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Pick Your Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 14, 2007; 12:58 PM

The battle over the federal budget is turning out to be a contest between two opposing views of President Bush: Is he a guardian of fiscal responsibility or a negligent spendthrift?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "A budget dispute erupted into a full-scale battle Tuesday as President Bush vetoed the Democrats' top-priority domestic spending bill and the party's Senate leader threatened to withhold war funding if the president does not agree to pull out of Iraq.

"The long-anticipated clash came to a head as Bush rejected a $606 billion bill to fund education, health and labor programs, complaining that it is too expensive and is larded with pork. Within hours, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) declared that Bush will not get more money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year unless he accepts a plan to complete troop withdrawals by the end of next year."

Bush, Baker writes, is "casting himself as a deficit hawk blocking a tax-and-spend Congress. Democrats are seeking to paint Bush as a reckless leader who spent the nation deep into debt through failed war policies while ignoring schools, medical research and other vital areas."

Noam N. Levey and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times that even as he vetoed the domestic bill, "which would have increased spending on these programs by 4.3% over last year, Bush signed a $471-billion defense appropriations bill that pushed up military spending by more than 9.5%.

"And he urged Congress to quickly appropriate $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

As for Bush's attack on pork, Levey and Gerstenzang write: "The critique is a new one this year for a president who inherited a budget surplus and presided in his first six years over deficits that have ballooned the national debt to more than $9 trillion.

"Since 2001, Bush signed at least 50 spending bills passed by Republicans that exceeded his budget requests, according to House Appropriations Committee records. He did not veto a single one.

"Nor did he veto any bills to protest the explosion of earmarks under Republican Congresses."

Here is the text of Bush's speech yesterday. He had this to say about Democrats: "I'm not saying these aren't good people; they are. They just have a different point of view. Instead of trusting in the judgment of the people, they trust in the judgment of the federal government. They believe in a federal solution to every problem -- and somehow, that solution always seems to include raising your taxes.

"Congress now sitting in Washington holds this philosophy. The majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it's acting like a teenager with a new credit card."

Kevin Drum blogs for the Washington Monthly: "I don't think anyone seriously believes that Bush really cares about the earmarks in this bill. Basically, he seems to have decided that the only way to stay relevant is to veto stuff. Within the borders of the United States, it's pretty much the only influence he has left. Democrats don't care about him, Republicans wish he'd go away, and the American public is bored with his snooze-inducing speeches. What else can he do to attract attention?

"(The answer is: Start a fight with Iran, of course. Letting him play with his veto pen is obviously preferable, no?)"

The Cost of Bush

A new report from Joint Economic Committee Democrats concludes that the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could balloon to $3.5 trillion over the next decade because of such hidden costs as long term veteran's health care, foregone investment, oil market disruptions and interest payments on borrowed war funding.

Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz writes for Vanity Fair: "When we look back someday at the catastrophe that was the Bush administration, we will think of many things: the tragedy of the Iraq war, the shame of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the erosion of civil liberties. The damage done to the American economy does not make front-page headlines every day, but the repercussions will be felt beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this page. . . .

"Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Herbert Hoover, whose policies aggravated the Great Depression, is the odds-on claimant for the mantle 'worst president' when it comes to stewardship of the American economy. Once Franklin Roosevelt assumed office and reversed Hoover's policies, the country began to recover. The economic effects of Bush's presidency are more insidious than those of Hoover, harder to reverse, and likely to be longer-lasting. There is no threat of America's being displaced from its position as the world's richest economy. But our grandchildren will still be living with, and struggling with, the economic consequences of Mr. Bush."

Ever the Optimist

Edmund L. Andrews and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "Even in the darkest times, President Bush has been able to draw hope from the almost uncanny ability of the American economy to endure shock after shock with surprisingly limited damage.

"Mr. Bush expressed the same optimism on Tuesday, praising the economy as resilient and reminding people that it bounced back after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

"'This economy is flexible, it is dynamic and it is competitive enough to overcome any challenge we face,' Mr. Bush told business and civic leaders in New Albany, Ind. . . .

"Some economists worry that the economy's stamina may have hit its limit. Mr. Bush faces a fearsome trifecta of shocks, each of which is daunting: soaring oil prices, a meltdown in housing and mortgage lending and plunging consumer confidence."

The Fox News President

Bush chooses his interlocutors with care. (See my Sept. 26 column, Bush's Media Cherry Picking.) So it's not surprising that he showed up on Fox again yesterday -- but this time it was for an interview with Fox's fledgling business channel. (He did an embargoed interview with Fox News the day before.)

