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Bush's Bubble Strikes Again

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; 1:18 PM

President Bush's public campaign to push back against Congressional demands for withdrawal from Iraq is becoming highly reminiscent of his failed effort two years ago to win support for a radical overhaul of Social Security.

The meticulously choreographed settings, the carefully controlled audiences, the mind-numbing repetition of hoary talking points (with a particular emphasis on stoking fears) -- it's like deja vu.

And so is the result: A public that is apparently more turned off to Bush's ideas the more he talks about them.

As it was last time, Bush's Bubble may be the central problem. Bush seems to think that through sheer force of will -- and repetition -- he will convince people that his cause is just -- in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And why does he think that? Quite possibly, because virtually everyone he talks to -- and virtually everyone he sees -- is already in his camp.

The question the White House has to confront is this: Is there another way? What if Bush sought out representative audiences, acknowledged the realities on the ground both in Iraq and at home, engaged his critics and honestly addressed their concerns?

He might or might not be more persuasive. But it would certainly be a good thing for the country.

The Coverage

Jonathan Weisman and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post about the president's pitch yesterday at the White House: "Bush used a backdrop of military families to declare: 'We should not legislate defeat in this vital war.' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), flanked by retired Army generals, fired back: 'The president and the vice president continue to desperately cling to their failed escalation strategy and attack those who disagree with them.'

"Democrats appear to be standing on firm political ground, as they work toward a final bill. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,141 adults, conducted April 12-15, found that 58 percent trusted the Democrats in Congress to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq, compared with 33 percent who trusted Bush.

"The president has taken advantage of Congress's spring recess to pound Democrats over their legislation, which would impose benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet; create strict rules for resting, equipping and training combat troops; and set a 2008 date for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite those efforts, Bush has lost a little ground to Democrats, who in February were trusted by 54 percent to set Iraq policy. . . .

"Bush continued yesterday to say that victory in Iraq is pivotal to the larger fight against terrorism, but Americans are increasingly agreeing with the Democratic view that the issues are separate. About 57 percent now say the United States can succeed in the terrorism fight without winning the Iraq war, an increase of 10 percentage points since January, when Americans were almost evenly divided on the question."

Here are The Post's poll results. The survey finds Bush's approval is at 35 percent, within 2 points of his all-time low in the Post poll, and 18 points lower than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has a 53 percent approval rating.

The public disapproves of Bush's handling of Iraq by a 70 to 29 margin, and by a 58 to 34 percent margin believes that the Democrats in Congress are taking a stronger leadership role in the government these days than Bush. An all-time high of 66 percent feel the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, with an all-time high of 54 percent feeling that way strongly.

And even responding to a question straight out of the White House talking points, 56 percent of the public thinks "the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there"; compared to 42 percent who think that it should keep them there.

In other poll news, Jeffrey M. Jones writes for the Gallup News Service that in Bush's 25th quarter in office (Jan. 20 to April 19), the president "averaged only a 35% job approval rating, the lowest quarterly average of his presidency to date. His previous low was the 36% he averaged in the quarter spanning April - July 2006."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In his confrontation with Congress over war spending, President Bush is calculating that he can weaken the resolve of Democrats with frequent and specific warnings that delays in passing the bill will hurt American troops and their families.

"As Mr. Bush makes his case for a war spending bill with no strings attached, White House aides say that talking about the troops is more compelling than delivering up Mr. Bush's other frequent message, that withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous for the United States. That is why the president appeared in the East Room of the White House on Monday surrounded by families of soldiers -- including some who have died -- to hammer home his message that further delays may mean unpleasant Pentagon cutbacks. . . .

"With a showdown looming, Mr. Bush has been using the only real ammunition he has: his presidential platform. In a speech to an American Legion Post last Tuesday, he warned that without the new funds, the Army might be forced to delay the formation of new combat brigade teams, a move that he said could require the Pentagon to extend some soldiers' tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But the next day, the Pentagon announced that it already had plans to extend troops tours in a move unrelated to the war financing issue."

Here is the transcript of Bush's speech yesterday.

"The families gathered here understand that we are a nation at war," he said. "They know that the enemies who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001 want to bring further destruction to our country. They know that the only way to stop them is to stay on the offense, to fight the extremists and radicals where they live, so we don't have to face them where we live. . . .

"Families gathered here understand that America is not going to be safe until the terrorist threat has been defeated. If we do not defeat the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they won't leave us alone -- they will follow us to the United States of America. That's what makes this battle in the war on terror so incredibly important. One of the lessons of September the 11th is what happens overseas matters to the security of the United States of America, and we must not forget that lesson.

