What About the Needy?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 25, 2008; 1:26 PM

Is the economic stimulus package announced yesterday really a bipartisan victory? Both sides are certainly calling it that. But it's also a testament to how far President Bush has skewed Washington's political climate to the right.

Democrats and Republicans agreed last week that this would be a good time for the government to give away vast sums of money.

And yet the Democratic leadership is considering it a victory that some small portion of the money will actually go to people who need it. The vast majority will go to the middle and upper-middle class.

What did Bush give up in the course of these tough negotiations? Well, originally he wanted the super-wealthy to get some of the money. He wanted the poor to get nothing. He also wanted his tax cuts, which heavily favor the rich, to be made permanent.

That is what we call a compromise in this day and age.

Because social justice is essentially off the political radar in the Bush era -- and because both parties are prone to pandering to the middle class during an election year -- Democrats never even tried to get White House agreement on a stimulus package that would significantly help the needy. An option that could have had a hugely positive social impact, while effectively stimulating the economy, never had a chance.

Looking to the Real World

The Washington press corps didn't seriously consider what $150 billion might have meant to people living in the margins of our society.

The closest thing I could find to a serious treatment of that question was in South Dakota.

Kevin Woster writes in the Rapid City Journal: "Mari King, a 25-year-old pregnant mother of two, who relies on food stamps and income-based housing, didn't qualify for the tax rebate of up to $800 per qualifying individual that was initially proposed by President Bush. And it was unclear Thursday whether she would be covered by an expanded assistance plan being negotiated by congressional leaders to give smaller checks, possibly about $300, to virtually anyone who earns a paycheck.

"As an asthmatic with other health issues who is currently out of work, King relies on government assistance to get by. She said she and her children have daily financial needs that could be helped by a few hundred dollars.

"'It would do a lot,' she said as she selected free food items at the food pantry on North Maple Ave. in Rapid City. 'There are things I'd like to buy for my kids that I can't buy. I could do some thing for them that I can't do now.' . . .

"King hopes she isn't forgotten in the negotiations. So does her mother, Bridget Defender, who now lives on disability payments and other assistance, including food from the food pantry. Defender hopes federal officials won't overlook her as they develop the financial-stimulus package.

"'I worked all my life,' Defender said. 'And now when I need it, I'd like to get help.'"

Woster also quotes Cindy Lloyd, an administrator at the Rapid City Club for Boys: "I've got one grandma who's essentially raising her 10-year-old grandson on $325 a month. Think what a few hundred dollars could mean to her."

Woster writes: "Even when the poor find work and begin rebuilding their lives, they often are blocked from affordable, income-based housing because they can't come up with the money needed for a deposit, Lloyd said. A check from the government for a few hundred dollars would provide deposit money for many, she said.

"'When you're homeless and stuck in a cockroach motel room, you can't save up enough for a deposit,' Lloyd said. 'I have a mother who's been four or five months in that situation, and she has three kids. She needs $200 to even apply for an apartment.'

"The needs are endless, and the money is short, Lloyd said. Properly designed, the stimulus plan could work for the economy and the poor, she said.

"'We have a lot of families where both parents are working minimum-wage jobs, and they can't make enough to eat,' she said. 'We put up as many safety nets as we can. But a lot of our families still fall through the cracks.'"

Opinion Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Unfortunately, the plan -- which essentially consists of nothing but tax cuts and gives most of those tax cuts to people in fairly good financial shape -- looks like a lemon.

"Specifically, the Democrats appear to have buckled in the face of the Bush administration's ideological rigidity, dropping demands for provisions that would have helped those most in need. And those happen to be the same provisions that might actually have made the stimulus plan effective. . . .

"[S]ending checks to people in good financial shape does little or nothing to increase overall spending. . . .

"On the other hand, money delivered to people who aren't in good financial shape -- who are short on cash and living check to check -- does double duty: it alleviates hardship and also pumps up consumer spending. . . .

