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Bush Outreach: Words But Not Deeds

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 5, 2007; 1:50 PM

President Bush was self-deprecating but unapologetic during his Friday visit to a gathering of House Democrats -- a delicate combination, even for him, and the latest example of his willingness to reach out to Democrats in words, but not in deeds.

Michael Abramowitz and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Visiting the Democrats' annual retreat for the first time since 2001, the president told lawmakers there are 'big things' they could accomplish by working together and sought to defuse any bad blood with self-deprecating humor. He opened his public remarks with an allusion to his tendency to mispronounce the name of the rival party by calling it the Democrat Party, seen by many party activists as a calculated insult.

"'I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party,' Bush said to laughter. He drew scattered applause a few moments later when he used the correct name in calling on the 'Democratic Party' to work with him to address the mounting future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare."

But when it came to substance, Bush "defended his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, saying that they would operate under new rules of engagement and that they could clear and hold troublesome areas."

And on the domestic issues, where Bush has embraced some elements of Democratic rhetoric -- speaking of the uninsured and global climate change, for instance -- Bush continued to push for solutions that are a far cry from the Democratic approach.

On his health proposal, which calls for changes in the tax code to encourage individuals to purchase health insurance, Bush had this to say: "I ask you to carefully consider the idea that we have put out. I've already heard from some members who thought it was a lousy idea, I understand that. But please look at it in depth as a way to address an issue that concerns us all, and that is, not enough people having health insurance."

But that proposal contains a poison pill for Democrats; it would undermine employer-sponsored health insurance programs.

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times that "even the meticulous planning that went into the encounter could not conceal the deep divisions between the White House and the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. Pelosi introduced the president from a lectern bearing the slogan 'Governing for a New Direction,' but he spoke from his own lectern, emblazoned with the presidential seal, a few feet away."

Richard Wolf and David Jackson write in USA Today: "Bush's immediate predecessors reached deals across the aisle. President Clinton worked with Republicans to overhaul welfare. The first President Bush raised taxes to get a major deficit reduction agreement with Democrats. President Reagan worked with Democrats to revamp the tax code. . . .

"Republican John Kasich, who as House Budget Committee chairman helped craft a 1997 deficit reduction package with Clinton, said Bush lacks leverage. 'People are not afraid of George Bush,' he said.

"Democrat Leon Panetta, a former Clinton chief of staff, said there's more bad blood to overcome now. 'There has to be a degree of trust that you can work with the other side without getting a knife in your back,' Panetta said."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks. Stylistically, it was certainly a far cry from his repeated claim during the mid-term election campaign that "the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses."

Bush on Friday: "We share a common goal, and that is to keep America safe. You know, I welcome debate in a time of war, and I hope you know that. Nor do I consider anybody's -- nor do I consider a belief that if you don't happen to agree with me you don't share the same sense of patriotism I do. You can get that thought out of your mind, if that's what some believe. (Applause.) . . .

"These are tough times, and yet there's no doubt in my mind that you want to secure this homeland just as much as I do. You remember the lessons of September the 11th just like I do."

The Budget

Bush's true priorities -- and his credibility -- are best reflected in the annual budget he submits to Congress. Which he happens to be doing this morning.

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "The budget that President Bush will submit to Congress today shows the federal deficit falling in each of the next four years and would produce a $61 billion surplus in 2012, administration officials said. But to get there, Bush is counting on strong economic growth, diminishing costs in the Iraq war and tight domestic spending to offset the cost of his tax cuts.

"Democrats yesterday criticized the five-year budget plan as overly optimistic, and predicted that extending the tax cuts past their 2010 expiration date would dig the nation deeper into debt rather than produce a budget surplus. Republicans countered that the tax cuts are critical to maintaining a healthy economy and that a balanced budget is not possible without them."

But as Montgomery writes, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office divulges that "if the tax cuts and other expiring tax provisions are extended . . . the deficit would hit $146 billion in 2012 and grow thereafter as health costs skyrocket and the baby-boom generation retires. . . .

"Administration officials also exclude some potentially expensive items. Their request, or the first time, attempts to show the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming fiscal year, $145 billion, but includes just $50 billion for fiscal 2009 and nothing thereafter."

Stan Collender writes in the National Journal: "The Congressional Budget Office proved again last week why it is such a critically important part of the federal budget debate.

"CBO's most recent economic and budget outlook report did what the agency is required to do by calculating the deficit using the unrealistic estimates mandated by law. CBO then went a giant step further by making it clear that these calculations may not tell the real story. . . .

"The difference between the two calculations is substantial each of the next five years but most pronounced in FY12. There will be a $170 billion surplus in FY12 according to the required-by-law baseline. Under the more realistic calculation, however, there is more likely to be a $367 billion deficit."

