The Oval: Picking Up Steam

The White House claims that it's gaining momentum in its never-ending quest to overhaul Social Security. But judging from the battle on the ground, it looks like the opposition can also claim to be on a roll. As George W. Bush took his Social Security tour to Iowa on Wednesday, he found his message countered by an increasingly organized group of opponents who have been on the ground for days.

The AARP, True Majority (a group founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and several other groups who oppose Bush's plan for personal accounts began running TV, radio and newspaper ads on Monday in advance of Bush's visit to Cedar Rapids. Other groups staged protests of the president's Social Security "conversation," which was held at a local college. AARP took out full-page newspaper ads in The Des Moines Register, the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Quad City Times condemning White House efforts to alter the program. It also held two press conferences near the site of Bush's town-hall meeting, where the group unveiled the results of a national poll that found nearly 60 percent of its members oppose private accounts. Because Iowa has a high proportion of seniors, many of the groups protesting Bush's visit have had workers on the ground drumming up resistance to efforts that would alter the federal retirement program.

Just as noteworthy as the poll numbers is the speed of the opposition. The ad buys and many of Wednesday's events--including AARP's press conferences--were only organized late last week, after the White House confirmed Bush's visit with local officials. Just one group supporting Bush's Social Security efforts announced any efforts to counter the protests. Progress for America, a pro-GOP 527 group planned conference calls with local reporters to tout Bush's plan. But PFA, one of Bush's most visible supporters in the Social Security debate, continues to be outspent in efforts to sell the president's plan. Since the beginning of the year, AARP reportedly has spent $5 million on ads opposing private accounts so far, compared to about $3 million spent by PFA.

The War Over War

Why did President Bush stage a Rose Garden event with Iraqi voters on Tuesday, the same day First Lady Laura Bush flew to Afghanistan to celebrate democracy there? On the face of it, the president's event was poorly timed. "Today, Iraqis took another step on the road to a free society when the assembly held its second meeting," the president said. "We expect a new government will be chosen soon and that the assembly will vote to confirm it." As he was saying those hopeful words, the Iraqi assembly meeting was collapsing into an ethnic and sectarian brawl, pushing back once again the timeline for the writing of the country's constitution and the election of its first full-term government.

In fact the president's timing was far more about events in Washington than in Baghdad. Thursday's release of the Silberman-Robb commission report will reopen the entire pre-war debate about why the president decided to invade Iraq. The report, which focuses on intelligence failures, serves as a jarring reminder that weapons of mass destruction--not the spread of democracy--was the main rationale for going to war. Small wonder that the White House is carefully staging the release of the report, complete with a joint press event by the president and the chairs of the commission.

In spite of the good news about democratic change in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, public opinion about the war in Iraq remains poor. In the latest CBS News poll, 53 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, compared to just 36 per cent after his State of the Union address in February. According to another poll, for ABC News and The Washington Post, 57 percent don't believe the administration has a clear plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Some pundits have wondered whether Bush's overall approval ratings have declined over the last month because of the Terri Schiavo case or Social Security. But it may be that the elephant in the room is once again Iraq.

Texan Tussles

The battle over where President Bush will open his presidential library is heating up. Earlier this month, the New York Daily News quoted an unnamed "Bush pal" as saying that Southern Methodist University, the alma mater of First Lady Laura Bush, was the unequivocal victor in the library race, even though the White House had yet to ask for formal proposals. The report stated that the White House would go through the motions of accepting bids from the five other Texas universities hoping to host the library, but that locating the facility at SMU is all but settled. "It's going to be in Dallas," a "Bush insider" told the paper.

That report made big headlines in Texas, where nearly a dozen schools expressed interest in landing the library. Indeed, the news was so heated that Thomas Barry, a SMU official heading up the school's library campaign, issued a public statement denying the report. "I think we would know about it if we were the choice, and we do not," Barry said. In January, Laura Bush told the Houston Chronicle that SMU was her "sentimental favorite" and that she and the president planned to settle in Dallas after he leaves the White House--comments that have been read into heavily by library watchers. Meanwhile, a Dallas media blog recently reported an "eyewitness" account that Laura Bush had been in town "scouting out locations" for the library. The First Lady already owns property near SMU, which some speculate could be used for a presidential library. While White House officials tell NEWSWEEK that no decision has been made, administration officials are on the receiving end of heavy lobbying from those in the race.

Last week, Bush held trilateral talks with Mexico and Canada at Baylor University, which launched its library campaign in 2000, before the president was even elected. There, despite of the SMU rumors, Baylor officials continued to talk up the university's biggest selling point in the library race: its close proximity to Bush's ranch in Crawford, located about a half hour away. "It's location, location, location," Baylor president Robert Sloan told reporters last week as he stood awaiting a presidential press conference. The school also has some major boosters with close ties to the White House, including Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, a longtime Bush fund-raiser who is heading up the library's campaign committee. Yet that could be just tit for tat. The Daily News reports that former Commerce secretary Don Evans, a longtime Bush pal, has been tapped to head up an advisory committee looking at SMU.

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