incentive to drop coverage.'

"'If employees can go out and get private coverage with the same tax breaks as they'd get through employer-sponsored coverage, more companies will simply give them the money and let them find their own coverage because they view (health coverage) as a headache,' Fronstin said. . . .

White House aides Julie Goon and Katherine Baicker offered reporters a briefing about the plan yesterday. Here's a White House " fact sheet". Here's the White House response to a Democratic press release that I can't find online.

The tax-code change is only part of Bush's proposal, although the other part hasn't been described in any detail at all.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes in the Los Angeles Times that "some leading Democrats grew more outspoken in their criticism of Bush's emerging healthcare strategy -- a sign it may not get very far in Congress. . . .

"Monday, the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a press release saying that part of Bush's plan 'amounts to a tax increase for the middle class.'

"And the chairman of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont), accused Bush of 'pursuing a policy designed to destroy the employer-based healthcare system through which 160 million people receive coverage.' "

I wrote a bit about this proposal in yesterday's column.

There's still a lot more reporting to be done.

For instance, the White House insists the tax-code changes would be revenue neutral over the next decade, but it's not clear how they reach that conclusion.

And even if you take those assertions at face value, the White House acknowledges that the program amounts to a net tax cut in the short-run, i.e. the next five years, but a net tax increase in the long-run, i.e. five years and beyond, as the cost of insurance presumably rises faster than the deduction amount.

Iran Watch

A little reporting is a wonderful thing.

Alexandra Zavis and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "In his speech this month outlining the new U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush promised to 'seek out and destroy' Iranian networks that he said were providing 'advanced weaponry and training to our enemies.' He is expected to strike a similar note in tonight's State of the Union speech.

"For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here [in Baqubah, along the Iranian border], a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. . . .

"The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case. Some suggest Bush and his aides are pointing to Iran to deflect blame for U.S. setbacks in Iraq. Others suggest they are laying the foundation for a military strike against Iran.

"Before invading Iraq, the administration warned repeatedly that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Those statements proved wrong."

Ellen Knickmeyer reported in The Washington Post in October that British troops were finding no evidence of arms traffic from Iran.

Scooter Libby Watch

And they're off!

Matt Apuzzo reports for the Associated Press: "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald used his opening statement in the CIA leak trial Tuesday to describe a tumultuous week early in the Iraq war, when he said the White House was 'under direct attack' and pushed back against criticism by former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

"Fitzgerald said Vice President Dick Cheney told his chief of staff, 'Scooter' Libby, in 2003 that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and Libby spread that information to reporters. When that information got out, it triggered a federal investigation.

"'But when the FBI and grand jury asked about what the defendant did,' Fitzgerald said, 'he made up a story.'"

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge empaneled a jury yesterday in the perjury trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, seating a largely apolitical, educated group of D.C. residents to decide whether Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff lied to investigators about his role in divulging the identity of a covert CIA officer. . . .

"By yesterday morning, when the two sides had narrowed an initial pool of 60 potential jurors to 37, a dozen in that group had expressed at least mild disagreement with the administration. Virtually all of them were excluded from the 16 who were seated. . . .

"During four days of jury selection in Courtroom 16 of the federal courthouse a few blocks from the Capitol, a large number of jury candidates said they were personally acquainted with people involved in the case. In the end, knowing those players did not, in itself, keep them off the jury. Among the jurors is a former Washington Post reporter who once worked for now-Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, a defense witness, and until recently was a neighbor of NBC's Tim Russert, a prosecution witness."

John Dickerson blogs for Slate: "Libby has to feel relieved. His jurors are not people who are hooked on the 24-hour news cycle. They're more interested in celebrity gossip or the sports pages than the news."

David Shuster, blogging for MSNBC, has mini profiles of the 12 jurors.

Firedoglake is live-blogging the trial. (Is anyone else?)

Liz Cheney

One gets the distinct impression that something about Hillary Clinton's exultant entry into the 2008 presidential campaign, even while coming out for a cap on troop levels in Iraq, has driven the Cheney camp to distraction

Vice presidential daughter Liz Cheney has an extraordinarily petulant op-ed in today's Washington Post. It begins with a slap at Clinton, then impatiently presents as "basic facts" a series of hugely contentious neoconservative principles.

