The 28 Percent President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; 12:13 PM

At his press conference yesterday, President Bush tried to emphasize the positive about the economy -- and his presidency. The financial system is "basically sound," he said. And he rejected the naysayers who say "aww, man, you're running out of time." But at the end of the day, Bush found himself overridden, ignored and disdained.

We'll start with disdained.

Jon Cohen blogs for The Washington Post: "Another month, another new low for George W. Bush: Just 28 percent in the new Post-ABC poll approve of the way the president is handling his job. This marks a new career low in Post polling, and is the 40th consecutive month his ratings have been under 50 percent.

"His negative rating has also hit a record, with 69 percent saying they disapprove of his job performance. And the percentage holding 'strongly' negative views is up to 56 percent, another new high, and nearly five times the number who 'strongly approve.'

"While most Republicans remain steadfastly behind the president, a third now disapprove, including two in 10 who strongly disapprove. This is the first time so many Republicans have expressed such sharply negative views of Bush's tenure. Strong disapproval among Democrats has also reached a new high in the poll, 81 percent."

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press: "28 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing, tying his low in the AP-Ipsos survey set last April. . . .

"Just 63 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of conservatives approved of Bush's handling of his job, strikingly low numbers. . . .

"With soaring fuel prices, ailing financial and housing markets and rising inflation, Bush got his lowest grade for handling the economy. Just 24 percent approved of how he's dealing with it, tying last month's AP-Ipsos low on that issue.

"Only half of Republicans gave Bush good grades on the economy, as did hardly any Democrats or independents."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "This is hardly the way he wanted to go out. . . .

"As of Tuesday, Bush had 189 days before he walks out of the Oval Office for the last time. His term is ending with Americans on edge, the mood of the country sour."

A new New York Times/CBS poll shows Bush's approval at -- you guessed it -- 28 percent, with 65 percent disapproving. That's not an all-time low; a CBS poll in June found Bush approval at 25 percent. But approval on his handling of the economy, at 20 percent, does break the record.

And are you looking for a simple explanation of why John McCain is trailing Barack Obama in the polls? The AP poll finds that by a 2-1 margin, Americans believe McCain would generally continue Bush's economic policies. And by a more than 4-1 margin, they believe he would generally continue Bush's Iraq policies.


Kenneth R. Bazinet and David Saltonsall write in the New York Daily News: "On a day that saw one economic bombshell after another, President Bush squinted, smirked and grimaced into the future Tuesday, declaring - contrary to a growing mountain of evidence - that the country's financial system is 'basically sound.'

"'I'm an optimist,' a sometimes testy Bush said in his first White House news conference since April. 'I believe there's a lot of positive things for our economy.'

"For all of Bush's bullishness, everyone from Wall Street kingpins to small-fry depositors seemed increasingly edgy as the U.S. economy hit one new low after another."

Maura Reynolds and Walter Hamilton write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush sought to calm the contagion of fear in financial markets Tuesday, but his upbeat tone was out of sync with a sobering new assessment from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, a jump in the prices manufacturers pay for raw materials and other unsettling economic portents."

David Lightman and Tony Pugh write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush began Tuesday trying to calm consumers troubled by an increasingly shaky economy, but his words had little effect. . . .

"Even the administration's plan to support the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- hurriedly announced over the weekend -- didn't stem the tide. Both enterprises saw their stocks drop more than 25 percent.

"The turmoil -- the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day at 10,962, the first time it had closed below 11,000 in two years -- clouded Bush's effort to use his first news conference since April to provide reassurance."

Richard Wolf writes for USA Today "President Bush declared himself an optimist, not an economist, Tuesday -- and a good thing, too."

Wolf writes that Bush's expression of confidence in the economy is "a message that has been delivered by presidents before in times of economic trouble.

"'Herbert Hoover kept telling the country during the Depression that "things are sound, it's the usual business cycle, and it will turn in the right direction," ' presidential historian Robert Dallek said.

