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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, February 1, 2006; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to a special State of the Union edition of White House Talk.

My column just went up. My headline today is: "State of the Bubble?"

It's a monster, but the reason it's so long is this: "President Bush's State of the Union address last night was so lacking in novelty or details that it has served as a Rorschach test of sorts for the media.

"What's the lead? What does it all mean? There are lots of different answers to that question this morning."

I myself focused on whether the speech originated from within Bush's protective bubble -- where he doesn't have to face ugly realities -- or from without. Just try to guess what I concluded.

And even though it was more boring than soaring, there was all sorts of fascinating analysis and fact-checking, plus insta-editorials, and much more. So go read it and come back and let's talk.


Washington, D.C.: Dan - I was really struck by the phrase "addicted to oil", and wonder why the administration would have chosen "addicted" over dependent, or reliant, or something else. It seems like a very calculated and loaded phrase, but I can't quite figure out why they would use it. Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. I can tell you this: It wasn't an accident. As Tom Edsall writes in his nifty multimedia analysis for washingtonpost.com:

"The administration was very proud of the addiction line, promoting it in press briefings and highlighting it in early excepts released to the media. This suggests that Republican research has found the line effective with voters, outweighing any liabilities that result when a politician blames America for some national ill."

"Addicted to oil" was certainly the most memorable line of the night.

Marc Sandalow had a good line himself about it in the San Francisco Chronicle today:

"President Bush's call for Republicans and Democrats to work together, for America to engage the world and for the nation to quit its addiction to oil will sound to many skeptics like Barry Bonds calling for an end to steroid use in baseball."

Also, John Dickerson riffs on the addiction theme in Slate: "George Bush didn't go through a recovery program when he quit drinking, but surely he knows that the first step to shucking any dependency is admitting the problem...."


Albany, N.Y.: The State of the Union seemed to be Bush's standard stuff - nothing really new, and what was new was pretty underwhelming. Bush, the former oil man and recipient of Big Oil's big campaign contributions, is going to lead the way on alternative energy? Uh, yeah.

I was weirded out by some of the whooping and cheering from the audience. I believe that someone (or some people) yelped when Bush went into his "I am the law" justification for wiretapping. Aren't those the people who are supposed to check the power of the Executive? You could almost hear the Founding Fathers collectively smacking their foreheads from the Other Side.

Dan Froomkin: The most intense Republican whooping indeed seemed to come after Bush defended his warrantless domestic wiretapping end run around Congress. Is that really something to cheer about? Well, yes, actually, if you agree with Karl Rove (see this Dan Balz story) that the wiretapping story is not something to be embarrassed about (or to investigate very hard) but something to use as a cudgel against those pansy Democrats.

Incidentally, a pool report from Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times last night described how on the Democratic side, one voice could be heard saying "Ah, come on!" Then someone else on the Democratic side said "Shush."


Grinnell, Iowa: Dan, What law did Cindy Sheehan break last night? Is there a dress code on the floor of the House?

Dan Froomkin: Apparently, they are quite strict about decorum up there in the gallery. It wasn't only Sheehan who got rousted last night.

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young [(R-Fla.], said she was ejected from the House gallery during Tuesday night's State of the Union address because she was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Support the Troops - Defending Our Freedom.'...

"'They said I was protesting,' she said in a telephone interview late Tuesday. 'I said, 'Read my shirt, it is not a protest.' They said, 'We consider that a protest.' I said, 'Then you are an idiot.'"


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Froomkin,

Gallup polled people who watched the address, and found that 75 percent described their reaction as positive, including 48 percent who said "very" positive. I happen to be one of them.

How many of the readers here today do you think agree with this?

Dan Froomkin: The problem with the insta-polls of people who actually watched the State of the Union address is that most of those people are predisposed to like what they see. Otherwise, they'd be watching HBO or something. So it's a self-selected audience.

The problem with some of my Live Online discussions, however, is very similar. My aggressive stance on transparency and accountability does seem to attract more than a fair share of Bush bashers.

Can I just say I'm glad you're here? Please chime in again.


Re: Bush's "oil addiction" shocker.: I feel like a new man today. Last night I went to sleep an "dumb, tree-hugging extremist", and this morning I woke up a "mainstream visionary". All it took was two words from our dear president.

Now, if I could only believe it. It's as if the guy who's been selling dope to the kids on my street for two years has just knocked on my door raising money for a community detox center. Uh-huh.

