WASHINGTON — President Bush often quips that the aura of the White House intimidates visitors, leaving would-be critics to express only niceties.
But the presidential mansion -- and its current occupant -- apparently did not have that effect Monday on Montana's new governor, who made some sharp comments after Bush tried to promote his Social Security overhaul to a group of governors consumed by other matters.
A no-nonsense rancher and wheat farmer who took office six weeks ago in a Republican state, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer likened the president's pitch to a magic show trick featuring a rabbit in a hat.
He also compared it to a bull auction hawking lousy studs.
"I was watching the governors around the room," said Schweitzer, comparing the group to potential livestock buyers who assess the wares and express their intentions with head-nods or nose-crinkles.
"I was seeing more of this," he said, crinkling his nose as if detecting a foul odor, "than I was of this," he said, nodding his head. "I didn't see a lot of buyers in the room."
Such harsh words were surprising coming from Schweitzer, who was elected after building a public image as a non-ideological problem-solver; he even chose a Republican running mate.
His comments were another sign of the growing frustration with the White House among state chief executives of both parties as they enter the last day of the National Governors Assn.'s winter meeting today.
The governors are hoping to persuade Bush to roll back at least a portion of his proposed Medicaid cuts, which would total $60 billion over 10 years. Many states are struggling with the soaring costs of giving healthcare to the poor, and they told Bush during a private session Monday that their Medicaid budgets were surpassing those for education and other needs.
Bush has made transforming Social Security his top domestic priority, contending that workers younger than 55 should be able to divert a portion of their payroll taxes to privately owned investment accounts. Though some Republicans are wary of the proposal, the president is scheduled to continue his campaign for the plan on Friday in New Jersey and Indiana.
"I'm coming to your states -- I'm coming to a lot of states between now and whenever Congress decides to take this issue on, head-on -- to remind people not only we have a problem, but we have an obligation to fix it," Bush told the governors Monday.
Schweitzer's more seasoned colleagues were not quite as blunt as he was. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, called Bush "gracious" in his willingness to negotiate on Medicaid financing.
But Schweitzer compared Bush's promotion of Social Security changes to a magician with a hat in his right hand that he is waving around with "wide gestures" to distract his audience.
"Today we're talking about Social Security, something that might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now," Schweitzer said. "But guess what's really happening, over in the left hand? We're cutting Medicaid. We're cutting programs in the heartland."
Several governors complimented Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former Utah governor, as an ally inside the White House on the Medicaid issue.
Not Schweitzer, who likened the secretary to ranch hands who "ride a brand."
"Once they come in and work for your ranch, they toe the company line," Schweitzer said. "He seemed to be riding for the president's brand right now."