Deborah Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Since President Bush took office, he's boosted annual defense spending by 50% -- including $500 billion over five years for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and doubled spending on homeland security. At the same time, he's cut taxes, expanded Medicare to cover prescription drugs, approved $100 billion to clean up after Gulf Coast hurricanes, and signed bills that spend a little more each year on domestic programs."

So why hasn't the economy crashed?

"Ingredient one: strong revenue growth driven by an economy distinguished by surging profits and rising incomes at the top, which are taxed more heavily than incomes at the bottom. Ingredient two: tax cuts and spending increases, which arrived when the U.S. economy needed a boost. Ingredient three, and perhaps the most significant: the willingness of foreigners to lend to the U.S., which finances the budget deficit without pushing up interest rates at a time when Americans don't save very much. . . .

"For now, the budget the president will offer today essentially counts on continued good luck."

As for that third and possibly most significant ingredient? Friday's session with House Democrats provided some evidence that Bush doesn't even get that one.

As Jeff Zeleny blogs for the New York Times: "Representative John Tanner of Tennessee asked Mr. Bush who owned the United States debt, and whether there was a plan to lessen the dependence on foreign financing.

"Mr. Bush was reported to have said that he did not know who, specifically, owned the debt. He stressed his administration's plan to balance the budget in five years. "

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press this morning: "President Bush on Monday unveiled a $2.9 trillion spending plan that devotes billions more to fighting the war in Iraq but pinches pennies on programs promised to voters by Democrats now running Congress. Democrats widely attacked the plan and even a prominent Republican conceded it faced bleak prospects."

A Billion Here, A Billion There . . .

Michael Abramowitz and Lori Montgomery wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush will ask Congress for close to three-quarters of a trillion dollars in defense spending on Monday, including $245 billion to cover the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and other elements of the 'global war on terror,' senior administration officials said yesterday."

Dean Baker blogs for the American Prospect: "Is this a lot or a little? Most readers probably have some sense that this is big money, but how about telling them that the 2008 request is equal to approximately 5 percent of total spending, or maybe $2,000 for a family of four."

'Civil War Plus'?

Here's the unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released by the White House on Friday.

Bottom line: The situation in Iraq is very grim and there may be nothing we can do about it. And that's very hard to reconcile with the official White House line.

Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus write in Saturday's Washington Post: "The U.S. intelligence community yesterday released a starkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq, warning that even if security improves, deepening sectarian divisions threaten to destroy the government and ultimately could lead to anarchy, partition or the emergence of a new dictatorship.

"Citing 'the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene,' declassified judgments of a new National Intelligence Estimate predicted that Iraqi leaders will be 'hard pressed' to reconcile over the next 18 months. . . .

"The administration struggled yesterday to put the best face on the NIE's assessment of a bleak situation that it says will sharply worsen unless 'measurable' military and political progress is made.

"National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the estimate 'explains why the president concluded that a new approach and new strategy was required.'"

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "In choosing to take the rare step of making public three and a half pages of 'key judgments' from the classified report, administration officials seized on one conclusion -- that American forces remain 'an essential stabilizing element in Iraq' -- to reinforce their view that more troops are needed to secure Baghdad and give Iraqi leaders breathing room to develop a political settlement, particularly between the warring Sunnis and Shiites."

'Civil War' Watch

The report also indicates that "civil war" -- the term the White House has so assiduously avoided using for Iraq -- is actually not alarmist enough.

"The Intelligence Community judges that the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa'ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements."

Here is the text of Hadley's briefing on Friday.

"Q Mr. Hadley, I want to go back to the term 'civil war.' The administration has really gone out of its way not to use that term, 'civil war,' in the same way that Don Rumsfeld wouldn't call it a 'guerrilla war' when it was, or an 'insurgency' when it was. Why do you go out of your way not to use that word? The President goes out of his way, as well. You say labels are difficult, but is it not important -- certainly any military strategist will tell you it's important to know what kind of fight you're in. Can you call it a civil war, and why haven't you?

"MR. HADLEY: We know what kind of fight we're in. We know the facts. That is described well in this NIE, and we have a strategy to deal with those facts and to try to succeed.

"Q Is it a civil war?

"MR. HADLEY: I will tell you what this NIE says.

"Q I want to know why you avoid using that term.

"MR. HADLEY: Because it's not an adequate description of the situation we find ourselves, as the intelligence community says."

So should we start calling it "civil war plus"?

Still No Plan B?

Karen DeYoung writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "The success of the Bush administration's new Iraq strategy depends on a series of rapid and dramatic political and economic reforms that even the plan's authors have little confidence will work.

