White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, November 22, 2006; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Nov. 22, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk. It's a dreary and listless Thanksgiving Eve here in Washington.

President Bush is back from his Asian trip, and has already concluded his only public event of the day: The annual pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey. Here's some video of the turkey, who doesn't seem to get just how lucky he is. In just a few minutes, the Bushes will be off to Camp David to celebrate Thanksgiving.

My White House Briefing column is on a short hiatus -- it'll be back on Monday. But here I am nonetheless, ready to take your questions and comments. What did you make of Bush's Asian trip? Which way will Bush go on Iraq? Is he still relevant?

Next week, incidentally, it's going to start looking a lot like Christmas at the White House: Monday, the first lady receives the official White House Christmas tree; and on Thursday comes the all-important media preview of the 2006 holiday decorations -- and tasting.


Washington, D.C.: According to today's Wall Street Journal, Bush's plan to revisit Social Security has met with two demands from Democrats: that he renounce in advance his "private accounts," and that he "spell out exactly what future benefit reductions or revenue increases he could support." The former deprives Bush of a cherished goal on this issue; the latter forces him, as he puts it, to "negotiate with himself," which he usually avoids. Seems unlikely to me, but the Journal grasps at straws that imply it might happen. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Was it straw-grasping or trial-ballooning? I wish I knew.

Here's that story by Jackie Calmes.

While she notes that publicly, the White House isn't budging, implicit in her story is that privately, they are.

Calmes describes the stakes nicely: "Except for the Iraq war, perhaps no other issue so tests whether Democrats' capture of Capitol Hill in this month's midterm elections will cause Mr. Bush to alter what has been a largely partisan and uncompromising governing style..."

"If Mr. Bush doesn't drop private accounts, it is virtually certain that nothing will happen on Social Security, the issue he has called the top domestic priority of his second term."

You should also read new Washington Post economics reporter Lori Montgomery's piece in today's Post on the same subject.

She writes that Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., the president's point man on Social Security and other entitlement programs, said in an interview yesterday that there are "no preconditions" when it comes to the dialogue about Social Security.

That sounds all nice and friendly and bipartisan -- until you remember that it's a longstanding Democratic precondition that privatization is a nonstarter.


Arlington, Va.: Late one night soon, the Secret Service knocks on your door and whisks you off to the White House. George W. Bush awaits you behind drawn curtains, and he has one question for you: "Realistically, honestly, what can I do at this point to save my presidency from history's failing grade?"

What do you tell him?

No magic wands allowed; just those almost equally scarce qualities around the White House in recent years: honesty and cold, hard realism.

Dan Froomkin: That's a tough one. I think he has two basic options: He can either stick to his guns and hope for some miracles, or he can admit he was wrong on a lot of things and start working closely with the Democrats. Either way, the goal should probably be that the total withdrawal of American troops in Iraq is either complete or well underway on the day of his successor's inauguration.

What do you readers think?


Murray, Ky.: When will the public find out who is truly making the decisions in the White House. Is it Rove, Cheney, or a group of insiders whose name remains unknown?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, boy, is that a good question. In fact, over these past few days, that's the question that has emerged as No. 1 with a bullet on my own personal list.

Has Bush actually rejected Cheney's neocon Iraq playbook? Has he actually rejected Rove's hyperpartisan political playbook? Can these two incredibly important, seminal advisers actually be in the doghouse? And if so, who is Bush turning to for advice?

The rejection of Cheney and Rove would be so dramatic, I simply am not ready to believe it quite yet. A real reversal on Iraq or Social Security might change my mind, however.

If Bush is looking elsewhere, he's not likely gone very far. There are very few people thought to be in his trusted inner circle. The others would include Dan Bartlett, Condolleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Harriet Miers and presumably Josh Bolten.

What's amazing to me is that on such an important question -- who has the president's ear? -- the secrecy is still so intense at the White House that we just don't know for sure.


San Jose, Calif.: Dan - really enjoy reading your daily online column/blog. Here's my question. Bush seems to have indicated that he is willing to work with the new Democratic House/Senate to get things done. And he did dispatch Rumsfeld in rather quick fashion, which is a gesture that probably sat well with the Democrats. But just as quickly it seems as though he's also done t hings to raise tensions with the Democrats - such as pushing for Bolton to be confirmed by the lame duck congress. Does it appear that there is any substantive outreach on his part with an eye toward cooperating with the Democrats, or basically is the White House preparing to go into a mode where mainly he'll be using his veto pen?