"Why would the administration want to do this? It has nothing to do with economic efficacy: no economic theory or evidence I know of says that upper-middle-class families are more likely to spend rebate checks than the poor and unemployed. Instead, what seems to be happening is that the Bush administration refuses to sign on to anything that it can't call a 'tax cut.'

"Behind that refusal, in turn, lies the administration's commitment to slashing tax rates on the affluent while blocking aid for families in trouble -- a commitment that requires maintaining the pretense that government spending is always bad. And the result is a plan that not only fails to deliver help where it's most needed, but is likely to fail as an economic measure."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Many in the Democratic coalition, especially labor unions, wish [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi had secured an extension in unemployment benefits and an increase in food stamps. Either action would have been a worthy step that could have quickly helped the most cash-strapped Americans. But both would have been deal-breakers for the White House."

And yet the Post is understanding: "Critics of yesterday's deal overlook how far Ms. Pelosi did move the Bush administration: The president gave up extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts; he agreed to supply $28 billion of the proposed tax relief to lower-income individuals and households that were not included in his own proposal; and he accepted an income cap to prevent the richest Americans from getting a handout. This is what economists call a 'second-best solution.' But, as stimulus packages go, it's defensible."

Taking the position that Bush gave up way too much, Kimberly A. Strassel writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column: "This was Mr. Bush's chance to explain to voters the stark economic choice they will face this November. They can choose another Republican who is committed to preserving the Bush tax cuts that have done so much over the past five years for economic growth -- plus more. Or they can vote for a Democrat who will raise their taxes at a time of economic uncertainty, causing untold harm.

"Instead, the administration abandoned the economic high ground before even a popgun was fired. . . .

"The administration quickly deserted any principled demands for pro-growth policies, say extending the Bush tax cuts or cutting capital gains. The White House and Republican congressional leaders were left yesterday spinning conservative victory out of the fact that 'most' of the non-stimulating rebates would go to people who currently pay income taxes (ooh!), and that businesses will get a depreciation break (ahh!)."

The Deal

Jonathan Weisman and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "The deal, announced by House leaders and President Bush after arduous, late-night negotiations, was a work of difficult compromise, and the fight will continue in the Senate."

They note that workers who earned at least $3,000 last year -- but not enough to pay income taxes -- would be eligible for $300 -- half as much as their wealthier fellow citizens. And: "Under the compromise, retirees whose income from retirement plans and Social Security is not enough to qualify them for income taxes would receive nothing."

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "Republicans expressed satisfaction that they had forced House Democrats to show fiscal restraint, by agreeing to a plan focused mostly on tax cuts.

"'I have always believed that allowing people to keep more of their own money and use it as they see fit is the best way to help our economy grow,' Mr. Bush said. 'I'm also pleased that this agreement does not include any tax increases, as well as unnecessary spending projects.'"

Peter S. Goodman and Louis Uchitelle write in the New York Times: "The Bush administration insisted on rebates alone, and House Democrats relented in exchange for adding payments to people who do not pay income taxes.

"'They gave up pieces of the package that were more effective,' said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute in Washington, who blamed the Bush administration for blocking the expansion of benefits. 'It's a political choice, and a bad one. It's an ideology that says, "I can get a lot more credit for tax cuts than I can for expanding unemployment insurance." '

"Unemployment among blacks and Hispanics has been rising at triple the rate for whites, while the time it takes for people to find new jobs has been lengthening, according to government data. Some experts argue that by failing to expand unemployment benefits, the plan leaves minority groups most vulnerable to a recession.

"'It's way inadequate,' said William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University in Washington. 'It doesn't fix the problems we have with the safety net.'"