"'Presidents become desperate to reassure the nation that they have a handle on things,' Dallek said.

And as Wolf notes, the White House officially denies that Bush is out of touch.

"'He's worked not to be viewed as an irrational cheerleader,' spokeswoman Dana Perino said. 'His intention is to communicate very clearly to people and the markets what is going well with the economy, what the weaknesses are and what we're doing about the weaknesses.'"

Stephen Labaton and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "The Bush administration's plan to rescue the nation's two largest mortgage finance companies ran into sharp criticism in Congress on Tuesday as some lawmakers questioned the open-ended request for money that could be used to help the companies. . . .

"Republican opposition threatened to incite an ugly intramural fight with the White House. In a high-stakes election year, the resistance reflected the deep fear among some lawmakers that the plan could set off a large taxpayer bailout, touching off a wave of voter anger in November.

"For some lawmakers facing tough re-election contests, opposing the rescue plan is a way to reaffirm their identity as budget hawks while publicly breaking with a deeply unpopular lame-duck administration."

And meanwhile, Peter S. Goodman and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times that even though Bush yesterday declared such actions premature, "[m]any economists have concluded that a second dose of government stimulus spending is required to prevent a broad economic unraveling and provide relief to millions of Americans grappling with joblessness, plunging home prices and tight credit."

As a result, "Democratic leaders in Congress have already begun fashioning a package of proposed measures."


David Stout writes in the New York Times: "President Bush cast a futile veto on Tuesday, rejecting a bill that would protect doctors from cuts in their Medicare payments. But hours later, the House and Senate voted to override the veto, making the Medicare measure the fourth bill to become legislation over Mr. Bush's opposition."

Michael Abramowitz and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "The House voted 383 to 41 to override the veto, while the Senate voted 70 to 26, in both cases far more than the two-thirds necessary to block the president's action.

"With organized medicine and other lobbies promoting the popular measure in an election year, Republicans broke heavily from the White House. A total of 153 House Republicans voted to defy the White House, 24 more than in a June 24 vote that started the momentum toward passage of the Medicare doctors' bill yesterday. Twenty-one Senate Republicans voted for the bill this time, including four senators who had voted 'nay' in the two previous Medicare votes."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has been getting his way on many foreign and national security issues, obtaining money for the Iraq war, persuading Congress to pass new wiretapping legislation and fending off restrictions on harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

"But Democrats have gained the upper hand on many domestic issues, passing a water projects bill over the president's veto and forcing the White House to accept new education benefits for veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan."

David Rogers and Patrick O'Connor write for Politico: "From Medicare to mortgages, President Bush's lame-duck status is more and more evident in Congress, as restless Republicans defect and power shifts to activist Cabinet members, such as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, willing to engage with Democrats."

The Dark Side

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," was the subject of much of my column yesterday and Monday.

Yesterday afternoon, Mayer spoke with Eric Umansky of ProPublica about Bush's curiously passive role during so many key moments of his presidency:

"The big argument being made by the vice president, his lawyer, David Addington, and the Justice Department was that the commander-and-chief needed almost unfettered powers to win the war on terror. And yet when you really examine the record, it's frequently not the president who's making many of these calls; it's the vice president," she said.

"The president, it's funny, I asked a lot of questions about him when I was doing interviews, and he keeps disappearing from the frame of the picture. He is described as distracted by one of the people who briefed him. Colin Powell tells a friend who I interviewed he sees the president not as being stupid but as being too easily manipulated by Cheney, who knew how to push him around."

Daniel Strauss blogs for the American Prospect about a talk Mayer gave yesterday morning: "Mayer was asked if anyone within the Bush White House are war criminals:

"'As a political reporter, I've covered the White House since the Reagan era, off and on, so I really see this much more as a political question than a legal question. . . . You have to ask yourself "do you see the appetite in this country for putting people on trial who could say that they were trying to protect America in a difficult time?" I think it's a real stretch to think that the public is the public is going to demand that these people go on trial.'