Dan Froomkin: That's the big question. I think that so far, the Rumsfeld sacrfice far outweighs Bush's (possibly not really serious) renominations of Bolton et al.

But we're all looking for more definite signs one way or the other.


Saint Brieuc, France: Hi Dan,

First off - what was President Bush thinking of in Vietnam, comparing the Vietnam war with Iraq? Did he mean America shouldn't have left Vietnam?

And on a separate problem: how much faith can the democratic government of Lebanon place in the U.S.'s declarations of support for them after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel? Their support didn't extend to preventing the country from being trashed by Israel in July, and the subsequent strengthening of Hezbollah may not be entirely unrelated. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Two excellent questions. Bush was asked last week in Hanoi if there were any lessons from Vietnam that were appropriate to Iraq. He answered: "I mean, one lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while.... We'll succeed unless we quit."

And yes, he did appear to be saying we should never have left Vietnam. That one's going to come back to haunt him, I'll bet.

On your second point, ever since the U.S. approved the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, it has been not at all clear what beyond lip service Bush was willing to offer Lebanon's democracy.


Atlanta, Ga.: What is the prognosis on Sen. Leahy's bill to undo portions of the Military Commissions Act?

Is the restoral of habeas corpus likely?

Dan Froomkin: I think you mean Chris Dodd's bill?

Well, even if it passed the Senate and the House, I can't imagine Bush signing it... unless, of course, he's not listening to Cheney anymore.


Rolla, Mo.: Lost in the shuffle of events over the past few weeks has been the issue of detainee interrogation/torture. No one in the MSM, even Dana Priest, has responded to the Administration line "we cannot discuss specific interrogation techniques because the enemy will then be able to adapt." Am I the only one who thinks that terrorists probably expect to be tortured with whatever methods available? Are there really secret methods that would surprise them if captured? No one rebuts this assumption, and the line of inquiry into what is being done in our name ends.

Dan Froomkin: Well, not entirely lost. (See above.)

Your point, however, is a good one. Bush refuses to say what he considers torture, in part -- he says -- so that terrorists won't be able to practice how not to succumb. Aside from the point that the public has a right to know what is being done in its name, does the argument even make sense? Are there really terrorists out there waterboarding themselves to build up their tolerance? Someone should ask him what he thinks the worst-case scenario really is if he ruled out certain inhumane practices.


Washington, D.C.: How does the stealing of the first daughter's purse & cell phone effect security, like special phone numbers in the cell phone, emails, etc. and will you or your colleagues ask how someone could get so close to them, when they have a security detail?

Dan Froomkin: Isn't that a heckuva story?

If you missed it, ABC News reported yesterday: "First Daughter Barbara Bush had her purse and cell phone stolen as she had dinner in a restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina, even though she was being guarded by a detail of Secret Service agents, according to law enforcement reports made available to ABC News."

I think there are lots of good questions to be asked about this.


Guanajuato, GTO Mexico: What was Chenny's position on the firing of Rumsveld? Has he ever been asked?

Dan Froomkin: It has been said that Cheney was against removing Rumsfeld. But it hasn't been said by him.

I don't believe he's said much of anything since the election, with the exception of his speech to the Federalist Society defending his broad view of executive power.


Chicago, Ill.: Wasnt seeing the President in Viet Nam surreal? He looked so uncomfortable the whole time. My question is, was he not briefed that he may get a question comparing that war to Iraq? I thought his answer was so bad. We will win if we dont quit? What the heck does that mean?

Dan Froomkin: I was actually in South Dakota when Bush was in Vietnam. (Talk about surreal. Ha ha, just kidding.) But I didn't catch any of the video from his trip. I'll have to check back and take a look.

I was, however, shocked at his response. It betrayed so much ignorance about then and now, it took my breath away.

Where, indeed, were the speechwriters?


Eastern Montana: "What do you readers think?"

Bush is in a pickle. If he sticks to his guns he gets less done than when his party controlled congress, and risks _really_ alienating the public for '08.

If he changes course, admits wrongs, trys to build bridges then he's going to leave people wondering, "Fine - but why couldn't you have done this five years ago ...?" -- equally damning for '08.

The only thing which reinforces his tough ideology-first world view is to keep on keep'in on. My prediction for the next 2 years: meet the new boss, same as the old boss ...

Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for your perspectives!

Dan Froomkin: And thanks for your comment!