Steven Mufson and Neil Irwin write in The Washington Post: "A study by [Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com,] estimates that every dollar put into the food stamp program produces a $1.73 increase in the economy as the money is spent and spent again. By contrast, every dollar put into the business tax breaks that are in the stimulus package will increase the economy by 27 cents, according to the study. The business portion of the stimulus package allows companies to write off 50 percent of the cost of equipment in the year of purchase. This will help firms that sell long-lasting equipment such as machine tools, aircraft, and agricultural and construction equipment. Technology firms could also benefit. But much of that investment would have happened anyway, according to some economists."

The Beginning or the End?

Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "As they unveiled a $150 billion package of tax breaks for consumers and businesses yesterday, Republicans and Democrats hoped to rescue not only a troubled economy but also a government that increasingly has seemed as if it could not get anything done.

"President Bush hailed 'the kind of cooperation that some predicted was not possible here in Washington.' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used the words 'bipartisan' and 'bipartisanship' 10 times in a brief appearance. 'Many Americans believe that Washington is broken,' said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). 'But I think this agreement, and I hope that this agreement, will show the American people that we can fix it.'

"The agreement on a stimulus package represented the first time since divided government returned to Washington a year ago that the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue sheathed their swords and came together on a major initiative without any bloodletting first. But the White House and House leaders face two critical questions now: Can they make it stick in a balky Senate? And can they extend this moment of cooperation, or is it a one-time deal in the face of economic and political desperation?"

Baker and Weisman note: "The accelerating presidential campaign also makes it more difficult to reach across party lines."

And here comes some dazzling White House spin:

"But the White House sees a window of opportunity through spring, before the campaign heads toward the nominating conventions and the general election. Some likened the moment to the summer of 1996, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress teamed up for a burst of pre-election legislation such as changes in welfare after 18 months of bitter fighting.

"Bush plans in his State of the Union address Monday to outline several areas in which he hopes to work with Congress, including trade and veterans' health care. And some aides think they could find common ground on warrantless surveillance and children's health care. The economic deal showed what is possible. 'This is the first example of it,' said a senior administration official. 'I don't think it will be the last.'"

The president, however, apparently wasn't fully briefed on the spin du jour.

Mike Carney blogs for USA Today: "Some are saying the $150 billion economic stimulus package might signal a breakthrough in the sort of polarized politics that has made it hard to get things done in Washington.

"President Bush seems a little skeptical about that.

"When he sat down with USA TODAY's Susan Page and Richard Wolf yesterday afternoon, just as the final details were being settled on the package, Bush said mutual concern about a faltering economy had been 'a catalyst for all of us to come together.'

"'You know, I would hope this would lead to a spirit of working together,' he went on, but added: 'We'll see. Some of these issues are very contentious.' He mentioned in particular the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, now before Congress. . . .

"'I, of course, will be bringing up the FISA issue in the State of the Union, and that's a hard issue for some members up there,' Bush said. 'So I think it depends on the issue, frankly.'"

That Bush Interview

Richard Wolf and Susan Page write up their interview with Bush in USA Today: "President Bush will propose doubling the funding to combat HIV/AIDS overseas in his last State of the Union address Monday, one of several new initiatives he says will demonstrate his intention to 'sprint to the finish' of his time in office.

"The five-year, $30 billion proposal would provide treatment for about 2.5 million people infected with the disease and preventive measures for about 12 million others. The initiative, approved by Congress in 2003 at $15 billion, operates in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. . . .

"Bush said Monday's address -- which he practiced for the first time Thursday afternoon -- will make it clear he plans for an activist year in office despite the threat of a faltering economy and the war in Iraq.

"The speech will focus on domestic policy first. The theme: 'It's important for government to trust in our citizens' when making policy, he said. That, he said, applies to issues from health care to education to taxes. . . .

"He also said he would unveil 'a new idea' to address hunger -- 'we're a generous nation when it comes to hunger,' he said -- and expand an initiative to deal with malaria in the developing world.