"In the current go-for-broke atmosphere, administration officials say they are aware that failure to achieve the reforms would result in a repeat of last year's unsuccessful Baghdad offensive, when efforts to consolidate military gains with lasting stability on the ground did not work. This time, they acknowledge, there will be no second chance."

But what "no second chance" means, I'm not sure. Does that mean they acknowledge that if it fails, there is no option but withdrawal?

More uncertainty from Hadley's Friday briefing:

"Q Yes, just one last one. If this falls apart -- and they talk about this in the NIE, that there would be mass chaos, there would be sectarian violence -- do we have a plan on how we would operate in there if that happened?

"MR. HADLEY: As you would expect, we are developing all kinds of contingency plans. But the best -- one of the things you should conclude from this NIE is the best plan is to have this plan succeed."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Even after releasing parts of an intelligence report so pessimistic that it may as well have been titled 'Iraq: We're Cooked,' Bush officials clung to their alternate reality, using nonsensical logic and cherry-picking whatever phrases they could find in the report that they could use to sell the Surge. . . .

"It's official. We're in a cycle of violence so complex and awful that withdrawing American troops will make it worse and keeping American troops there may also make it worse.

"We can try or we can leave, but either way, it seems, we're cooked."

Legacy Watch

Holly Bailey, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: "Bush wants his legacy to be the long-term defeat of Islamic extremism. Indeed, senior officials close to Bush who did not wish to be identified discussing private conversations with the president tell Nesweek that Bush's plan after he leaves the White House is to continue to promote the spread of democracy in the Middle East by inviting world leaders to his own policy institute, to be built alongside his presidential library. . . .

"Those who see the war as a growing disaster might be surprised by Bush's ability to remain upbeat. When he visits the families of the dead, or sees the casualties come home from the battlefront, doesn't he have crises of confidence? Doesn't he wonder if he's made a terrible mistake that has cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans and more than 54,000 Iraqis, not to mention the stature and prestige of the United States? Those close to Bush say that such questions misunderstand a fundamental aspect of his character: he doesn't get tangled up thinking about his own mistakes in the raw, recent times of his own making. . . .

"A reconstruction of Bush's past six months as commander in chief shows that he has taken a greater interest in the details of the war in Iraq than he has before. Still, he has repeatedly followed his own certitudes over the advice of others. As the war and his poll numbers worsened, Bush did, for the first time, begin to talk to soldiers with on-the-ground experience and civilian experts with a range of views. But it appears that he was at least two years too late, and that he has somewhat simplistically and unrealistically narrowed his options to victory or defeat. He has kept his focus on the big picture, the great march of freedom, from decades past and decades into the imagined future, as a way to insulate himself against the horrors of the moment."

Scooter Libby Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Audio recordings of former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's secret grand jury testimony will be released publicly after they are presented at his trial, the judge at Libby's trial ruled Monday.

"In a victory for the news media, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he had little choice but to make them public under the law as applied in the federal court system in Washington, D.C, even though he has concerns about releasing the recordings while the case is under way. . . .

"From the news media's perspective, 'it's great stuff,' [defense lawyer William] Jeffress told the judge in asking that the recordings not be released during the trial."

Carol D. Leonnig writes for The Washington Post: "The day of his interview with the FBI, Vice President Cheney's then-top aide hand-marked copies of two Washington Post articles about the breadth of a criminal leak investigation -- and underlined were passages suggesting that any official who had told reporters about a CIA officer could be in legal jeopardy, prosecutors said in court filings yesterday. . . .

"Defense attorneys argued . . . that the Oct. 4 and Oct. 12 articles, written by Walter Pincus and Mike Allen, would prejudice the jury against Libby."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's defense in his perjury trial rests largely on the claim that he was too busy with pressing affairs of state to recall minor events such as conversations with reporters about an obscure CIA employee.

"But after nine government witnesses testified in federal court here over the last two weeks, a question is emerging: Given all the time and attention the White House devoted in 2003 to CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, how credible is Libby's claim of forgetfulness?"

R. Jeffrey Smith and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "[T]he unanswered question hanging over Libby's trial is, did the vice president's former chief of staff decide to leak [information about Valerie Plame] on his own?

"No evidence has emerged that Cheney told him to do it," they write. But many signs have emerged "of the vice president's unusual attentiveness to the controversy and his desire to blunt it. His efforts included the extraordinary disclosure of classified information, including one-sided synopses of Wilson's report and a 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq."

Lame Duck Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "These days, many in the media seem to be writing off President Bush. . . .

