Little News, One Big Problem

There was not much news in George W. Bush's fourth primetime press conference. He acknowledged he could do nothing much about the high price of gas except to plead with the Saudis and other oil producers to boost production. He predictably called on Congress to pass an energy bill that would lead to more drilling and an expansion of nuclear power. While paying lip service to conservation, he only referred to developing technology that would save energy; he did not mention changing consumption patterns.

On Social Security, Bush stuck with privatized accounts, but he also advocated--in the only substantial news of the evening--means-testing cost of living adjustments for Social Security benefits, raising the prospect of real cuts for a majority of future beneficiaries. He tried to sugarcoat this hard-to-swallow news two ways. First, he vowed that future recipients will receive benefits equal or greater to those being handed out today. But that was spin, for this carefully constructed explanation ignored the need to boost benefits to keep pace with inflation. Equal benefits would mean reduced benefits in real terms. Second, he suggested those who opt for a private account would end up making enough to compensate for the cuts, but polls show that a majority of Americans do not buy this argument. It may make policy sense--though not political sense--to turn Social Security into an outright welfare program: benefits for those who need them, less or none for the well-off. But Bush's vague proposal won't sell on Capital Hill or beyond. How many Republicans are eager to snatch benefits from middle- or high-income Americans? Minutes after Bush finished, Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, was asked whether he would support a sliding scale for cost of living increases in Social Security benefits, and he said, "I don't think that's the route we ought to be going."

So with the two free throws Bush had before the questioning began, he failed to score. And during the course of the hour-long press conference, he misled the public on several key facts.

In discussing Social Security, Bush once more said that come 2041 the program will be "bankrupt." That makes it sound as if there will be no money available for retirees. At that point in time--or, according to estimates produced by the Congressional Budget Office, in 2051--the program will be able to give retirees 70 percent of the scheduled benefits. That's a problem, but it's not bankruptcy. Bush also repeated another false factoid about Social Security, claiming that "every year we wait" to reform Social Security it costs an additional $600 billion. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and others--including the American Academy of Actuaries-- have pointed out, this is a phony number. The actuaries noted that when members of the public hear such a figure they are likely to "be misled into believing that the program's financial situation is deteriorating and the cost of restoring actuarial balance is increasing, even if this is not the case."

Talking about energy, Bush pushed for drilling in the Alaska wilderness, and he used an untrue argument that proponents of drilling have been tossing around for years. He said that the wilderness area encompasses 19 million acres, yet the drilling would only affect 2000 acres. Sounds like a drop in the bucket. But this 2000-acre figure was discredited long ago, for it only covers the area on which equipment touches the ground. It does not include, for example, all the land that would be used for pipelines and roads. By this method of measurement, a car takes up only several square inches of space--the area where the rubber hits the road.

Overall, the the press conference was not a grand performance--for either Bush or the reporters. The questions were not that sharp. And Bush was usually able to pull the rip cord for his same-old rhetoric. Asked about the controversial practice of renditions--under which terrorist suspects are sent by the CIA to other countries where torture may be conducted--he said, "We operate under the law," and he asserted, "We're going to do everything we can to protect us." One reporter simply wondered what Bush's view of the economy is at the moment. In response, Bush discussed the hardship imposed on small business by high gas prices. What about the National Education Association's lawsuit against the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation is working, he insisted. North Korea and nuclear weapons? We're working through the six-party talks, he responded. John Bolton? A fine fellow who "isn't afraid to speak his mind." No one asked him to defend Tom DeLay or the administration's fantasy budget numbers.

On Iraq, Bush didn't deviate from his happy-talk approach: "I believe we're making really good progress." He declined to address the fact that insurgent attacks have returned to the high levels of last year. And he has yet to acknowledge in public that various military experts say that the insurgency can continue for years (perhaps decades) and that it could also take several years to train an Iraqi security force. When might US troops be withdrawn? As soon, he said, as Iraqis are "able to fight." Asked about the rise in the number of terrorist attacks worldwide last year--statistics that the State Department refused to release--Bush ran for cover, repeating his index-card rhetoric that it is necessary to fight terrorists abroad so they do not have to be confronted at home. It was a non sequitur. He refused--yet again--to criticize Russian leader Vladimir Putin for taking antidemocratic steps, noting that both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently had good chats with "Vladimir" about democracy. He refused to denounce Russia's decision to supply Iran with highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear power plant. He noted that "Vladimir is trying to help" Iran with its power needs and that Russia would collect the uranium after it was used. "I appreciate that gesture," he added. How understanding.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange came after NBC's David Gregory asked Bush to comment on the remark of a social conservative who said that the Democrats' filibustering of Bush's judicial nominees was an "attack against people of faith." Did Bush agree with that? Bush first replied that he believed that those who oppose his nominees do so because they "don't like the judicial philosophy of the people I'm nominating." But when Gregory pressed him about that particular remark, Bush said, "I don't agree with it." Was this a purposeful slap in the face of the James Dobson crowd? Chris Matthews breathlessly asked later. Probably not. But, no doubt, the White House was already figuring out what wet-kiss to plant on the social conservatives to make up for this moment.

With this press conference, Bush likely did little to boost his record-low approval ratings. And he did not much to help his crusade to remake Social Security. He might have even shot himself in the foot--all while reporters looked on and rarely forced him into any difficult moments. Perhaps next time--if Bush ever schedules another primetime Q&A with the press--White House reporters can just ask Bush to talk for an hour about whatever is in the newspaper that day and see what happens.

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