Dan Froomkin: Those two words being... "switch grass"? "Human-animal hybrid"?

Just kidding.

And what the heck is switch grass, anyway? I was so busy this morning I haven't even had a chance to Google it.


Anaheim, Calif.: Did you see whether he got a post-speech bump?

Dan Froomkin: You mean the one on his back?


Wilmington, N.C.: Dan, please help me out. I am confused. Is the President saying he could have prevented the 9/11 attack if only we had listened in on these two guys' phone calls? Did we know who they were? Why didn't we listen in? Isn't that the exact scenario FISA was set up to facilitate and expedite? Is he saying they were denied a FISA warrant for that surveillance?

Dan Froomkin: The White House's argument there is flatly contradicted by the 9/11 Commission, but just like the alleged 9/11-Saddam connection, I suspect a lot of people believe it anyway, because they want to.


Washington, D.C.: Posting early -- so you're a big-time White House reporter who got the State of the Union briefing that health care will be the centerpiece, and it turns out there wasn't any such thing in the speech. Does the reporter go back to the White House and ask why? Does that have an effect on the White House/reporter relationship?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah. Oops! What happened to that very central, very detailed health plan?

I'm not actually sure whether reporters read the tea leaves wrong or were flatly misinformed. I personally plead the former (I get everything second hand); but if it's the latter, then yeah, I think there should be some follow up. Both privately and publicly.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I don't think the President was looking for applause when he said "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security."

But he walked right into that! I haven't seen a better straightman since Joe Lieberman fed lines to Cheney in the 2000 debates.

Did the Dems have a copy of the speech and was their raucous applause at this line planned in advance, did Bush pause too long before moving on, or was the speechwriter just out to lunch?

Dan Froomkin: I don't believe I have ever seen a president give an applause line like that to the opposition.

The Dems -- like everyone else in that room, and in the press corps -- did in fact have an advance copy of his speech.

I don't know if their responses was organized -- it was certainly enthusiastic.

And I'll bet someone in the White House is in trouble for that one.


Columbia, Md.: It's surprising that so many reporters are treating the President's comments on bipartisanship or changing the tone with any degree of seriousness. It's been clear that Bush's political strategy has been to build support of his policies and ideas by demonizing the opposition and accentuating the countries divisions. Is there any evidence that he has altered his game plan. Why would he? It's been pretty successful so far.

Dan Froomkin: As I wrote in yesterday's column , Scott McClellan made it clear that when Bush talks about elevating the tone, he doesn't mean his own tone. So it sort of boggles the mind that anyone would report it straight.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi, Dan! Great to have you back!

Do you have any sense of why the Democrats would make such a lackluster effort at opposing an alarmingly right-wing judge nominated by an unpopular president? If the Roberts/Alito court proves disastrous, how will they burden the Republicans with it in 2006 and 2008 when they themselves went along with it (remember how no-one could run against the war in 2004)?

More broadly, why are the Democrats still trying to be good little centrists when polls consistently show that independents don't like Bush much more than Democrats do? What popularity he has derives almost entirely from his base, and the Democrats will never be far-right enough to capture them. So why not take a stand and fight to energize their base the way the Republicans do (which in turn drives their invaluable success at getting out the vote)? Is there a complicated and pragmatic political calculation that I'm missing here?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good to be back.

But I don't do Democrats. It's not my job, and they're hard to fathom. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because their elected officials, particularly senators, are too scared to think straight. I suspect that before they say "boo" they ask themselves, "would this make a devastating Republican attack ad?"

Your initial point about the independents is very perceptive and vastly underreported. You are right that over the last year or so, independents have grown to dislike Bush almost as much as the Democrats. Which is amazing.

But what sort of strategy does that suggest for the Democrats? I couldn't say.


Washington, D.C.: Did someone on Bush's speech-writing team forget that the line-item veto was clearly deemed unconstitutional under Bill Clinton? Was this empty rhetoric or another attempt to increase the power of the executive?

Dan Froomkin: Lots of questions about the line-item veto line, which I gather most of you think should have been nixed.

Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write in their fact-checking piece in the Los Angeles Times:

"The president also seemed to ignore Supreme Court precedent when he called for Congress to give him the 'line item veto.' But Congress did that once, in 1996, and it was used once, by former President Clinton. But in 1998, a federal judge ruled that it was unconstitutional. That was affirmed by a 6-3 decision of the Supreme Court."

This is not, however, the first time Bush has called for one. For instance, he called for it in December 2004 as well.

