Friday, August 19, 2005

No Summer Doldrums

No Summer Doldrums
The White House promised that President Bush’s Texas vacation would be busy. But they might have wished for a little less activity around the ranch.

By Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey

Aug. 17, 2005 - When President George W. Bush left Washington earlier this month for a five-week visit to his Texas ranch, the White House seemed more sensitive than ever to criticism that Bush has taken too much vacation during his presidency. Administration officials reminded reporters that Bush, unlike most Americans who take a leave from work, doesn’t really get time off from the job. Every morning, whether he is on vacation or not, Bush receives briefings on national security, signs documents and holds conferences with top aides. On most days, the president receives multiple updates from his staff on Iraq, terrorism and other issues of international significance. While prefacing that Bush would enjoy some “down time” on what is shaping up to be his longest sojourn away from the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters the president’s visit to his Crawford ranch would be a “working vacation.”

So far, Bush has maintained a relatively busy schedule. Two weeks ago, he hosted Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at the ranch to discuss Colombia’s efforts to combat guerilla groups. Last week, Bush took two quick day trips—to New Mexico, where he signed a new energy bill into law, and to Illinois, where he signed a controversial highway-funding bill, which critics decried as too expensive and bloated with congressional pork. Sandwiched in between those trips: meetings with his economic advisers last Tuesday and a sit-down with his foreign-policy team on Thursday. Both of those events were followed by short news conferences at the ranch, where administration officials hoped to capitalize on a slow news cycle and a captive national press corps to push the president’s agenda.

For the White House, maintaining a sense of momentum this August is perhaps more important than in recent years. Bush is now well into his second term and, like most of his Oval Office predecessors, is staring down a deadline on the degree of his political prowess in Washington. Until recently, Bush had not captured many high-profile legislative victories on the Hill. Social Security reform, his biggest second-term agenda goal, has stalled, and efforts to rewrite the tax code were pushed off until next year. Last month, as Congress approved a flurry of major bills in the last days before the August recess, the White House took a victory lap, citing progress on the energy bill and the Central American Free Trade Agreement as signs that Bush was not yet a lame duck. “The facts say otherwise,” McClellan said. “We are getting things done for the American people.”

Administration officials had hoped to maintain that momentum heading into September, when Congress takes up the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts and Bush plans to renew his Social Security push. But that momentum—as well as the president’s plan to focus heavily on his domestic agenda—continues to be undermined by worries about the war in Iraq. It’s a story that continues to be front and center thanks to a recent spike in casualties, troubles in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution and by the story of Cindy Sheehan, the military mom turned antiwar activist who has become the face of poll numbers that suggest a growing number of Americans want to see U.S. troops come home—sooner rather than later. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted the first weekend of August found that 54 percent of those surveyed believe the United States “made a mistake” in sending troops to Iraq. The same survey found that 56 percent of those polled want to see a reduction in the number of troops stationed in Iraq.

While Sheehan met privately with Bush last summer to discuss her son’s death, she has vowed to remain outside the Bush ranch until she meets with the president a second time. Her story has captivated the White House reporters stuck in Texas to cover the president and has galvanized the antiwar movement, prompting dozens of activists from causes not even related to the war to descend on Crawford to protest Bush’s refusal to meet with Sheehan a second time. The protest has proven to be a distraction for Bush, but for the White House, it’s a matter of precedent. Administration officials worry that if Bush were to agree to see Sheehan it would encourage similar protests outside the ranch. “We’re in a lose-lose situation,” a Bush aide told NEWSWEEK. “The president sympathizes with her, but this is where he lives, and if you meet with one person, you attract others.”

Yet Sheehan’s protest isn’t going away and, in fact, is set to move closer to the president’s ranch by the end of the week. “Camp Casey,” named after Sheehan’s son, will move onto a one-acre tract of land adjacent to the Secret Service checkpoint for the Bush ranch, about three fourths of a mile from the main entrance. It’s property owned by Fred Mattlage, a Waco, Texas, businessman and a Vietnam-era Army vet who says he is sympathetic to Sheehan’s cause and wanted to curb neighbors' complaints about the protest. Mattlage’s cousin Larry is the landowner who fired off his shotgun near the protestors Sunday night. On a Wednesday-morning conference call organized by Sheehan’s media advisers, Mattlage said he offered the land because he feels Sheehan and others should have the right to protest. While he says he doesn’t actively support or oppose Bush, Mattlage says he’s against the war. “I think it’s a war that we shouldn’t be in,” Mattlage says. “It reminds me too much of Vietnam.”

On the Ambassadors Front …
Another Bush fund-raiser has scored a plum ambassadorship. On Tuesday, the White House nominated Brenda LaGrange Johnson, a partner in New York-based BrenMer Industries, to be the next ambassador to Jamaica. Johnson was a Bush “Pioneer” during the 2004 election, raising at least $100,000 for the president’s re-election campaign. She also served as a member of the national finance committee for Bush-Cheney ’04 and was appointed by the White House as a Kennedy Center trustee in 2002.