Ed Chen of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Sammon of the Washington Times both asked the President about the tenor of partisan politics in Washington. “We like to remind you,” said Sammon, “that you came to Washington hoping to change the tone.”
But there is one place in Washington where the tone has indeed changed: at the prime-time Presidential press conference. With the election behind him, Bush is as relaxed as he’s ever been with reporters. Our esteemed press corps, in turn, no longer in a position to add “asked the question that sunk the Bush Administration” to a resume, is much less inclined to go for the gotcha. At Bush’s press conference a year ago, a third of the questions were variations on “You’ve failed, correct?” There was much less of that last night, though Chen came close, asking if Bush “personally bear[s] any responsibility in having contributed to this atmosphere” (“I’m sure there are some people that don’t like me,” the President answered drolly).
The big news of the night is that the President is now for a kind of means-testing of Social Security benefits, though he didn’t use the term; “I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off” were his words. (He did say the program would be “means-based,” but only in response to the final question, when most of the networks had already cut away.) This is a reform that could conceivably make it through Congress, though many in Washington are now convinced that personal retirement accounts, at least cut out of payroll taxes (as opposed to add-on accounts), are dead in the water. Had the President gotten as specific about his plan two months ago as he did last night, he’d be better positioned to pass something close to his preferred package of reforms now; the “everything is on the table” strategy was clearly a blunder.
The smaller bit of news was that Bush politely rejected the Family Research Council position, as characterized by David Gregory of NBC, that “judicial filibusters are an attack against people of faith”: “No. I think people oppose my nominees because of judicial philosophy,” said Bush. Perhaps the President’s entirely predictable and pedestrian statement that “faith is a personal issue” and that he doesn’t “condemn somebody in the political process because they may not agree with me on religion” will calm a few nerves in some of the more hysterical corners of the commentariat. (Andrew Sullivan appears momentarily pleased.)
The prime-time press conference is a strange creature, particularly when, as Ann Althouse and Glenn Reynolds were complaining yesterday, the dominant political issues of the day are less than scintillating to the average American. Most of the questions are forgettable even for news junkies, who’ve already heard most of what gets said in these venues anyway. If I were the networks, I would have cut out early for the 9 o’clock programming, too. And if I were the President, I would resist the urge to do this all that often.
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