"The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America. To protect our citizens at home, we must defeat the terrorists. We defeat them by staying on the offense and we defeat them by helping young democracies defeat their ideology of hate. And it's hard work. But it is necessary work, and thousands of men and women who wear our uniform understand the stakes."

The liberal Think Progress blog put together a video montage of what it called Bush's "fear mongering." And blogger Steve Benen writes: "Bush didn't quite say, 'Give me a blank check or we'll all be killed,' but he certainly seemed to be going down that road. It wasn't pretty."

(And I tip my hat to Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum, who had a post yesterday about the parallels to what he calls "the Social Security fiasco." Wrote Drum: "[E]very time Bush opened his mouth on the subject, polls moved in the opposite direction. Now the same thing is happening with Iraq. If he had any brains, he'd just shut up and try to ride it out. His mouth is his own worst enemy.")

The Big Meeting

Bush will take part in a rare face-to-face meeting with critics tomorrow, albeit behind closed doors.

Kenneth T. Walsh blogs for U.S. News that "sparks are expected to fly at President Bush's meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Wednesday at the White House. The topic will be Iraq, and neither side has shown much willingness to compromise so far."

But, Walsh adds: "Democrats sense a trap. Insiders say they suspect Bush will let the opposition leaders present their differing views on the Iraq war in the Wednesday encounter and then, afterward, he will use his bully pulpit to portray the Democrats as hopelessly divided and heading down the path toward surrender, while he has a plan for victory."

No More 'War on Terror'

Tania Branigan writes in the Guardian: "President George Bush's 'war on terror' rhetoric has strengthened terrorist groups by helping them to create a shared identity, the development secretary, Hilary Benn, warned yesterday.

"The Foreign Office reportedly asked politicians and diplomats to drop the phrase last year. . . .

"'In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone, and because this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives,' he told a meeting in New York organised by the Centre on International Cooperation.

"'It is the vast majority of the people in the world - of all nationalities and faiths - against a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world and their idea of being part of something bigger. What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.'"

The Savage Pulitzer

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting yesterday, "for his revelations that President Bush often used 'signing statements' to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws."

The stories that won Savage his prize are certainly familiar to White House Watch readers -- and yet worth rereading.

And here's a question White House correspondents should be asking themselves today: How did an investigative reporter at a regional newspaper end up winning an award on their beat?

According to Globe Editor Martin Baron, the answer is: "What Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says."

Another thing to keep in mind: For entirely too long, Savage was a one-man band on this important national story.

As Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Savage said that although his reports spurred wide debate among opinion writers, other publications were slow in 'legitimizing it' with news coverage. 'There were some months there when it was kind of lonely,' he said."

Readers of this column know I was a big fan of Savage's reporting and frequently expressed dismay that other news outlets weren't pursuing the story. I summed up my dismay in a long story for NiemanWatchdog in June.

And in my August 2 column, I contrasted the lack of coverage by Washington's biggest newsrooms with the "outpouring of editorials at small- and medium-sized newspapers across the country," which I wrote indicated that "there may be something about violating the Constitution that riles up Americans no matter where they live or where they stand on the political spectrum."

Why didn't other newsrooms -- and the White Hous press corps -- take up the signing statement story and run with it? I still don't know. Maybe Savage's Pulitzer will be a wake-up call of sorts.

Gonzales Watch

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The former top aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has told Congressional investigators that Mr. Gonzales was 'inaccurate,' or 'at least not complete' in asserting that he had no role in the deliberations about individual United States attorneys who were later dismissed, a Democratic senator said Monday.

"The statements by D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Mr. Gonzales, during an interview with investigators on Sunday, were made public as the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday in which Mr. Gonzales was to appear to defend his actions in the dismissals. . . .

"In his interview, Mr. Sampson said under oath that Mr. Gonzales took part in discussions last fall about David C. Iglesias, who was removed as the United States attorney in New Mexico, as well as in a June 2006 meeting that addressed concerns about Carol C. Lam, the United States attorney ousted from her job in San Diego, said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. . . .

"Mr. Gonzales said in an interview with NBC News on March 26 that he did not recall a White House meeting held in the fall. White House officials confirmed the meeting and that President Bush raised concerns at it about a lack of aggressive voter-fraud investigations in three states, including New Mexico."

But "Mr. Schumer said Monday that Mr. Sampson recalled that in early March, Mr. Gonzales had told him about the White House conversation."

