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June 17, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — President Bush's focus early in his second term has been on promoting his plan for Social Security reform. He's settled into the town hall forum format he used often during the 2004 presidential campaign. The events are typically filled with Bush supporters, whom the president can count on for wild applause as he outlines his agenda.
Political analysts say Bush is using town hall forums so much because he comes across best in informal settings. Critics complain the forums offer no public policy debate and instead are crafted exclusively promote Bush proposals.
"I think it's so typical of the Republican Party to close out everybody they don't agree with," says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Dean says the Bush administration's policy of shutting out opposition in his appearances is emblematic of what he says is an administration that has little respect for people who disagree with the president.
"There's nothing wrong with a town meeting. I think they're terrific," says Dean. "I think the problem is that these meetings that the president's having really aren't town meetings. They're really rallies with the faithful, and I don't think that gets you much in the way of policy."
The White House declined a Minnesota Public Radio request to discuss its town hall forums and criticism that the president's gatherings, billed as official White House business, seem to be open only to Bush supporters.
Dean concedes that the well-crafted meetings were initially effective, but he thinks that's changed.
"You can't fool American voters for a very long time," Dean says. "I think there was some of that that succeeded early on, but I think it's less and less successful."
Dean says if the forums were effective, Bush's approval numbers would be stronger. According a Gallup Poll taken in early June, 47 percent of Americans approved of the way President Bush was handling his job. That's down 10 percentage points from early February.
A Star Tribune poll conducted in May put Bush's approval rating in Minnesota at just 42 percent. That's the lowest of his presidency.
As Bush continues traveling the nation holding forums, more and more people are saying they've been denied access to the events because they disagree with the president.
Colorado attorney Dan Recht is working on behalf of three people who were removed from a Bush event in March in Denver. Recht says organizers discovered the car the three had arrived in had a "No More Blood For Oil" bumper sticker.
"They had obtained tickets from the Republican congressional office in an appropriate fashion. They arrived in an appropriate fashion. They were dressed appropriately. They were acting appropriately," says Recht. "As a direct result of that bumper sticker, and only as a result of that bumper sticker, they were forced to leave the so-called "town meeting" held by President Bush, and not allowed to hear their president speak."
Recht says his client's First Amendment rights were violated, but by exactly whom remains unclear. Recht says the Secret Service has assured him that it was not one of their agents. The Republican Party of Colorado says it was not involved in the event. Recht is trying to determine whether a White House staffer made his clients leave.
"This is a clear First Amendment violation," Recht says. "As a result of the speech on their bumper sticker, they were punished, in essence. And the punishment was you can't hear the president speak, and that offends the First Amendment."
While critics say President Bush's forums are stacked with Republicans in the crowd and on stage, that's not always the case.
At the height of the presidential campaign last fall, Democratic activist Peggy Metzer found herself invited to appear with President Bush at a health care forum in Blaine.
Metzer runs the Cedar-Riverside People's Center in Minneapolis, which operates a clinic in the neighborhood. The clinic was an early recipient of Bush administration grants to community health centers. Metzer says initially, White House officials asked her to provide talking points the president could use to promote clinics like hers. Then, Metzer says, officials asked her to join Bush on stage.
"And I'm thinking in my head, 'I can tell about the People's Center,'" Metzer remembers. "I've got 14,000 to 15,000 predominantly Republicans. I'm a longtime Democrat and I'm thinking, 'How often do I get to share my message with a potential constituency of people who might not ever otherwise listen?'" Metzer is convinced the White House knew she was not a Republican. Still, she says she was never told what to say and never warned to avoid any topics. Metzer recalls her meeting the president in a private room, minutes before the forum began.
"He came right up to me, kind of patted me on the back, put his arm around me and said, 'Peggy Metzer, CEO of the Cedar-Riverside People's Center. That's a nice Democrat sounding name now, isn't it?' I said, 'Yes, Mr. President, it is,'" Metzer recalls with a laugh.
President Bush visited Minnesota eight times last year. Political observers say Bush will likely drop into the state more frequently once again, mixing official business with political fundraising, as the 2006 Senate campaign heats up.