Among them:

"* We are at war. America faces an existential threat. . . . We will have to fight these terrorists to the death somewhere, sometime. We can't negotiate with them or 'solve' their jihad. If we quit in Iraq now, we must get ready for a harder, longer, more deadly struggle later. . . .

"* Quitting helps the terrorists. . . . Let's be clear: If we restrict the ability of our troops to fight and win this war, we help the terrorists."

Cheney suggests that American pollsters should stop asking whether Americans want an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq -- which they do -- but should instead ask questions along the lines of "Do you want us to lose this war?" and "Would you rather we fought the terrorists here at home?"

And, she concludes: "American troops will win if we show even one-tenth the courage here at home that they show every day on the battlefield. And by the way, you cannot wish failure on our soldiers' mission and claim, at the same time, to be supporting the troops. It just doesn't compute."

How courage at home would change the quagmire in Iraq is left unexplained. And by the way: Who is wishing failure on our soldiers' mission?

The Situation on the Ground

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post this morning: "The battle for Baghdad will start in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods chosen by military strategists as being the least likely to offer stiff resistance, raising the odds of early success, according to military planners and officials familiar with the thinking of the incoming Iraq commander, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus.

"But that could be followed by a sharp increase in violence as insurgents learn U.S. and Iraqi tactics, military officials said.

"The general, whose Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for this morning, plans to send all 17,500 additional U.S. troops ordered by President Bush into Baghdad, regardless of whether Iraqi army units join the fight as planned, according to officials familiar with his thinking. Anticipating an uneven performance by the Iraqi army, military planners are advocating using American force and funding quickly to establish early victories, both in improving security and showing economic progress."

For a more unvarnished Ricks, the Prairie Weather blog has a transcript from his appearance yesterday on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

Ricks: "When I was with Defense Secretary Gates in Baghdad last month the Iraqi officials hanging around the meetings would tell you that what they had asked for was that US forces move to the periphery of Baghdad and basically beat up the Sunnis for them while they more or less finished the ethnic cleansing of central Baghdad with the Shiite army.

"BL: That's an interesting way to put it!

"TR: Well, it's my characterization. It's not quite how they put it! But -- reading between the lines -- that's where they were going. It's a kind of 'donut strategy': you guys get out of here and be useful chumps while we sort out our internal differences, finish the ethnic cleansing, and consolidate our hold on power. I don't think that's where the Americans wanted to go so, while they called this 'Maliki's plan,' it's almost the opposite. It's 'we're going to send troops into the middle of the city, double the American presence on the streets of Baghdad because we don't trust your army."

And here, Ricks is considerably less optimistic:

"The problem here, as you may suspect, is that two aspects have characterized the American approach in Iraq over the past three years. One has been official over-optimism in which institutions fail to recognize the basic reality on the ground. The second is a rush to failure with Iraqi forces. I think the concern of a lot of people in the military right now -- especially officers who have a tour or two in Iraq -- is that the new plan combines both those flaws: official optimism about what Iraqis are willing to do, and a rush to failure in pushing Iraqis too soon to do too much."

Skutnik Watch

Watching for the Skutniks has been a Washington tradition ever since Ronald Reagan pointed up to the first lady's box at his 1982 State of the Union address and lauded Lenny Skutnik, the government worker who weeks before leapt into the icy Potomac River to rescue a survivor of an Air Florida crash.

But more eyes may be on another box tonight.

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Newly minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will not only sit behind President Bush at tonight's State of the Union address, but she's filling the normally staid speaker's box with a cluster of political stars.

"Many of Pelosi's guests, who will sit in 21 balcony seats, will be past and present celebs of the Democratic Party: former speakers Jim Wright and Tom Foley, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Washington's Adrian Fenty. Pelosi also invited two of the more influential 9/11 widows, Carrie Lemack and Mary Fetchet, and the wives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and vice chairman, Lynne Pace and Cindy Giambastiani."

Elissa Silverman writes in The Washington Post: "Although former mayor Anthony A. Williams, like Fenty, is a Democrat, Williams sat with the wife of Republican President Bush. Presidents often acknowledge guests in the VIP box during the address, and Williams was often captured on television as the cameras panned to the seats around the first lady.

"During his campaign for mayor, however, Fenty pledged that he would not sit as a guest of the White House because the president had not supported the city's quest for voting representation in Congress."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's State of the Union speech.

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