Crocodile Tears Over the Economy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 8, 2008; 11:39 AM

The insincerity of President Bush's sudden concern about the economy and the plight of working Americans was plain for all to see yesterday in Chicago, where he acknowledged the existence of "economic challenges," but cited them as a reason to -- of all things -- make his tax cuts permanent.

Those would be the tax cuts, heavily skewed to the rich, that don't even expire for three more years.

With Washington abuzz over temporary, short-term stimulus measures that might stave off a recession and ease the pain on those likely to be hurt the worst -- measures like instant tax rebates, payroll tax cuts or increased government spending on infrastructure -- Bush demonstrated once again that he doesn't let troubling facts get in the way of his agenda.

"In a time of economic uncertainty," Bush said yesterday, "we ought to be sending a clear signal that taxes will remain low."

Neil Irwin writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush gave a wide-ranging speech about the economy yesterday, but proposed no new policies to deal with the emerging economic distress. Instead, he asked Congress to take up various actions that have been mainstays of the administration's second-term economic policy. . . .

"What he did not do was propose any government action to combat the immediate risks of a slumping economy. . . .

"Growing numbers of economists of varying political leanings have said it might make sense to enact a temporary tax cut or spending increase to try to ease the damage of the housing and financial crises."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "As Mr. Bush suggested in his speech on Monday, his top economic priority remains extending the tax cuts he began in 2001 and 2003 well beyond 2010, when they are scheduled to expire. . . .

"On Monday, Mr. Bush devoted much of his speech to warning that Congress should make his tax cuts permanent. But that change would do little to forestall a recession, because the tax cuts do not need to be extended for another two years. . . .

"By contrast, Democrats have a fundamentally different approach. Though economists who support the Democrats are divided about whether the economy even needs a boost, they almost universally are talking about temporary moves to support the people most likely to be hurt by a downturn. Those could include an increase in unemployment benefits, food stamps or job-training assistance; a temporary cut in the payroll tax for Social Security; and a tax rebate for middle- and lower-income workers. . . .

"A growing camp of Democrats . . . are pushing for a big, broad increase in spending on highways, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times that Bush may come up with a stimulus package of his own before his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. But: "If the past is any guide, Mr. Bush is likely to favor broad-based tax cuts of the sort he pushed through early in his presidency. Democrats are discussing more targeted relief -- tax cuts, spending programs or a combination of the two -- to help lower- and middle-income Americans who would be hurt the most if the economy falters.

"'This is going to be a battle over doing more of what George Bush has done for the past six years, or doing more for the middle class,' Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a telephone interview after spending the day in Chicago with Mr. Bush. 'That's where the fissure is going to be.'"

Mark Trumbull writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "J.D. Foster, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington . . . says one possible tax cut might be to make property taxes deductible from the federal income tax even for people who don't itemize their deductions. This would put money in many pockets. And assuming it was a permanent change, this move would bolster home values -- a boon since foreclosure often occurs when a property's value falls below the borrower's loan balance.

"Chad Stone, chief economist at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says any stimulus package should be carefully targeted to bolster consumer spending and help households most in need. Extending unemployment insurance and expanding food-stamp aid are two examples, he says."

John D. McKinnon and Damian Paletta write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that "policy makers face a difficult choice in the coming weeks: Should they craft narrow remedies to improve the housing sector alone? Or, as some prominent economists have suggested, should they come up with broader measures to try to lift consumer spending and business investment? . . .

"[F]or Mr. Bush, a big risk is that lawmakers might seize on a broad-based stimulus package to roll back some of his income-tax cuts, particularly for high earners. If forced to veto such a measure, the White House could be tagged as obstructing relief. Democrats, meanwhile, risk turning off voters if they push too hard to raise taxes to cover the potentially high costs of a broad stimulus."

Former Clinton Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers writes in a Financial Times op-ed: "Poorly provided fiscal stimulus can have worse side effects than the disease that is to be cured. This suggests close attention to three issues:

"First, to be effective, fiscal stimulus must be timely. To be worth undertaking, it must be legislated by the middle of the year and be based on changes in taxes and benefits that can be implemented almost immediately.

"Second, fiscal stimulus only works if it is spent so it must be targeted . Targeting should favour those with low incomes and those whose incomes have recently fallen for whom spending is most urgent.

"Third, fiscal stimulus, to be maximally effective, must be clearly and credibly temporary -- with no significant adverse impact on the deficit for more than a year or so after implementation. Otherwise it risks being counterproductive by raising the spectre of enlarged future deficits pushing up longer-term interest rates and undermining confidence and longer-term growth prospects."

Budget expert Stan Collender blogs that "the politics of enacting a stimulus this year are so difficult that it's hard to see how it gets done.

"Since the 2006 election, the White House's legislative game plan has been to make it impossible for the Democratic majority in Congress to accomplish anything unless its strictly on the administration's terms. . . .

"The White House proposal almost certainly will provide a break to a very different constituency than the Democrats. If the politics of the past year continue, the administration will be unwilling to agree to the Democratic proposal and the Democrats will oppose the president's plan. Each will criticize the other but no real attempt at compromise will occur. A Democratic plan will need 67 votes to get past the inevitable veto and congressional Republicans won't supply the votes needed to do that so that they can deny the Democrats a victory just before the election."

Bubble Watch

Robert Manor and Kathy Bergen note in the Chicago Tribune: "Bush spoke before a hand-picked crowd of mostly friendly listeners at the Union League Club of Chicago. He took no questions from the audience or press."

Fratto's Folly

Think Progress points out this exchange from yesterday's press briefing by White House spokesman Tony Fratto:

Q: "Senator Clinton said on Saturday that the U.S. economy was slipping towards a recession. Is that a view the White House shares; why or why not?"