Beyond Gonzales

Michael Isikoff writes for Newseek: "A glance at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's prepared testimony for Tuesday's make-or-break hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is a bit like a game of 'Where's Waldo.' Only in this case, the missing characters are President Bush, Karl Rove and the rest of the White House cast.

"Gonzales and his aides have spent the last two weeks polishing, and repolishing, his account of the sackings of eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales says he has 'nothing to hide' and once again denies that any of the prosecutors were dismissed for any 'improper' reasons. But the final 24-page product, released by the Justice Department over the weekend, sheds little, if any, light on a topic that senators on the panel have made clear is central to their inquiry: the White House role in the decision to fire prosecutors."

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "New details emerging from Justice Department interviews and e-mails suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and perhaps President Bush were more active than they've acknowledged in the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, lawmakers said Monday."

Opinion Watch

Patrick M. Collins, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, writes in a Chicago Tribune op-ed that "an effective justice system requires the support and confidence of the community at large. If the public perceives that prosecutions are influenced by partisan affiliations or political agendas, it will quickly -- and appropriately -- lose confidence in its prosecutors. . . .

"In e-mails and documents released in recent weeks, we have learned that certain high-ranking Justice officials, when considering particular top prosecutors to terminate and others to replace them, answered the loyalty question in partisan political terms. Distressingly, these Justice officials appear to have placed a premium on installing prosecutors with established partisan political resumes.

"A DOJ process that exalts partisan political loyalty over independence and fairness is a fundamentally flawed one. Political blinders are critical to a prosecutor because, without them, important decisions about how cases are investigated and prosecuted can be hijacked by improper considerations with tangible (even tragic) consequences. Naturally, this is most critical in political corruption cases, the legitimacy of which hinges on the political independence of the prosecutive team's work. . . .

"We have heard as a defense of the summary dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys that all U.S. attorneys 'serve at the pleasure of the president.' And that, of course, is true. But they must never serve only to please the president. U.S. attorneys serve the people of the United States.

"If we replace non-partisan public service with blind political loyalty, we will have sacrificed one of the core values of our judicial system."

It's worth noting that federal prosecutors rarely write op-eds. Presumably, in this case, Collins didn't think he'd get in trouble for doing so. And who's his boss? A fellow named Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Political science professor Ross K. Baker writes in a USA Today op-ed that "clinging to a faithful but inept friend, or one who has made powerful enemies in Congress, can seriously damage a president. Had Bush not waited until after the 2006 elections to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had a long history with the family, the GOP might have kept control of Congress.

"With the staggering incompetence Gonzales has shown in the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, he seems ripe for amputation. The president's reluctance to break out the scalpel -- especially at a time when his administration is in an advanced state of decomposition -- tells us much about presidents whose struggle with casting-off their subordinates in a timely fashion belies the tough images they like to project. When, at long last, they get around to it, the infection has spread dangerously....

"We esteem courage in presidents, and a good test of a president's courageousness is his ability to draw his sword on a subordinate who has become a liability. That courage is put to a more rigorous but necessary test when the subordinate is a friend of long standing. Yet a president must realize that though loyalty to a friend is admirable, such loyalty should never trump what's best for the country."

The Washington Post editorial board writes; "In the uproar over the firing of U.S. attorneys, most of the attention has been focused on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, and it will be again later this week when he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it's increasingly clear that important questions about the firings must be directed to the White House, which inspired the plan, prodded it along and may well have selected at least one target more because of partisan politics than performance. . . .

"The White House would like this to be a Justice problem, but it isn't turning out that way. 'I mean, this took place inside the Justice Department,' Vice President Cheney said Sunday on CBS's 'Face the Nation.' 'The one who needs to answer to that and lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired is the attorney general, and he'll do so.' But Mr. Cheney's rendition isn't accurate. The story unfolded inside the White House, too, and White House officials also need to 'lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired.'"

Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta writes: "The Bush administration's ongoing evasions, stonewalling of Congress and shifting rationales for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys are part of a campaign that began when the president took office: to increase the power of the executive at the expense of the other branches of government."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column about recent statements by Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and Alberto Gonzales and writes: " Rove, Wolfowitz and Gonzales are making the last-ditch argument of a cheating husband caught in flagrante: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

E-Mail Watch

So maybe the " five million" missing e-mails (unrelated to the missing Republican National Committee e-mails) aren't really missing after all?

Here's Dana Perino at yesterday's briefing:

"Q Last week we talked about the organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a figure of 5 million missing emails. You had mentioned in the gaggle you thought -- you would check with the Office of Administration and perhaps that wasn't correct.

