Monday, March 20, 2006

Bush gets smacked by Seniors....and runs away

Hardballs Replace Softballs, and Bush Takes Some Swings
'President Is at His Best on When He's Answering Real and Difficult Questions'


(March 20) -- At first it looked as if it was going to be another warm bath of a White House question-and-answer session with President Bush. There was a happy group of retirees arranged on a stage, a poster in red, white and blue that proclaimed "Strengthening Medicare" and a peppy president with microphone in hand.

But at the Riderwood Village retirement community last week in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., something different happened: the president got hit with hardballs by the crowd of 80-somethings. Not only did the retirees, many of them Democrats and former government officials, ask sharp questions about the day's topic, the Medicare prescription drug program, they took on Mr. Bush on global warming and nuclear war.

"I guess I'm one of the three left standing Americans who did the negotiation of the nonproliferation treaty," one of the retirees, Lawrence Weiler, a former official of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, told Mr. Bush. But the treaty can't hold, Mr. Weiler said, if the position of the United States is that it will initiate a nuclear war "if it is necessary." Would the president consider a "no-first-use" policy instead?

Mr. Bush, startled, said he would think about it, thanked Mr. Weiler for his contribution, then concluded the session with a "God bless you all." Afterward, White House officials insisted that they were pleased. "The president is at his best when he's answering real and difficult questions from a cross-section of Americans," said Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director.

Whether that is the view of the people at the sessions is another question, but the fact remains that in the last three months, Mr. Bush has started taking questions, some of them tough, from audiences not stacked with supporters. Mr. Bush typically sidesteps the hardest questions, but his answers often produce news. It is a big change from last year and, particularly, from the 2004 campaign, when the president appeared before rapt crowds who had gotten in with tickets from local Republican parties.

The result was Bush love-ins across red-state America, derision from Democrats and critical news coverage about canned events. White House officials say they took the heat because the events produced good sound bites for the local news and pumped up political troops. In 2005, they used a similar, equally criticized model — citizens screened by the White House sitting with Mr. Bush on panels and making points that underscored administration policy — in the president's failed campaign to overhaul Social Security.

The new approach began in Philadelphia in mid-December when Mr. Bush made a speech about Iraq to the World Affairs Council, a foreign policy group. With the campaign and Social Security out of the way and elections in Iraq pending, White House officials, along with Mr. Bush, reasoned that there was little to lose and much to gain by opening up. More to the point, the president had been criticized the week before for refusing to honor the tradition of taking questions after a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.

"We like to mix things up so you'll pay more attention," said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, in explaining the new approach.

People did pay attention that day in Philadelphia, when Mr. Bush said in response to the first question that about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed in the Iraq war since the beginning of the American-led invasion in 2003. It was the first time that Mr. Bush had publicly given an estimate of Iraqi deaths, and White House officials scrambled to explain where it had come from — a Web site on Iraqi body counts, it turned out, and not an internal government accounting.

In February, White House officials scrambled again after Mr. Bush surprised them, and everyone else, by answering a question at a session in Tampa, Fla., with the news that he would support an expanded role by NATO and a doubling of United Nations peacekeepers in the Darfur crisis in western Sudan. Mr. Bush's comments were especially startling because the question had been about Uganda, not Sudan, although Mr. Bush segued by saying, "I presume if you're worried about northern Uganda, you're also worried about western Sudan, as am I."

Mr. Bush's answer reflected planning already under way at the United Nations and the State Department, but his public comments signaled a new American commitment to the crisis. The subject seemed to be on Mr. Bush's mind after a meeting earlier in the week with Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general. But his apparent off-the-cuff response underscored how a president could create policy with a few sentences on a Friday afternoon on the west coast of Florida.

"He doesn't have to check with the press office to see what we've said before," Ms. Wallace said. "He's the president; it's his prerogative."

In Silver Spring, Mr. Bush made news when he told a questioner who was struggling to help her 75-year-old mother decipher the complicated drug program that he was opposed to extending the May 15 deadline for enrollment.

"And the reason why is there's got to be a fixed time for people to sign up," Mr. Bush said flatly.

The president was less direct when another questioner asked if Medicare's chief actuary had really been threatened with dismissal if he told Congress the truth about the projected cost of the drug program, which was about $600 billion, not $400 billion, as the administration was saying publicly in 2003.

"There's been a lot of estimates of the cost of the program," Mr. Bush responded, neglecting to say that a 2004 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the man's question. The president did say, however, that "this is a good deal for you."



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