Fox Business News anchor David Asman's questions were not just predictably sycophantic -- they were beyond that. They gave sycophancy a bad name. And some were specious as well.

Here's the first part of the video. ( Mark Silva blogs for Tribune with extensive excerpts of the interview.)

Asman's first question: "You call yourself a supply-sider. Your speech today was all about tax cuts. But were even you surprised at how much revenue came in to the Treasury when you lowered those tax rates?"

That's not the sort of question any self-respecting reporter would ask: "Mr. President, were you surprised at how well your policies turned out?" But also, it's based on the utterly delusional notion that Bush's tax cuts led to increased revenue.

The administration's own economists acknowledge that the tax cuts have not paid for themselves -- let alone led to increased revenue. The cuts have, in fact, turned federal budget surpluses into massive deficits.

Asman also encouraged Bush to claim credit for making the tax code more progressive, noting that the rich pay more taxes now than they used to. Bush jumped to the occasion, asserting that "the tax code is now more progressive than it was in the past, prior to the tax cuts." But the rich are in fact paying a considerably smaller proportion of their income in taxes than they used to. The only reason they're paying more in total is that they're so much richer.

Said Bush: "When people take an objective look, a stand-back look at whether or not, you know, we've handled the fiscal side of the equation, well, they're going to say, yes, we have."

Bush on the Dollar

I wrote in my Nov. 8 column about Bush's rote repetition of empty stock phrases when answering questions about the dollar. That strategy was on display in spades in yesterday's interview.

Asman: "A lot of folks are worried that it's fallen too far. Is there anything more that you can do, as president, to assure the world that the dollar should maintain its value and increase in value?"

Bush: "Well, we have a strong dollar policy, and it's important for the world to know that. We also believe it's important for the market to set the -- to set the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. And if people would look at the strength of our economy, they'd realize why, you know, I believe that the dollar will be stronger. And it is low inflation, low interest, 15 months of uninterrupted job growth, 3.9 percent GDP growth in the third quarter. I mean, the underpinnings are strong. Now, we in the U.S. government, my administration, believe the market ought to set the, you know, the relation of the dollar to other currencies."

Asman: "Even if the dollar is weak -- excuse me, if the economy is weak, shouldn't the dollar be strong?"

Bush: "Well, all I can tell you is, is that the policy of this government is a strong dollar, and that we believe that the marketplace is the best place to set the exchange rates."

Asman: "So you're satisfied with the exchange rates as they are now?"

Bush: "Well, I am satisfied with the fact that we have a strong dollar policy and know that the market ought to be setting the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and other currencies."

After the interview, Asman patted himself on the back for having prompted Bush into "making a little news about the dollar."

Amazingly enough, he may have been right. The bar is low. As Deborah Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "While the president didn't offer a major shift in his administration's position on the dollar, almost any commentary from the president on currency can move the markets."

Hits and Misses?

Asman: "What do you think, looking back, your greatest hit was? Where you really hit one out of the park. And what do you think your greatest error was?"

Bush famously does not like to discuss his mistakes.

Bush: "Well, I would rather go disappointments, rather than errors. The disappointment is not getting a Social Security package, Social Security reform, because that truly is the big deficit issue. I'm sorry it didn't happen. I laid out a plan to make it happen -- to enable it to happen. I was the first president to have addressed it as specifically as I did. I wish Congress wasn't so risk-averse on the issue.

"Success, there's been a lot. Tax cutting, No Child Left Behind, Medicare reform. You know, I would say the advance of liberty. The working hard to secure the homeland from attack. Putting in place tools necessary to protect us, and at the same time be strong in the advancement of liberty is the great alternative to an ideology of hate. . . . "

Asman: "We talked on Air Force One about restoring a sense of dignity to the office itself. Would you count that among your successes?"

Bush: "History is going to have to judge. I do know that its important for the president to guard the institution of the presidency. It's important for the president to realize that the office is bigger than the person."

Bush on the Democrats and the War

"Leaders have got to be very careful about what words they use. We don't want someone out there risking their life, thinking that it's not worth it. After all, these kids volunteered knowing full well that it's best to face an enemy oversees so we don't have to face them here at home, and also understanding that the way to defeat an ideology of hate, an ideology of darkness, is with an ideology based upon hope, and that's freedom. . . .

"Words matter. And my words in particular matter."

Bush Transforms Government

Bush yesterday signed a far-reaching executive order setting up new procedures for government agencies to assess the performance of each and every one their programs.

By mandating "Performance Improvement Officers" at each agency and establishing a "Performance Improvement Council" run by the White House, the order essentially adds to the bureaucracy a new level of political appointees -- able to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to programs based on vaguely defined notions of effectiveness and efficiency.