"MS. PERINO: Look, the left-wing group, CREW, came up with a number of 5 million. We don't know where they came up with that number. We've told you what we know, which is that we are aware that there could have been some emails that were not automatically archived because of a technical issue. And we have talked with the Office of Administration about that, and we're looking into those details. But given the complex nature of this issue, it might take us a little while to identify those. We do, however, know that most -- all of those emails should be available on backup tapes. And so we'll continue to look at it. This is separate from the RNC accounts, and as soon as we have more information, we'll provide it.

"Q Are you confident they're on backup tapes, or you're still in that phase of investigating?

"MS. PERINO: There should be, and we just want to make sure that there are all of them."

Virginia Tech

Bush has decided to attend this afternoon's convocation at Virginia Tech University, to honor the victims of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.

As CNN's Suzanne Malveaux put it, "usually what happens is the president waits a little while" before showing up at a disaster scene, in order not to burden local authorities. (President Clinton waited four days before speaking from Oklahoma City in 1995)

Bush this morning also issued a proclamation ordering flags flown at half-staff through Sunday night.

Buth made his first comments late yesterday afternoon, saying: "Our nation is shocked and saddened by the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech today. . . .

"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community."

The White House's initial reaction included a defense of current gun laws. From Perino's briefing:

"Q Dana, going back to Virginia Tech, what more does this White House think needs to be done as it relates to gun issues?....

"MS. PERINO: I would point you back to the fact that President, along with Secretary Spellings, hosted last October -- October 10, 2006 -- a conference on school gun violence after the Amish school shooting and the other shootings that had happened, because the tragedies are the ones that just collectively break America's heart and are ones that we deeply feel, because all of us can imagine what it would be like to have been at your own school, your own college, and to have something happen. And those of us who are parents, or brothers or sisters of people at the schools have to take that into consideration.

"As far as policy, the President believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed. And certainly bringing a gun into a school dormitory and shooting -- I don't want to say numbers because I know that they're still trying to figure out many people were wounded and possibly killed, but obviously that would be against the law and something that someone should be held accountable for."

As for that conference in October, Dana Milbank noted at the time in The Washington Post: "President Bush has always been a disciplined man, but yesterday he set a new standard for self-control: He moderated an hour-long discussion about the rash of school shootings in the past week without once mentioning the word 'guns.'"

Intel Watch, Part One

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration's allies in Congress on Monday blocked a bill that would require the White House to disclose the locations of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency and to reveal the amount spent annually by American intelligence agencies. . . .

"Opponents of the legislation, led by Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, won enough support on Monday to prevent the bill from going to the Senate floor for a final vote. . . .

"The White House last week threatened to veto the intelligence bill because it contained several provisions it deemed objectionable, including a requirement that the Bush administration give Congress a detailed report about C.I.A. prison locations and interrogation methods used on high-level terrorism suspects."

Intel Watch, Part Two

Walter Pincus wrote in Saturday's Washington Post about the administration's proposed revisions to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, "to make more non-citizens subject to intelligence surveillance and to authorize the interception of foreign communications routed through the United States."

Among the proposals: "[T]hey provide for compelling telecommunications companies and e-mail providers to cooperate with investigations while protecting them from being sued by their subscribers. The legal protection would be applied retroactively to those companies that cooperated with the government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Richard Willing writes in USA Today the administration would also "[r]equire that legal challenges to foreign surveillance operations be heard by a secret FISA court rather than in an open federal court as is now the case," and "[g]ive investigators one week rather than the current 48 hours to perform surveillance before seeking approval from a FISA court judge."

Late Night Humor

Andy Card, Bush's first chief of staff, corrects Jon Stewart on his views of Bush:

Stewart: "I would see arrogance, you would see --"

Card: "Quiet confidence."

Stewart: "Stubborn insistence on not accepting reality?"

Card: "I would say, the capacity to make a tough decision without perfect knowledge."

Stewart: "Will you be my chief of staff?"

And just for the record, asked about the fact that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove -- in spite of their public denials -- outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, Card stuck to an old hair-splitting talking point I hadn't heard in a while: "I don't think people at the White House knew her name. I don't think we knew her name."

Cartoon Watch

Bill Mitchell and Stewart Powell on Gonzales's challenge; Tony Auth on irresponsibility; Mike Luckovich on terror enough.

And, in honor of Walt Handelsman's Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, here are his winning entries-- including several raucous animations. (Don't miss this one.)

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