"But," Strauss writes, "perhaps that would change if some of the still 'unsolved mysteries' Mayer mentioned were uncovered:

"'There are a number of legal memos nobody's seen, we've never seen the list of interrogation techniques that have been approved by this country. There are cases where people have disappeared, there are some where people seem to have been killed -- we really don't know everything yet and I would like to see at some point the books open and maybe hearings of some sort so that we can at least learn what the country's been doing and think about which part is worth it and which part is not.'"

Succession Watch

Bruce Ackerman writes in Slate about Mayer's resurrection of a claim in an earlier book by James Mann that President Reagan amended the presidential succession process "for speed and clarity . . . without informing Congress that it had been sidestepped."

Writes Ackerman: "We don't know how. But if the order bypasses the speaker and the Senate president pro tempore in favor of an official in the executive branch, we have a recipe for a constitutional crisis. . . .

"In the scenario I'm envisioning, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi would assert her claim as acting president under existing statutes while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or some other executive official, would simultaneously assert her competing authority under the executive order. . . .

"[W]ould the Joint Chiefs choose to recognize the constitutional authority of Pelosi as commander in chief? Or would they respond to the commands of the executive official presiding over the 'doomsday' crisis center at some 'undisclosed location'? To ask the question is to answer it: The whole point of these 'doomsday' exercises is to assure instant obedience to the will of the executive on the other side of the hot line. We are staring at a clear and present danger to the republic."

Transition Watch

Jamie Gorelick and Slade Gorton, writing in a New York Times op-ed, look back at the lessons of "the deeply flawed presidential transition of 2000 and 2001. . . .

"[T]he crowd coming in was dismissive of the concerns of the crowd going out. There was a mismatch between the concerns of the Clinton national security team and those of the incoming Bush team. While there were briefings between the election and the swearing-in, there was no trust -- and thus no effective dialogue -- between the members of the two administrations.

"In addition, President Bush took too long to set priorities and direction for his national-security team. This was a result partly of the prolonged battle over the 2000 election, but it also reflected a basic problem in how we populate our government agencies -- we do so much too slowly. Neither nominations nor confirmations come fast enough."

Gorelick and Gorton make several suggestions for improvements. Among them, that "the information given to the nominees must change drastically. It is customary to extend to nominees a daily intelligence briefing similar to the one the president receives, but we need to go well beyond that norm. To be ready to make the crucial decisions next Jan. 20 -- and to take sensible positions in the debate about our national security in 2008 -- both candidates (and a knowledgeable assistant) should be given full access, not just to the daily intelligence brief but to all the sensitive programs that we have in place to protect this nation."

Torture Watch

Doug Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday for a hearing into the development of the administration's interrogation policies.

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Republicans on the committee created a diversion, and Feith escaped unscathed. . . .

"Republicans are chafing in their minority status in both chambers of Congress. Their presidential and congressional candidates lag in the polls, and their president posted a career-low 28 percent approval rating in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll. About the only weapon left in the Republican arsenal is the dilatory maneuver. . . .

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and his colleagues declared "dozens of objections, parliamentary inquires and points of order, raising concerns about a T-shirt worn by an audience member, a sign spotted in the crowd, and the need for bathroom and lunch breaks for witnesses. Three and a half hours later, Feith had become but an asterisk at what was supposed to be his hanging."

Spencer Ackerman, writing in the Washington Independent, calls yesterday's hearing a "combative farce": "Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, testified that he was an ardent proponent of the Geneva Conventions, even though he approved of interrogation policies that no international lawyer has ever argued complies with Geneva protections. These 'enhanced interrogation techniques' included 20-hour questioning sessions; the physical contortion regimen known as 'stress positions'; the use of dogs for interrogations; removing a detainee's clothing, and exploiting detainees' fears. He claimed that official administration policy was that detainees should never be tortured. . . .