So where was the press coverage this morning? There wasn't any. The White House e-mailed the order out to the press corps at 7:30 p.m. There no advance notice and no formal kickoff event. And no one bothered to write about it.

But the ramifications are potentially enormous. For analysis, I turned to Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit public-interest watchdog organization.

Bass said his first question was: "Why now? I find it interesting that we're seeing this push for major reform when these guys are leaving in a year. And it makes me think that they are trying to indirectly codify procedures that they were not able to get approved by the Congress. . . . I think this is exactly the reason why we elect a Congress."

Bass said the system Bush is setting up has a certain logic to it. "It really is an obligation of government to assess whether there is benefit from the programs that are being conducted," he said.

The order also requires each agency to put onto its Web site "regularly updated and accurate information on the performance of the agency and its programs, in a readily useable and searchable form, that sets forth the successes, shortfalls, and challenges of each program and describes the agency's efforts to improve the performance of the program."

"I really like the transparency," Bass said.

But who gets to decide what's working and what's not? "Of course we want a more effective government. Of course we want more efficient spending. But what does that mean?" Bass asked. "That's the danger. I want to as best I can give them credit for tackling a thorny issue, but the downside is that the system they've set up opens up the door to political manipulation. Even if their intent is to create an objective, fair, open process, it is inevitable that this kind of new structure can be used to damage agency programs to meet their ideological objectives."

Signing Statement Watch

After signing the defense appropriations bill yesterday, Bush's aides appended another of their infamous signing statements. This one says: "The Act contains certain provisions identical to those found in prior bills passed by the Congress that might be construed to be inconsistent with my Constitutional responsibilities (sections 8005, 8009, 8012(b), 8034(b), 8052, 8082, 8085, 8089, 8091, and 8116, and the provision concerning consolidation under the heading 'Operation and Maintenance, Defense Wide'). To avoid such potential infirmities, I will interpret and construe such provisions in the same manner as I have previously stated in regard to those provisions."

I haven't had time to look up those sections to see what he's objecting to. (And there hasn't been any other media coverage yet.)

Reopening the Investigation

In one of the most overlooked chapters of his presidency, Bush last summer took the astonishing step of personally intervening to suspend an investigation into his own administration. See my July 19, 2006, column, Cover-Up Exposed?

Now, the investigation is back on.

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Just four days after Michael B. Mukasey was sworn in as attorney general, Justice Department officials said Tuesday that President Bush had reversed course and approved long-denied security clearances for the Justice Department's ethics office to investigate the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program. The department's inspector general has been investigating the department's involvement with the N.S.A. program for about a year, but the move suggested both that Mr. Mukasey wanted to remedy what many in Congress saw as an improper decision by the president to block the clearances and that the White House chose to back him."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "H. Marshall Jarrett, the OPR's chief counsel, wrote in a letter to several lawmakers yesterday that lawyers in his office 'recently received the necessary security clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation.' He said the investigation will focus on 'the role of Department of Justice attorneys in the authorization and oversight of warrantless electronic surveillance . . . . and in complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.'"

Law professor and blogger Marty Lederman writes that OPR's mandate, however, may prove too narrow to satisfy critics.

The New AG

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush welcomed Michael Mukasey back into government Wednesday and promised to help the new attorney general rebuild the top leadership of the beleaguered Justice Department.

"Speaking at Mukasey's ceremonial oath-taking, Bush said the retired federal judge 'will bring clear purpose and resolve' to the agency. . . .

"With a pointed smile at the applauding crowd, Bush added: 'And he's going to have the trust and confidence of the men and women of the Department of Justice.'"

Contempt Watch

John Bresnahan writes in the Politico: "House Democrats have postponed a vote until December on contempt resolutions against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, delaying for now any constitutional showdown with the White House over the president's power to resist congressional subpoenas."

E-Mail Watch

I wrote about the latest in the White House e-mail saga yesterday.

The Austin American-Statesman editorial board writes: "Trust in White House has been deleted. . . .

"President Bush has not inspired confidence in his dedication to historical records and public access. So a federal judge has stepped in and ordered the White House to preserve backup copies of millions of possibly missing e-mails.

"A Bush spokesman said the White House is already preserving backup tapes of e-mails. But U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy isn't taking chances and issued a temporary restraining order Monday to prevent any deletion. . . .

"President Bush has shown he is more interested in maintaining secrecy than in providing an accurate, public historical record. That's why Kennedy's order is important. It puts the administration on notice and is a firm rebuke to the 'trust us about the e-mails' rhetoric from the White House."