Fratto: "I don't know of anyone predicting a recession."

Think Progress then helpfully lists several such predictions from leading economists.

Education Watch

Maria Glod writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush urged the Democratic-led Congress on Monday to revive a stalled effort to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law before he leaves office, but he pledged to veto any bill that 'weakens the accountability' measures at the core of one of his signature domestic achievements. . . .

"'I know No Child Left Behind has worked,' Bush said, as he urged Congress to revise the law to increase flexibility for state and local agencies without loosening the annual testing and enforcement provisions that give it teeth.' . . .

"Bush's remarks came on the eve of the anniversary of his signing the bill, which was passed with broad bipartisan support and is considered one of his most significant domestic accomplishments. As attention shifts to the presidential election, chances for action in Congress are dimming. If the law is not reauthorized, it will remain in effect as is."

From the transcript of Bush's speech: "Look, I recognize some people don't like accountability. In other words, accountability says if you're failing, we're going to expose that and expect you to change. Accountability also says that when you're succeeding you'll get plenty of praise."

Middle East Watch

Jonathan Finer and Michael Abramowitz report from Jerusalem for The Washington Post: "In the six weeks since Israeli and Palestinian leaders left Annapolis, Md., pledging to end 'bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples,' violence has escalated over long-standing territorial disputes and security concerns, leaving little optimism here on the eve of President Bush's visit that the fledgling dialogue will bring peace. . . .

"A poll published Monday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 59 percent of Palestinians consider the Annapolis process a failure. A poll conducted in Israel at the end of December by the same organization and the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University found that 75 percent of Israelis believe the same thing. . . .

"'It's almost a tradition that lame-duck presidents make a swing to the Middle East, including Israel,' said Michael B. Oren, a prominent historian of the Middle East at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. 'It is traditionally a victory lap. This is a victory lap without a victory.'"

How is it possible that even the Israelis have no confidence in Bush?

Richard Boudreaux writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For seven years, President Bush has been a distant defender of Israel, working from Washington to tilt America's policies in the Middle East more firmly behind its longtime ally.

"When he arrives here Wednesday on his first presidential visit, however, Bush will find an ambivalent Israeli public. It is appreciative of his efforts, yet critical of U.S. setbacks that have made the region feel more threatening.....

"Though Israelis are grateful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they worry that the U.S. intervention in Iraq has benefited Israel's more dangerous enemy, Iran, better enabling Tehran to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

"Israeli officials view Bush's effort to promote Arab democracy, a theme the president will stress in the five Arab countries he visits after leaving here Friday, as naive and counterproductive because they say it has empowered Islamists and Iranian clients in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

"And as Bush steps tardily into the role of peace broker, Israelis are divided on whether they were helped or hurt by his years of willful disengagement and doubtful that he has enough time, clout or commitment to bring negotiations anywhere near an end."

Charles Levinson writes in USA Today: "People on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide doubt whether a president best known for the Iraq war has the credibility to help deliver perhaps the world's most elusive peace deal. . . .

"The trip also raises a more enduring question: whether the United States can still be an effective peace broker despite events that have deteriorated its popularity in the region, such as the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that involved the mistreatment of Iraqi captives."

Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush has vowed to transform the Middle East for the sake of American security. This week, Mr. Bush sets off on a nine-day tour of a region that, if anything, has transformed him.

"The trip will showcase a president shifting his focus from the big idea of a free and democratic Middle East to more traditional US foreign-policy goals: an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, the containment of a threatening state -- in this case Iran -- and the assurance of US energy security at a time of $100-a-barrel oil. Whatever topic he discusses in meetings, Iraq is likely to be a key factor in the background.

"'After vowing to transform the Middle East, the administration is submitting to it, resorting to the sort of process-driven incremental diplomacy that previous administrations had pursued and that this administration had disdained,' says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. 'President Bush is no longer trying to transform the Middle East from afar. He's trying to manage it in incremental ways by arm-twisting and jawboning leaders in intimate, private sessions.'"

Pocket Veto Watch

Robert J. Spitzer writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Pundits and pols who have been tracking President Bush's constitutional transgressions can add another to the list: his Dec. 28 ' pocket veto' of the massive defense spending bill. Instead of issuing a regular veto, which allows Congress the opportunity to override if it can muster the votes, Bush stated that he needed to pocket veto the bill -- a power the Constitution says may only be used when 'Congress by their Adjournment prevent [the bill's] Return.' Bush argued that he was 'prevented' from 'returning' the bill to Congress because the House had adjourned.

"But Bush was being disingenuous. In fact, a pocket veto was neither necessary nor allowed in this case. In misusing his veto power, Bush was attempting to grab a power for himself and his office that the Constitution's framers emphatically and repeatedly denied to the president: a nearly unlimited, absolute veto."

Unsurpassed Apologist

I wrote in yesterday's column about the immodest claims Bush is making for his presidency.

Who could possibly say nicer things about Bush than Bush himself?

The answer: Unsurpassed Bush apologist Fouad Ajami, who writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "It was fated, or 'written,' as the Arabs would say, that George W. Bush, reared in Midland, Texas, so far away from the complications of the foreign world, would be the leader to take America so deep into Arab and Islamic affairs. . . .

"Mr. Bush is traveling into the landscape and setting of his own legacy. He is arguably the most consequential leader in the long history of America's encounter with those lands. . . .

"His was the gift of moral and political clarity.

"In America and elsewhere, those given reprieve by that clarity, and single-mindedness, have been taking this protection while complaining all the same of his zeal and solitude. In his stoic acceptance of the burdens after 9/11, we were offered a reminder of how nations shelter behind leaders willing to take on great challenges."

Impeachment Caption Contest

McClatchy is accepting reader-submitted captions for this Jim Morin cartoon.

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