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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, May 10, 2006; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.

Today's column (which should be out shortly) is about the really pretty sudden and remarkable erosion of support for President Bush among Republicans and conservatives.

According to Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee in the New York Times, the latest Times/CBS News poll shows that only 51 percent of conservatives and 69 percent of Republicans approve of the way Bush is handling his job. "In both cases, those figures are a substantial drop in support from four months ago."

So what's going on? I advance a few theories in my column, but tell me yours.


Houston, Tex.: Mr. Froomkin, Do you think Bush should address the 18-page letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Perhaps the response would be seen as an entry to transparency.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not exactly surprised that the White House hasn't responded more warmly to the letter.

As Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times: "With the tone of a teacher and the certainty of a believer, the president of Iran wrote to President Bush that Western democracy had failed and that the invasion of Iraq, American treatment of prisoners and support for Israel could not be reconciled with Christian values."

The full text of the letter can be found here.

But I actually love your idea, of having Bush respond with an equally extensive explanation of his world view.


Dallas, Tex.: Dan

Always a pleasure to read your column.

With President Bush's polling looking like a downhill run on a rollercoaster, where do you think it will bottom out? 30%, 25%, 20%. How low can he go???

Dan Froomkin: Beats me. As little as a few weeks ago, I would have guessed: Not much lower. I figured he had a core constituency that couldn't be shaken, pretty much no matter what. Now that doesn't look to be the case at all.


Wellington, Fla.: Why has there been so little attention paid to the incredible number of signing statements this president has issued? To me this speaks directly to the arrogance and imperialistic attitude of this administration and is an affront to the very principles of democracy that we allegedly hold so dear.

Dan Froomkin: I agree that this is a big deal, and devoted a lot of space in my Wednesday column to the topic. I'm certainly not done bringing it up.


Dan Froomkin: OK, the column is now live: Where's the Base? .


Nashville, Tenn.: Obviously TV networks don't have time to research every video clip they air, but you would think given that Ray McGovern was a CIA veteran and claimed to be citing Rumsfeld's "own words", that ABC would have taken the two seconds to type those words into Lexis. Had they done so, Rumsfeld's quote on the 30 May 2003 "This Week" would have hit them in the face. In a case like that isn't it standard practice for a network to air video which contradicts a previous position of a high administration official?

Dan Froomkin: You would think so, wouldn't you.

Sometimes I think Jon Stewart's the only guy in TV land who actually goes through news video archives.


Harrisburg, Pa.: If Jeb "I'm smarter than my brother" Bush were to decide to run for President, do you think the White House would be supportive or do you think they would prefer he not run?

Dan Froomkin: Funny you should mention that. This just in:

Bush did a roundtable interview this morning with Florida newspapers including the Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.

Bill Adair writes on the St. Petersburg Times Web site: "President Bush would like to see his brother Jeb run for office again and says he would make 'a great president.'

"In an interview with Florida reporters, Bush said his brother had been an excellent governor and is well-suited for another office. 'I would like to see Jeb run at some point in time, but I have no idea if that's his intention or not.'

"Bush said he had 'pushed him fairly hard about what he intends to do,' but Jeb has not said."

Dan Froomkin: P.S. Unlike his big brother, Jeb actually does speak Spanish.


Boston, Mass.: Al Kamen's article about talking points for the department of agriculture on the global war on terror is why The Post is a great news paper. In no other paper in the entire country can you read an article like it. Similarly with the great stories The Post has done about the Railroad to nowhere in Mississippi. You will never see an article like that hit CNN, Fox, Google news. Do you think the average American is aware that this is what government spends their money on?

Dan Froomkin: Kamen is indeed one of The Post's treasures.

For those of you who missed it, here is Al's In the Loop column from Monday: "Career appointees at the Department of Agriculture were stunned last week to receive e-mailed instructions that include Bush administration 'talking points' -- saying things such as 'President Bush has a clear strategy for victory in Iraq' -- in every speech they give for the department.

"'The President has requested that all members of his cabinet and sub-cabinet incorporate message points on the Global War on Terror into speeches, including specific examples of what each agency is doing to aid the reconstruction of Iraq,' the May 2 e-mail from USDA speechwriter Heather Vaughn began....

"Another attachment 'contains specific examples of GWOT messages within agriculture speeches. Please use these message points as often as possible and send Harry Phillips, USDA's director of speechwriting, a weekly email summarizing the event, date and location of each speech incorporating the attached language. Your responses will be included in a weekly account sent to the White House.'"