"The panel chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), expressed skepticism that acts like stripping a detainee's clothing off could ever fail to qualify as inhumane. 'I imagine one could apply these things in an inhumane fashion,' Feith replied. '"Removal of clothing" is different from "naked." . . . It could be done in a humane way.'

"Feith conceded that detainees in U.S. custody had been tortured and, in some cases, murdered, but denied that there was any connection between that behavior and official policy. 'Some people do bad things,' he said."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: "Feith makes short work of the committee with the standard-issue Bush administration ploy of blaming others. He is quick to say it was 'lawyers in charge' who ultimately opposed applying Common Article 3 at Gitmo. He goes to great lengths to emphasize that the request for harsher interrogation techniques came up from the U.S. Southern Command and not from the top down. He testifies that he relied on Jim Haynes--Rumsfeld's general counsel--for legal conclusions because he was just a 'policy official.'"

Detention Ruling

R. Jeffrey Smith and Del Quentin Wilber write in The Washington Post: "A federal appellate court issued a new setback to the Bush administration on the treatment of terrorism suspects yesterday, declaring that the only accused 'enemy combatant' apprehended and held on U.S. soil can petition a civilian court to review the evidence against him.

"At the same time, the divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed the president's wartime power to hold accused combatants apprehended in the United States without trial, reversing a previous ruling by a panel of its own judges."

Adam Liptak, writing in the New York Times, focuses on the second ruling, which he calls "a victory for the Bush administration, which had maintained that a 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force after the Sept. 11 attacks granted the president the power to detain people living in the United States."

Iraq Watch

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Tuesday that Iraq wanted to include an 'aspirational goal' for the departure of most foreign troops there in any agreement authorizing future American operations, but he reiterated his opposition to what he called 'an artificial timetable for withdrawal.'

"His remarks reflected the growing doubt within the administration that the United States could negotiate the sweeping long-term agreement that would clear the way for American troops to operate in Iraq for many years to come. Mr. Bush and Iraq's prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, had pledged to reach such an agreement last year."

By the way: " Aspirational goal" is my favorite new White House euphemism. As Dana Milbank put it last month, after the White House trotted out the phrase in regards to its global warming initiative: "Aspirational goal? Like having the body you want without diet or exercise? Or getting rich without working?"

Timetable Talk

John Diamond writes in a USA Today op-ed: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's statement that he would consider agreeing to a scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country brings up one of the great canards of the Iraq war: the idea that giving a 'date certain' for drawing down our forces helps the enemy.

"The Bush administration rejects talk of timetables, asserting that Iraqi insurgents would use the heads-up about our departure to prepare the great blow that would fall on the Iraqi government once we were gone. The implication is that anyone talking about timetables -- a Democratic candidate for president, say -- is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a polite phrase for committing treason.

"This timetable-phobia is a made-up issue masquerading as a serious military argument. The irony is that the people claiming the expertise are the ones showing their military naiveté."

Iran Watch

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department's third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran's nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.

"The decision appeared to bend, if not exactly break, the administration's insistence that it would not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programs unless it first suspended uranium enrichment, as demanded by three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. . . .

"Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington, said the meeting, even with strict limits, was 'a much-needed and an extremely welcome correction' in the Bush administration's policy.

"He said that there was now at least 'a perception of opportunity' that the international confrontation over Iran could be resolved without war."

But is this really such a turnaround?

As Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Undersecretary of State William J. Burns . . . will not negotiate with the Iranians nor hold separate meetings, [a senior State Department official said]. Instead, Burns will advance the White House's position that serious negotiations can begin only after Iran suspends uranium enrichment."

And yet Daniel Dombey writes in the Financial Times: "For George W Bush, who famously depicted the country as part of an 'axis of evil' and insisted that Tehran rein in its nuclear programme before the US would talk to the regime, the volte face could hardly be more dramatic. . . .