"There's little question that Bush has never been weaker politically. He got no traction from the State of the Union (as measured by the almighty polls). His domestic proposals seem to have sparked little interest, at least from the press. Here he is talking about income inequality, global warming and tougher auto mileage standards -- all typically Democratic themes -- and the journalistic reaction is a barely suppressed yawn. He's yesterday's news."

Kurtz says the media's conclusions is not personal. "Actually, even some of the journalists who are especially aggressive in their coverage of Bush like him in private settings, where the president has a joshing manner and enjoys handing out nicknames. But professional resentment may still be behind some of the increasingly negative coverage. 'In the press corps,' [the New Republic's Jonathan ] Chait says, 'there's a little bit of a realization that they had been played.'

"From Iraq, where the media fell down on the WMD debate, to Bush's 2000 campaign persona as a compassionate conservative, many journalists now believe they were led astray. That has given an extra edge to their stories and columns on Bush being out of touch and has fueled an effort to vindicate their darker picture of the war. In short, the mainstream media no longer give this president the benefit of the doubt."

Cheney's Crackup?

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "In the days since Dick Cheney lost it on CNN, our nation's armchair shrinks have had a blast. The vice president who boasted of 'enormous successes' in Iraq and barked 'hogwash' at the congenitally mild Wolf Blitzer has been roundly judged delusional, pathologically dishonest or just plain nuts. But what else is new? We identified those diagnoses long ago. The more intriguing question is what ignited this particularly violent public flare-up.

"The answer can be found in the timing of the CNN interview, which was conducted the day after the start of the perjury trial of Mr. Cheney's former top aide, Scooter Libby. The vice president's on-camera crackup reflected his understandable fear that a White House cover-up was crumbling. He knew that sworn testimony in a Washington courtroom would reveal still more sordid details about how the administration lied to take the country into war in Iraq. He knew that those revelations could cripple the White House's current campaign to escalate that war and foment apocalyptic scenarios about Iran. Scariest of all, he knew that he might yet have to testify under oath himself."

Literary Metaphor Watch

Nicholas Kristof asked readers to offer literary or historical parallels to the Bush administration and Iraq. He writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "A reader named Melissa S. e-mailed to say that she explains Iraq policy to her 8-year-old son in terms of Harry Potter characters: 'Dick Cheney is Lord Voldemort. George W. Bush is Peter Pettigrew.' Don Rumsfeld is Lucius Malfoy, while Cornelius Fudge represents administration supporters who deny that anything is wrong. And, she concludes, 'Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter is Fox News.'"

Soul Sapping?

As Abramowitz and Kane write in The Post, Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.) told Bush at the Democratic retreat about her concern that the military is fighting a war without the rest of the country sharing the sacrifice. "Bush disagreed with that proposition, according to the Democrats there; he said that the war is psychologically draining for the entire country and that it is 'sapping our souls' in some ways."

Maybe this is the sort of thing he had in mind:

Stuart Elliott writes for the New York Times: "No commercial that appeared last night during Super Bowl XLI directly addressed Iraq, unlike a patriotic spot for Budweiser beer that ran during the game two years ago. But the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year's commercials.

"More than a dozen spots celebrated violence in an exaggerated, cartoonlike vein that was intended to be humorous, but often came across as cruel or callous."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on the budget; Tom Toles on bipartisanship, Bush style.

Bush's 'Egg Salad Days'

Most Sunday mornings, the president and first lady attend services at St. John's Church on Lafayette Square. The services are generally not remotely political.

But Joseph Curl of the Washington Times writes in his pool report from this Sunday that the Rev. Luis Leon delivered an unusually pointed, if highly metaphorical, sermon.

Curl quotes Leon in his report: "'I'm not a mystic, but I try to pay attention to dreams, and in this particular dream, I was way beyond my social standing, I was at a gathering of very fancy people with a huge table down the center that had all sorts of exotic foods -- way beyond my social standing. And I didn't know anybody in the room, my wife wasn't with me, so I'm sort of at a loss, in this strange social setting, and all these exotic foods, and nobody's speaking to me, and I'm not speaking to anybody else, and I see all this food that I don't recognize, and finally I see one that I recognize, and it's egg salad. (Laughter.) So I went over to this very fancy table and got my bowl and I filled it up with egg salad. And I started eating my egg salad. And then I woke up from my dream.

"'Now here's what the kick is from this particular story, the reason I'm telling you this story is this: I hate egg salad. (Laughter.) I can't stand egg salad. (Laughter, including a very recognizable 'heh heh heh.') You know what? It was the only familiar food on the table. And I chose that which was familiar.' . . .

"The reverend then punched the point: 'We have to ask ourselves this question: Are you in some sort of egg salad experience? Are you lost in the egg salad days?'"

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