I'm not sure what his thoughts are about resolving the constitutional issues involved. Someone should ask.


Owing Mills, Md.: Switchgrass, also known as Tall Panicgrass, is a tall-growing grass found in marshes, ... Switchgrass has green blades as leaves, with a reddish tint...

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. More! I want to know more!


Columbia, Md.: Not much mention of the hot-button "culture wars" issues. Do you think he's toning it down for political expediency, or does the radical right require less reassurance now that Alito is on the bench?

Dan Froomkin: Toning it down? You think diving head-first into the human-animal hybrid issue is toning it down? He's gone wild, I tell you.


Washington, D.C.: Which do you think the White House would rather take back: "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," or "human-animal hybrids"?

Dan Froomkin: Certainly the former. I think we've only begun to hear what the White House has to say on the very important issue of human-animal hybrids. You'll notice I launched a "Manimal Watch" feature today.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Why all the references to last night's SOTU as bush's "fifth" SOTU speech? It was his sixth. He gave his first one in February 2001.

Dan Froomkin: The purists will explain that his first speech, in February 2001 was technically just an address to a joint session of Congress. I think the idea is that the new guy can't really tell you how things are, just what he plans to do.


Rockville, Md.: "And I'll bet someone in the White House is in trouble for that one."

I bet they loved it.

Dan Froomkin: That is also possible. Filthy obstructionist Democrats, cheering about doing nothing, that sort of thing?


Washington, D.C.: After a previous State of the Union address, President Bush was ridiculed by Meryl Streep and many other lefties for bringing up steroids in sports.

But later that year steroids became a huge story.

Who's to say that animal/man hybrids won't become a huge story? Could it be that some lefties just prefer to ridicule Bush, instead of examining the issue?

Dan Froomkin: I am so going to keep on top of that story. I promise.


Concord, N.H.: I know this wasn't new last night, but for some reason it really creeped me out when Bush said, basically, that we have to do whatever the military commanders in Iraq tell us to do. Isn't that just a military dictatorship? Whatever happened to the civilian control Dick Cheney was trumpeting when he chewed out Colin Powell for stepping out of line during the first Gulf War? Was it the generals who ordered Bush to have the NSA spy on me?

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting point.

Here's the thing: Bush is under enormous political pressure to start bringing troops home -- but at the same time, the idea of having to admit that the Iraq war isn't winnable is politically intolerable to him. So instead, he's tried to get political cover by saying everything is up to the generals. Which, judging from everything that's happened so far, simply isn't true. The White House (read: politicians in Washington) are establishing the strategy, which has everything to do with how many troops are required.

So the good news and the bad news is that no, it's not a military dictatorship.


New York, N.Y.: What is your analysis of why the White House journalists consistently shy away from asking tough questions to Bush any time there's a press conference? Are they afraid of getting in trouble by their network/newspaper? Are they actually Bush supporters? Are they afraid of not getting invited back to another presidential event? Are they afraid of getting labeled a liberal?

Dan Froomkin: Important question. But I don't entirely agree with your premise. I think there are a fair number of tough questions being asked. The problem, at press conferences, is that they rarely get aggressively followed up, either by the original reporter or by a successive reporter. And it turns out there's no downside to not answering a tough question. When is the last time you saw a story that led off: Bush refused to answer a question about thus and such.

Secondly, some of the "not so tough" questions you are hearing are a function of the daily news cycle. Daily news reporters tend to ask breaking-news questions rather than big-picture questions. I think that's a mistake, especially given how prepared Bush is with a vaguely relevant but usually non-responsive soundbyte for virtually any breaking-news question. But it's not that they're being craven.

I don't think any reporters in the White House press corps fail to ask questions out of fear of retribution. A good example will be to see what happens to the new Los Angeles Times White House reporter, James Gerstenzang, who asked Bush last week if he wasn't basically saying what Nixon said, which was: "When the President does it, then that means it is not illegal." He got a dirty look, but I suspect he won't be blackballed.

What I don't get is why people who get one-on-one interviews don't do a more aggressive job of questioning and following up. Though one reason is that Bush sort of filibusters. And in their case, I suspect they might not get a second chance if they were really brutal.

As for the fear of appearing liberal, I think you may be on to something there.


West Sayville, N.Y.: Did I miss the President's comments regarding North Korea?