"In the interview, Bush was reflective about delivering his last such address to a joint session of Congress: 'The State of the Union is a chance for me to say to the American people, 'I'm going to finish strong, and I'm going to work with Congress to do it. There's some unfinished business and some new ideas, and let's get to it.' '

"He seemed philosophical about the time ahead. 'When it's all said and done, I will have finished it with all my soul and all my might,' he said, 'and we'll go do something different.'"

Here's the full transcript.

What His Aides Say

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "In a bow to political reality, President Bush's final State of the Union speech will skip bold proposals in favor of ones the country has heard before, a modest approach for a White House that prides itself on big ideas.

"Bush's strategy reflects what he is up against: little time left in office, confrontational relations with a Democratic Congress and a diminishing role on the national stage. White House aides say there is not much point in unveiling grand ideas sure to go nowhere."

The Iraq Agreement

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush's plan to forge a long-term agreement with the Iraqi government that could commit the US military to defending Iraq's security would be the first time such a sweeping mutual defense compact has been enacted without congressional approval, according to legal specialists. . . .

"Most of the attention has instead focused on whether the pact could make it more difficult for the United States to withdraw from Iraq after Bush leaves office. Although the next president could scrap the agreement, reneging on the compact would create diplomatic problems by showing that the nation does not live up to its obligations, specialists say.

"But there is now also growing alarm about the constitutional issues raised by Bush's plan. Legal specialists and lawmakers of both parties are raising questions about whether it would be unconstitutional for Bush to complete such a sweeping deal on behalf of the United States without the consent of the legislative branch. . . .

"[T]he 'long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship' outlined in November goes far beyond an ordinary status-of-forces agreement. It would include promises of debt forgiveness, economic and technical aid, facilitating 'especially American investments' in Iraq - and the security commitments, according to Bush and Maliki's joint declaration last November."

But get this. Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers write in today's New York Times: "Over recent days, administration officials acknowledged that the language of the Nov. 26 announcement went too far. The officials said that they were limiting the scope of the pending negotiations to issues that could be resolved this year, before the Security Council resolution expired."

That's not to say that it won't still be hugely controversial -- there, as well as here.

"With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials.

"This emerging American negotiating position faces a potential buzz saw of opposition from Iraq, with its fragmented Parliament, weak central government and deep sensitivities about being seen as a dependent state, according to these officials."

FISA Watch

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "The Senate signaled in a key vote yesterday that it supports giving some of the nation's largest telephone companies immunity from dozens of privacy lawsuits related to a federal domestic eavesdropping program initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In a lopsided 60 to 36 vote -- with 12 Democrats joining Republicans in the majority -- the Senate rejected a version of the proposed legislation sponsored by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. That bill omitted immunity for the telecommunications firms involved in warrantless eavesdropping. . . .

"The vote marked a notable victory for the White House, which has pushed hard for telecom immunity. . . .

"In another bid to sway the roiling debate over its surveillance practices, the White House agreed yesterday to give members of the House intelligence and judiciary committees access to a set of secret records related to the warrantless wiretapping program.

"Similar committees in the Senate were granted the same access in the fall, according to legislative aides. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the House intelligence committee chairman, said he had 'pushed for eight months' to review the documents."

Steven Aftergood blogs about a new Senate Judiciary Committee report that says the bill currently on the floor "does not contain adequate protections to guard against the kind of Executive abuse that occurred with the [Terrorist Surveillance Program] and related programs."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes that "while the administration tells us that we need to give up certain rights and allow for special government intrusions because we're at war (with 'terror' we're told), it also wants to extend those intrusions -- aka violations -- into times of peace. See how this works? Once we give up a right, it's nearly impossible to regain. FISA courts, which issue warrants for such surveillance, work, and our rights are worth protecting. We hope Congress, which has yet to stand up to President Bush's bluster, understand these things."