Winnipeg, Canada: Regarding the Post about how Bush could save his presidency from a failing grade, I think his only chance is a Nelson Mandela-style truth and reconciliation commission. That could pay dividends past 2008 and help people to forget the monumental cock-ups of the first six years.

I'm not holding my brath, though.

Dan Froomkin: That would certainly be dramatic.


St. Louis, Mo.: Hi Dan. WH Briefing is indispensable.

My question: In the crush of election coverage, very little has been reported on the upcoming Trial of Scooter aside from the fascinating short "Fitzgerald fillets memory expert" stories.

Will the trial open up the nefarious operation of the office of VPOTUS to the light of day, or what?

St. Louis barkeep

Dan Froomkin: Greetings, barkeep. Glad I could return the favor, for once.

That's an excellent question. The trial is set to begin on Jan. 11 unless Libby's "graymail" attempt works -- or he goes the way of the National Thanksgiving Turkey.

I would expect it to be a doozy of a trial.

(And for those who don't know what "filleting" barkeep was talking about: here.)


Raleigh, N.C.: I believe that if Bush insists on continuing the war in Iraq (which is so massively unpopular with the American public) through the end of his administration, he will effectively destroy the possibility of any Republican presidential candidate winning the 2008 election. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Well, 2008 is still a long way away.

I think one of the big lessons of 2006 was that Iraq has become such a nightmare that Karl Rove was wrong, and that stay-the-course is not a winning strategy for Republicans.

So you would expect that, next time around, if the war is still going and still going terribly, either Republicans will advocate something other than stay the course -- or they will lose.


Bush's legacy: Conventional wisdom is that lame-duck presidents turn to foreign affairs to salvage a legacy. Foreign affairs, however, are now so totally out of anyone's control that I'd turn this conventional wisdom on its head.

Bush's opportunity is to work with Democrats on a rapid-fire domestic agenda that focuses on progressive goals in a way that conservatives and free-marketers can live with. So:

- Suring up Social Security by lifting the $90K cap on taxes, management reforms and efficiencies, and sensible benefits trims -- while creating universal, high-cap tax-shielded retirement savings accounts to supplement.

- Extending health care coverage through common-sense mix of gov't and private sector solutions focused on coverage and affordability. Some amount of tort reform. Include a standard of tax-free, roll-over health savings accounts for common expenses, but manage high-risk, chronically ill citizens in a way that spreads out the cost to all of us -- so increase our role in health care spending while not putting us on the edge of a cliff.

- Set a course of immediate action on the environment that involves market-based levers with a baseline of regulation and monitoring. Offer to swap some of the prescriptive financial reporting regs (per Paulson this week) for environmental audits.

In all, forge a right of center course for goals that almost everyone would agree are the most critical domestic challenges facing us. Oh, and maybe some reform of NCLB to increase its impact while lessening its threat to teachers and local controls.

That's all.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. It will be really interesting to see if Bush can shelve some of his rhetoric and find common ground with Democrats -- and moderate Republicans -- and libertarian Republicans.


Chicago, Ill.: "...or he can admit he was wrong on a lot of things and start working closely with the Democrats."

"What do you readers think?"

Dan, I agree, this would salvage his legacy, but I can't possibly imagine this would happen.

To return to the reality based community would trigger a revolt from his base, and from Cheney.

Therefore, this President would have to show personal fortitude and courage that I don't believe he's previously shown.

Dan Froomkin: Well, any dramatic change on his part would inevitably involve a forceful rejection of Cheney and Rove. And that's what I'm not sure he's capable of.


Buenos Aires, Argentina: I'm actually an ex-pat living in BA and I know the restaurant where the robbery took place. I don't think it raises too many questions about security actually. Restaurants here are crowded places with large groups of people moving around constantly. It wouldn't be too hard to pick out an American on vacation here and lift a purse that was left under a table, even with a security detail. The bigger question for me is what was the Secret Service agent up to when he was mugged and why can't they even protect themselves?

Dan Froomkin: Indeed, the White House is appearing highly accident-prone right now -- literally. See this list of mishaps from USAToday.com.


Is Bush out of touch?: Re: Will Bush continue his "largely partisan and uncompromising governing style"? Well, he just named a foe of birth-control to head HHS's family-planning program (a position not requiring Senate approval) -- when probably the vast majority of Americans actually FAVOR birth-control!

And what's the likelihood that Bolton will return to the U.N. via some sort of back-door maneuver?

Dan Froomkin: Good point about Eric Keroack. (See this story in Slate.)