Dan Froomkin: There was a passing mention, along with the likes of Syria Burma and Zimbabwe. But I get your point. It's a big issue. And he didn't address it.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Dan,

I just wanted to thank you for being the only person working the political desk at The Post who seems to get the liberal blogosphere and understand Democrat's frustrations with the Bush administration and Republican agenda.

And also, can you get The Post to hire more of you?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And a perfect opportunity to remind my readers that I do not in fact work on the political desk of The Washington Post. Rather, I am a contractor for washingtonpost.com.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan, I think that if the President is serious about raising the level of debate, he should consider firing Karl Rove. Are there any other measures he could take to indicate that he's taking this issue seriously?

Dan Froomkin: That would certainly earn him Democratic good will. But barring an indictment, I would say there is not a chance in hell.

I was intrigued by Bush's support last night for this math and science initiative that both parties seem to like. And I had to wonder: Aren't there any other such opportunities? That would be something.


Chicago, Ill.: You're a contractor?

Does that mean they don't want to give you a "real job"?

Can you clarify?

Dan Froomkin: I used to have a "real job" as editor of washingtonpost.com, but now I write this column and also work for NiemanWatchdog.org and do other freelance stuff, all of which makes me happier than any "real job" ever did.


Rhode Island: It was pathetic that the Democrats whooped it up on the Social Security failure, when they offered nothing up. Idiots.

Dan Froomkin: So maybe the guy who wrote that line got promoted!


Boca Raton, Fla.: We've heard on the news how some Republicans are also concerned about the NSA wiretapping. Did any of those Republicans have the nerve to stay seated last night during the applause line. From the television, it looked like they were all standing. Also, today's news reports a lawsuit was filed against AT&T for turning over records to the NSA. With this administration, I wish the lawyers luck in getting any discovery. Maybe they'll be labeled as "enemy combatants" for aiding the terrorists.

Dan Froomkin: I do wonder if Arlen Specter, who will be running those hearings, got up or not. Anyone know? E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


Morristown, N.J.: Welcome back! You were missed... a lot.

Do you think there will be any repercussions from the lack of detail on the Gulf Coast problems in the speech? It seems a large part of the country (red states at that) have been virtually written off.

Dan Froomkin: I think that was the baldest, most potentially damaging oversight of all, and I expect you will hear about it...for a day at least.


Mt. Vernon, Ill.: What about the working middle class? Nothing was mentioned of us and I for one am in big money trouble because of the price of energy and the tax burden placed on us. Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I didn't exactly hear Bush saying he felt your pain last night.


Annapolis, Md.: One sub-theme of the SOTU commentary is that the pre-speech spin from the White House didn't always match the realitty. Given that this administration has a habit of doing that - several times they got prime time coverage for what were billed as "major addresses" only to roll out nothing new -- didn't the press have an obligation to at least add to their pre-speech stories "... according to the White House, although they haven't always been accurate about these things, for whatever reason"? How many times can people be spun and burned before they have an obligation to factor it into their reporting?

Dan Froomkin: Good point. I'd like to see some post-mortem on this. And maybe some lessons learned.


Natick, Mass.: In his interview with Bob Schieffer, Bush gave as an example of limits to presidential power: "I don't think a president can order the assassination of a leader of another country with which we're not at war." This rings kind of hollow when Bush ordered a decapitation strike to take out Saddam just before the Iraq War began, and since it was Bush who declared war on Saddam, not vice versa. Bush seems to be saying, "I CAN take out any foreign leader as long as I declare war on him first." Some limitation. Why didn't anyone call him on this?

Dan Froomkin: It was a great question... and I wish Schieffer himself had followed up. He was certainly in a position to. My first follow up would have been: Well, how do you personally define torture? Give me some examples of what you are telling American servicemembers that they can and cannot do.


Jon Stewart for response: Personally, I think that the Dems should have skipped Kaine and brought in Jon Stewart for the response. Can you picture him and his team with the advance copy of the speech setting up research?

Just run it as a standard Daily Show clip segment. Cue up Bush declaring "If only we had those phone calls, we would have known of Sept. 11." Cut to Stewart saying "Knowing about Sept. 11...hmm...that somehow sounds familiar." Cue clip of Condi Rice at the hearings being asked about the memo titled "bin Laden determined to attack in U.S.," which mentioned crashing planes into buildings as an option a year before Sept. 11.

Now that would be a real response.

Dan Froomkin: That shouldn't have been the Democratic response -- that should have been the journalistic response.


Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks everyone for the wonderful questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. I'll be back here, Live Online, in two weeks -- and of course on the home page every weekday afternoon.


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