Pakistan Watch

Here's Bush on Saturday: "If you're the chief operating officer of al Qaeda, you haven't had a good experience. There has been four or five No. 3s that have been brought to justice one way or the other, and many of those folks thought they had found safe haven in Pakistan. And that would not have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word."

Robert Scheer writes in his San Francisco Chronicle opinion column: "Of course Bush's statement was utter nonsense. Al Qaeda has been having a very good experience with its CEO Osama bin Laden, whom Bush had promised to get 'dead or alive,' being still very much alive and apparently moving with his minions quite easily across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. So too, his Taliban sponsors, who seem to get stronger each month; Afghanistan is no closer to stability than Iraq, that other war-on-terrorism battleground where Bush once claimed triumph.

"But now, even Pakistan is a war zone in which the terrorists seem to be thriving, and that is more troubling than the chaos in that other country we invaded to seize its imaginary nuclear bombs. Pakistan has real ones, upward of 80 of those suckers, as well as the aircraft and missiles to deliver them if some of the religious extremists in the military ever get in charge."

Bush's Changing Views

Sig Christenson wrote in the San Antonio Express-News on Veterans Day: "Ten years ago today, then-Gov. George W. Bush stood on a small road in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and defended his father's decision to end the first Gulf War after 100 hours of fighting.

"'There are a lot of Americans (who say), "Why didn't you go get him?"' Bush told the San Antonio Express-News, referring to Saddam Hussein. 'Well, I'm confident that losing men and women as a result of sniper fire inside of Baghdad would have turned the tide of public opinion very quickly.'

"That Veterans Day, Bush said efforts to ferret out Saddam from his many Baghdad hideouts would have transformed the battle from a desert conflict to an unpopular 'guerrilla war.'"

Christenson notes that "the fears expressed 10 years ago have become reality."

And the president who famously avoided asking his father for advice about the war had a different view about his father's wisdom back when Clinton was president. Writes Christenson: "Pointing to Iraqi efforts to toss the U.S. inspectors, he said 10 years ago this week that Clinton would be wise to talk with his father, saying, 'I think my dad conducted himself brilliantly during Desert Storm and understands the situation pretty clearly.'"

Impeachment (Non) Watch

The American Research group finds that 55 percent of voters say Bush has committed abuses of his powers that rise to the level of impeachable offenses -- but only 34 percent believe Congress should actually try to remove him from office. For Cheney, those figures are 52 percent and 43 percent.

Dowd's Expiation Continues

Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times talks to Matthew Dowd, a former member of Bush's inner circle turned bitter critic.

"On the administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks: 'I asked, 'Why aren't we doing bonds, war bonds? Why aren't we asking the country to do something instead of just . . . go shopping and get back on airplanes?' '

"On the White House stand against same-sex marriage: 'Why are we having the federal government get involved? . . . Does a thing limiting someone's rights and aimed at a particular constituency belong in the U.S. Constitution?'

"On the war in Iraq: 'I guess somebody would make the argument, well, the Iraq war was about defending ourselves. But it seems an awfully huge stretch these days to say that.' "

As Barabak notes, Dowd started speaking out a while back: "In March, he wrote a piece for Texas Monthly magazine suggesting Bush had undercut his 'gut-level bond with the American public.' Finally, applying torch to bridge in spectacular fashion, Dowd detailed his break with Bush in a front-page interview in the New York Times."

Dowd tells Barbarak that Bush started off governing in a bipartisan manner. "But he believes something changed after Sept. 11, 2001. 'There was an imperial feel to it,' Dowd said. 'The things he did in Texas, he didn't do any of that. . . . We didn't build relationships with Democrats in Congress, and we didn't build them overseas.' . . .

"He expresses no regrets for repudiating the president he served, even if the experience seems to have deepened his disappointment in Bush and the ways of Washington. Dowd has taken comfort from strangers who called and sent e-mails 'basically saying that it took a lot of courage to say the truth.' It is friends who have let him down: 'People who called up and said, "We agree with you, but you should not have said anything until January '09." '"

Come On By

The president and Laura Bush invited the nonprofit America's Promise Alliance to the White House last night for a black-tie dinner in the State Dining Room -- at which Laura Bush was given an award.

The Associated Press has the details. Here's the first lady's acceptance speech.

Free Speech Watch

Stephanie Strom writes in the New York Times that "in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

"At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, 'We did not vote for Bush.'"

Cartoon Watch

Mike Lane on Bush and Musharraf's eyes; RJ Matson and Monte Wolverton on the dollar; John Sherffius finds a missing White House e-mail.

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