Washingtonpost.com then Web-published the attachment itself !

An example of a "Transition Example": "I'm looking forward to walking through the exhibit hall after our breakfast this morning, and seeing all of your agricultural products and services displayed in such abundance...

"But before I begin discussing the productivity of American agriculture, I'd like to take a moment to talk about a nation that is just now beginning to rebuild its own agricultural production...."

Interestingly enough, in terms of editorial comment on Kamen's story, the New York Times beat the Post to the punch. Here's the Times editorial this morning: "A furious collective heehaw is surely the only proper response to the news that ranking bureaucrats and other occasional speechmakers at the Department of Agriculture have been instructed to include 'talking points' of praise for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war in their routine rhetorical fodder."


Greenbelt, Md.: You ask, in your column, "Why is it happening?" You quote Podhoretz: "They've been fighting and fighting and fighting for years, and they see no letup in the hostility toward him or in the energy and determination of his critics. Faced with that implacable opposition, they've grown not disaffected but disheartened." Doesn't this dodge the real issue, that Bush has given his critics (and his supporters) a good deal to complain about? Is Podhoretz suggesting that the President and his defenders can be worn down into giving up, regardless of the merits of the policy being criticized? Doesn't that seem like a very odd admission?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you would expect Bush supporters to be tying themselves in knots about all this, wouldn't you?


New Jersey: Dan, it's been pretty generally accepted that Bush has really been shielded in a variety of ways from bad news - his appearances are before only supporters, his conference calls are tweaked to be more pep talks than anything else, he never reads papers, and his aides have been afraid to bring him bad tidings.

Do you think this is still the case? I try to imagine a truthful sit-down at the White House about, say, Russia and Putin's newfound assertiveness, and I can't, I can't see people putting out the whole picture for Bush as to how Iraq has weakened us, how the lack of oil conservation has weakened us, etc. etc. I just can't imagine anything other than people telling Bush that Putin is evil and that's why he's saying these things.

Do you think Bush is getting a daily dose of reality yet?

Dan Froomkin: There have been a few highly-publicized cases of Bush being confronted with people who actually disagreed with him. But I still don't see any sign that he is remotely interested in what they have to say.

Consider Bush's extraordinary interview with the German tabloid Bild on Friday. Before they could even ask a question, Bush went off:

"The interesting thing about Washington is that they want me to change -- they being the -- and I'm not changing, you know. You can't make decisions if you don't know who you are, and you flip around with the politics. You've got to stay strong in what you believe and optimistic about that you'll get good results.

"And so --the other thing I want you to know about me is that no matter how pressurized it may seem, I'm not changing what I believe. . . . I'm not changing. I don't care whether they like me at the cocktail parties, or not. I want to be able to leave this office with my integrity intact."

Bush strikes me as having a very rigid us vs. them mentality, but when the "them" is 63 percent -- in his own country! -- where does that leave the guy?


McLean, Va.: How bad is Luttig's resignation for Bush?

While his resignation letter said the Boeing job is a singular opportunity, apparently he became quite upset over the government's handling of Padilla.

Dan Froomkin: Another "This Just In!"

Fred Barbash writes on washingtonpost.com: "Appeals court Judge J. Michael Luttig, a leading conservative jurist and a short-list Bush administration candidate for the Supreme Court, announced today that he is resigning from the bench to serve as senior vice president and general counsel of the Boeing Co."

It does indeed look like there's plenty of backstory there, but it's too soon for me to speculate.


Washington, D.C.: From some observation of Tony Snow it seems to me like he will shift from the current Scott McClellen method of saying "I won't comment on a current investigation" and return us to the glory days of Ari Fleischer's "I can't comment on a current investigation and you are helping the terrorists just by asking" method. Thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I sure hope not.

In my column from yesterday, Preparing for Snow , I wrote about how it would be nice if at his first full-fledged press conference, Snow faced some questions that on the one hand put him to the test, but on the other hand gave him a fair chance to show that he's serious about explaining White House actions more forthrightly than either of his predecessors.

I asked you readers to help me come up with some. I've gotten more than 500 e-mails already -- and I'm accepting submissions until Thursday night. (See yesterday's column for instructions.)

I'm not so much interested in smart-aleck, gotcha questions. What I'm looking for is questions to which the average American would say: "Yeah, I'd like to know the answer to that."

Sneak preview: Here are some real-live examples of what I'm looking for:

* "How does the administration define torture?" (Brandon Garcia, Santa Fe, N.M.)