"[T]he move was preceded by a series of recent signals from American diplomats and military officials anxious to head off the risk of a military confrontation that they considered potentially disastrous. Faced with a groundswell of opinion, Mr Bush ultimately decided to go along with the arguments of many of his underlings.

"It is not an outcome that will necessarily please Vice President Dick Cheney, who was already unenthusiastic about the president's decision to take North Korea off the US's terrorist list in line with agreements at the six party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme. 'I think it's clear that Bush has pushed Cheney back twice now,' said Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based thinktank."

CIA Leak Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has asserted executive privilege to protect information that a House panel has subpoenaed on the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, the White House said Wednesday."

For background, see my June 3 column, Did Cheney Tell Libby to Do It?

Library Watch

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Faced Monday with a report that a rogue lobbyist urged an exiled Central Asian leader to support the Bush library to curry favor in Washington, library officials promised that no foreign money will be accepted until President Bush leaves office. On Tuesday, it became clear the public will have to take them at their word.

"The foundation isn't promising to identify all donors, or the dates and sums of their gifts.

"'Current law only requires annual disclosure of the total sum raised,' said Dan Bartlett, the former White House counselor, speaking for the foundation that will build the Bush library and research center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas."

The Sunday Times of London videotaped lobbyist and Bush fundraiser Stephen Payne suggesting he could set up meetings for a central Asian politician with top White House aides in return for a large donation to the library.

Ruth Marcus writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Mr. President, take a look at the video. Then decide whether taking checks in secret is really how you want to end your presidency."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Rep. Dennis Kucinich's single impeachment article will get a committee hearing -- but not on removing President Bush from office.

"The House on Tuesday voted 238-180 to send his article of impeachment -- for Bush's reasoning for taking the country to war in Iraq -- to the Judiciary Committee, which buried Kucinich's previous effort.

"This time, the panel will open hearings. But House Democratic leaders emphatically said the proceedings will not be about Bush's impeachment, a first step in the Constitution's process of a removing a president from office.

"Instead, the panel will conduct an election-year review -- possibly televised -- of anything Democrats consider to be Bush's abuse of power. Kucinich, D-Ohio, is likely to testify. But so will several scholars and administration critics, Democrats said."

Managing the President

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "Blake L. Gottesman, 28, formerly President Bush's personal aide, is returning to succeed deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, the White House announced Wednesday. . . .

"Gottesman, a Texan and longtime family friend, is the youngest person ever named to President Bush's senior staff. . . .

"Since leaving the White House in 2006, he graduated from Harvard Business School and has been working for a top private equity firm in Boston.

"In his previous White House position, Gottesman turned a job that customarily has been somewhat junior -- keeper of the bags and papers -- into a management position that streamlined the president's paper flow. He also built a rapid, fail-safe, thank-you-note process that has been continued and has brought the president considerable goodwill with people he meets around the world."

Ken Herman wrote about Gottesman for Cox News Service in 2006: "He delivers the presidential speeches to the presidential podium. He loads iPod One. He makes sure the president has the near-room-temperature drinking water he prefers. He dog-sits Barney. He carries the hand cleanser."

Elisabeth Bumiller profiled him in the New York Times in 2005.

Editorial Watch

The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader editorial board writes: "President Bush is blaming environmentalists for the price of gasoline.

"That's not surprising, given his track record. This is the guy who, after Al-Qaida attacked us from Afghanistan, went after Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"It's also not helpful. We need solutions and leadership, not trumped-up scapegoats."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: "President Bush spoke about the economy today. Did you hear what President Bush said today? He said, 'I am not an economist.' Not an economist? He's barely even a president."

Cartoon Watch

Jim Morin on Bush and our economic fears; Jack Ohman and Pat Bagley on Bush and drilling; Dwane Powell on Bush's snake oil; Lee Judge on Bush's Iraqi exit strategy.

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