Poll Watch

The Pew Research Center reports: "As he begins his final year in office, President Bush's standing with the public continues to worsen. While his overall job approval ratings are holding steady, the balance of opinion is roughly two-to-one negative (31% approve, 59% disapprove). And the number of Americans -- including many within the president's own party -- who see the failures of his administration outweighing the accomplishments continues to rise. . . .

"A 59% majority of Americans believe that, in the long run, the failures of the Bush administration will outweigh the accomplishments, up from 53% a year ago. Half as many (28%) say Bush's accomplishments will outweigh his failures."

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds Bush's approval rating at 31 percent, two points above his all-time low but down three points from December. His approval rating for handling the economy (29 percent) and handling foreign policy (27 percent) are both at all-time lows.

And Pew also reports: "Laura Bush, once almost universally liked, has seen her favorability ratings slip along with her husband's over the past three years. Currently, a slim majority of Americans (54%) say they have a favorable impression of the First Lady, down from 70% in August of 2004. The number saying they have an unfavorable view of Laura Bush has risen from 18% to 29% over the same time period."

Bush Legacy Watch

James Kitfield writes in the National Journal: "In the view of current top Bush administration officials, today's focus on the president's legacy and the Iraq war captures only a snapshot of his time in office and risks missing the broader and brighter picture that will emerge in time. . . .

"Call it the Truman Clause. On their bad days -- and there have been many -- Bush administration officials like to recall that during the Korean War, President Truman was excoriated in the press and pummeled by some of the worst public-approval ratings of any sitting chief executive in history. But long after Truman boarded the Ferdinand Magellan at Union Station for the long train ride home to Missouri, he would be remembered most as the president who implemented the international policies and constructed the national security architecture that eventually brought the United States victory in the Cold War. Legacy reformed. . . .

"Of course, there is also the Hoover precedent to consider. From the evidence available, it seems just as likely that historians will one day place Bush alongside President Hoover as someone who responded to a crisis with instincts and a set of policies that made the original problem far worse. . . .

"Even some of those who supported elements of the Bush Doctrine doubt that its core will survive the backlash against the Iraq war. That, too, is part of the Bush legacy. In too much of the world, America's promotion of democracy is now linked with violence and instability, and pre-emptive strikes against terrorists are equated with the unilateral invasion of nation-states."

Deal With It

Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column that conservative pundits and Republican presidential candidates need to accept an ugly truth: "George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues."

Bush on Osama bin Laden

Fox News reports that "the president now seems to doubt the Al Qaeda mastermind will be found before his term ends next January. . . .

"'If we could find the cave he is in, I promise you -- he would be brought to justice or wherever he's hiding,' he tells FOX News in ' George W. Bush: Fighting to the Finish,' a documentary scheduled to air Sunday, Jan. 27, at 8 p.m. ET. . . .

"Bush says in the interview he's confident bin Laden ultimately will be found.

"'He'll be gotten by a president,' Bush says."

Torture Tapes Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge said Thursday that CIA interrogation videotapes may have been relevant to his court case, and he gave the Bush administration three weeks to explain why they were destroyed in 2005 and say whether other evidence was destroyed. . . .

"The decision is a legal setback for the Bush administration, which has urged courts not to get involved."

The Horse Thief

Scott Horton blogs for Harpers: "George W. Bush is famous for his attachment to a painting which he acquired after becoming a 'born again Christian.' It's by W.H.D. Koerner and is entitled 'A Charge to Keep.' Bush was so taken by it, that he took the painting's name for his own official autobiography. And here's what he says about it: 'I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.' . . .

"Now, however, Jacob Weisberg [has tracked] down the commission behind the art work and he gives us the full story in his forthcoming book on Bush, 'The Bush Tragedy'."

Weisberg writes: "[Bush] came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.

"Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled 'The Slipper Tongue,' published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: 'Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.'"

So, Horton writes: "Bush's inspiring, prosyletizing Methodist is in fact a silver-tongued horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Mount Liesmore.; Tony Auth on Bush's secret treaty; John Sherffius on Bush's leading indicators.

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