* "Could you describe the President's view regarding the separation between policy and politics?" (Anthony Wheeler, Peoria, Ill.)

* "The President has repeatedly stated that he 'doesn't pay attention to polls'. However, since more than 2/3rds of the population doesn't like the way he's doing things and handling the country, doesn't Mr. Bush think that maybe it just might be time to actually listen to the people of this country and change some of his decision processes?" (Bret Ryckmen, Phoenix, Ariz.)

Here's an example of what I'm not looking for:

* "Mr. Snow, could you please publicly explain why this administration, from the president to the pimply-faced interns, should not be dragged right out of this White House, forcibly removed if necessary for crimes against its citizens, theft of public resources, corruption, a war sold to the public through deception, a hijacking of fundamental Christian beliefs for political gain, also done deceptively, not to mention the less than stellar responses to Katrina, high energy prices and skyrocketing medical costs?" (Matt Ward, Las Vegas)


Baltimore, Md.: Dan, when will we hear you again on Washington Post radio? How did you enjoy your first foray into radio land? I for one, thought your host was a little too talkative and "folksy". I wanted to hear more of what you had to say.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I enjoyed it -- and I thought host Sam Litzinger was great.

The tentative plan is for me to go on every Friday afternoon around 2. I'll keep everyone posted.


Houston, Tex.: Mr. Froomkin, Any chance we will see more exchanges like Rumsfeld and Ray McGovern, (perhaps by the MSM) where this administration is called on discrepancies?

Dan Froomkin: Quite possibly.

In fact, although as far as I can tell no one paid any attention to this but me, Bush got raked over the coals pretty good yesterday by a bunch of retirees. The subject was Medicare.

As I noted in today's column, one audience member literally begged Bush, on behalf of her elderly neighbors, to extend the deadline for picking a Medicare prescription drug plan. (He refused.)

Another audience member lectured Bush at length about everything that was wrong about the program.

Here's the transcript . There's excerpts in my column.

Today's Medicare event was much more carefully stage managed, however.

I can't tell for sure if the White House is intentionally exposing Bush to more hostile crowds -- or whether the anger is just getting overwhelming -- or a bit of both.


Seattle, Wash.: Dan, I have a speculative question regarding Cheney. I believe if the democrats gain control of one or both houses of Congress that Cheney may resign shortly thereafter. I don't see him responding well to actual oversight and questions from the Democrats. This would allow Bush to appoint a front runner for the 2008 Presidential election.


Dan Froomkin: You know, I might have considered that vaguely plausible... until I saw Cheney's interview with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell over the weekend. (Here's the text ; here's the video .)

"Q You have said you will not seek the presidency. You will complete your term. When you consider what it might mean for the Republican Party, would there be any benefit if you were to retire, to allow the President to choose someone else who might then have an advantage in 2008?

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm not sure it would be an advantage. But that's not my concern. I, in effect, took on the obligation when I put my name on the ballot at the request of the President -- both in 2000 and again in 2004 -- that if elected to serve out my term, I feel I've got a contract, if you will, with the American people, a constitutionally elected officer, my term ends in January of 2009, and barring some unforeseen disaster, that's what I'll do. "

My conclusion is that Cheney's not going anywhere -- even if Bush wants him out.


Washington, D.C.: Dan:

Two questions. Why did Bush's staff choose to endanger his life by mishandling that trip book to Florida, that was found by a member of the cleaning crew?

And will someone be punished?

From experience, I know the Secret Service provide "burn bags" to staff where sensitive documents can be discarded and destroyed. Staff apparently chose to bypass that.

Surely the professionals of the USSS are getting tired of covering for all of these Administration gaffes (Denver Three, Abramoff visits) - but this latest staff lapse puts security on the line!

Dan Froomkin: I had no idea what you were talking about at first. Then I found the story on CBSNews.com: Presidential Papers Found In Trash : "A public sanitation worker in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday found a thick stack of papers with nearly every detail of President Bush's trip to Florida on the floor next to a big trash truck.

"The documents offer the exact arrival and departure time for Air Force One, Marine One and the back up choppers, Nighthawk 2 and 3, as Washington CBS affiliate WUSA-TV first reported ."

You think this story has legs?


Charleston, S.C.: Mr. Froomkin,

The only surprising aspect of the President's poll numbers to this conservative is how long it has taken for them to come down. Any republican that has an interest in smaller government, more federalism, and less intrusive civil policies can not tolerate this President anymore than left wing democrats. The idea that you are a conservative because you oppose gay marriage is disheartening to the movement and the leadership of the Republican party will have a lesson in governing the way that they campaign in November.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

The libertarians aren't happy either, for their own reasons.