As for Bolton, renominating him was slightly incendiary. But I would say that if they do come up with some end-run to get Bolton back at the United Nations without Congressional approval, that would be the end of bipartisan honeymoon.


Memphis, Tenn.: If you were having Thanksgiving dinner at the White House, who would you want to be seated by?

Dan Froomkin: Helen Thomas.


Chicago, Ill.: How does Bush save his legacy? Katrina. Iraq is pretty hopeless and there's no politically palatable way to save it. Bush has to get it off the nightly news and out of the conversation. In this age of short attention spans, of course, he can do it. New Orleans is sort of like the Iraq these knucklehead neocons thought they were going to get -- a functioning society ready to go once things got shaken up a bit. I think Bush could convince alot of people that Iraq had its chance (but blew it), and that it's time to spend those billions of dollars on Americans for a change. Bring the troops home, set some of them to work on the city, show some signs of real progress benefiting actual citizens, and bingo Mr. 35% is back up to 50.

Dan Froomkin: Wouldn't that be something.


Dunn Loring, Va.: If funding for the troops were withdrawn or reduced the White House would never stop making political hay from it. But wouldn't everyone applaud a bill that limited tours in Iraq, say two for regulars and one for reservists? These three and four tours for enlisted men and officers are leading to a lot of divorces and loss of family businesses I've been told....

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting idea.


Columbia, Md.: Bush may not need to do anything to have his legacy in place. With the appointment of Roberts and Alito, he may have made his lasting impression to the conservative constituency. In 20 years those appointments may very well overshadow Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: Indeed.


Munich, Germany: I've read a couple of articles in the British press that the Democrats will start looking more into Climate Change and Global Warming, now that they've got a majority in the House and Senate.

What are your thoughts? Has there been any indication from leading Dems that Global Warming is a topic of concern?

Dan Froomkin: Everything you need to know, you can learn from Tom Toles.

Here's the article in question.


Warrenville, Ill.: Mr. Fromkin--

During his first presidential campaign Mr. Bush proclaimed himself a uniter, not a divider. As we've seen since January 2001, however, Mr. Bush--no matter what he says--employs a strategy of dividing and conquering.

Then came Elections 2006. You follow Mr. Bush much more closely than I do. From your observations do you conclude that Mr. Bush really has the ability--or even the desire--to become uniter?

My sense is that when Mr. Bush calls for bi-partisan efforts, he really means that the other party accept Mr. Bush's goals and means. He seems to believe that all truth lies on his side. (Which is why throughout the recent campaign he continually claimed that the American people could vote for Republicans or for the terrorists.)

Dan Froomkin: That has absolutely been the case so far. And it will continue to be the case until or unless he turns away from Cheney and Rove, who exemplify the extreme case of the us vs. them mentality.

That's why I'm so focused on whether those two guys are still key players or not.


Albany, N.Y.: Advice to the President: As Vice President Cheney to resign for health reasons and nominate a foreign policy realist, like Sen. Chuck Hagel, to serve out the term as Vice President. Then support Hagel's run for President in 2008, which would mean a realignment of the GOP to its limited government, fiscally conservative philosophy.

This will give the President a way to redesign an Iraq policy and position a presidential candidate who is true to GOP principles, who might be able to save the White House for the Republicans and not be tainted by Iraq, Katrina, etc.

Dan Froomkin: An interesting idea.

The fact that Cheney has ruled out running for president does risk making Bush increasingly irrelevant in the coming two years, as the focus shifts to who will succeed him. My assumption had been that the White House would maintain its relevancy by virtue of Karl Rove still being the kingmaker -- but that looks pretty unlikely now.


Washington, D.C.: Was the Bush daughter at the table when her purse was lifted? Because if not, it honestly isn't what the Secret Service agents were supposed to be guarding...Remember when the twins kept getting into trouble for underage drinking? The agents on them weren't there to stop them from drinking (and, in fact, I remember reading gossip columns about the twins complaining that the agents were too close to them and making them get carded because they were recognized.) The agents are supposed to protect them from outside threats. I'm sure if someone left something under the table the agents would have swooped, but nowhere are they required to protect people from their own obliviousness/stupidity. (I mean, going in a crowded public place and not keeping your purse on your body at all times? That's basic stuff you learn with your first purse...)

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good point. I guess the question is then: Was there anything in that purse that compromises national security? And the answer to that is probably not.


Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to run. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And thanks for all the great questions and comments.

I'll be on Washington Post Radio Friday just after 2 p.m. ET. And my column will resume on Monday.


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