As I noted a few days back, Gene Healy and Timothy Lynch wrote in a report for the Libertarian Cato Institute: "With five years of the Bush administration behind us, we have more than enough evidence to make an assessment about the president's commitment to our fundamental legal charter...

"Unfortunately, far from defending the Constitution, President Bush has repeatedly sought to strip out the limits the document places on federal power."


Glen Ridge, N.J.: Where's the base? If you're interested, I thought this a telling explanation from a local newspaper, from ultra-conservative editorialist Paul Mulshine that effectively explains what many conservatives probably feel about (his header): "Why I can't stand Bush" - Before George W. came along, conservatives were on the winning side of every major issue. We were the ones who disdained the Beltway class, who pushed for smaller, more responsible government. Remember term limits? The balanced-budget amendment? In the Clinton era, the GOP promised such reforms. But then George W. took over. We've got term limits, all right. Only now we call them "indictments." As for Bush's promise to give us the balanced-budget amendment, that was about as valid as his promise not to get into a war without an exit strategy -- or any of his other promises. You can call it lying, or you can call it spin. Whatever you call it, there is not a single person in the administration who would endorse in 2006 what Bush himself endorsed in 2000." That's understandable(!).

Dan Froomkin: Certainly blistering. Thanks for pointing that out. Here's the link .


Alameda, Calif.: How is it that despite job approval ratings that rival Nixon's a month before his resignation, Bush is able to get the House and Senate to approve making the tax cuts permanent, as the Post reported today is likely to happen by the end of the week? When his ratings were high, I could understand how the White House could call up wavering Republicans and apply pressure, but what is he doing now to keep the troops in line?

Dan Froomkin: I think from this point forward, until further notice, you can assume that whatever the Republican majorities in Congress do, it's because they think it will help them at the polls in November -- not because Bush is putting pressure on them.


Baltimore, Md.: Does Mr. Meyerson have it right in his column today when he says that Karl Rove's big plan for beating the Democrats is to scare the Republicans about investigations?

Dan Froomkin: That's certainly part of it. (Here's the Harold Meyerson column in question.)

See for instance Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times on Monday.

And I see Howard Fineman is out with a new column on Newsweek.com in which he writes: "This fall's election season is going to make the past three look like episodes of 'Barney.'...

"The way I read the recent moves of Karl Rove & Co., they are preparing to wage war the only way open to them: not by touting George Bush, Lord knows, but by waging a national campaign to paint a nightmarish picture of what a Democratic Congress would look like, and to portray that possibility, in turn, as prelude to the even more nightmarish scenario: the return of a Democrat (Hillary) to the White House."

Of course, this presupposes Rove doesn't get indicted.


Dan, any web-streaming of your radio gig?: Curious minds want to know!

Dan Froomkin: All of Washington Post radio streams live at washingtonpostradio.com .

If everyone thinks it's worth it, we'll likely do a podcast of my appearances... Stay tuned!


New York, N.Y.: Re the "burn bags", doesn't this story recall the carelessness with which the White House treated the way Air Force 1 security details, which had been posted publicly online... the WH did not remove the posting for several days after it was contacted by a reporter (for SF Chronicle, if I remember correctly) reporting the security flaw...

And don't these stories feed the perception that Bush is inept at protecting national security?

Dan Froomkin: San Francisco Chronicle indeed.

Hmm. Give a reporter two facts and a deadline and what do you have? A trend story! So you may be right.


Austin, Tex.: Earlier in your blog, you included a comment from a reader:

"but no one has examined the psychology of the American public and press that elevated the man to such high ratings not for what he had done but for what had been done to us"

Actually, researchers (myself included) are looking into this. One article which was produced shortly before the 2004 election really illustrates the Rove strategy and how effective it was:

Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., et al. (2004). Deliver Us from Evil: The Effectsof Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush. Personality Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1136-1150.

Plenty more where that come from.

Dan Froomkin: Ah, just what I needed: A little light reading. Thanks.

I gather the abstract is here . Would you please e-mail me the whole article?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hey Dan,

I found this quote from President Bush in the transcript from the session the President spoke at yesterday:

"Deadlines are important. Deadlines help people understand there's finality, and people need to get after it, you know?"

Is the President saying that, for some things deadlines are important, and for some things not? Because he sure doesn't believe in deadlines for Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. And speaking of deadlines, I have to run. Thanks for all the great questions; sorry I couldn't get to more of them.


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