Hands Across the Border

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 23, 2008; 12:14 PM

President Bush reached south and north of the border yesterday for backup in what has become an intensely partisan battle over international trade.

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush pulled the leaders of Mexico and Canada into an unusually direct involvement in his domestic political efforts to expand free trade on Tuesday when his two North American allies joined him in a foray into both Congressional politics and the presidential campaign.

"President Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada lent their weight to what has been something of a lonely campaign by the president as he has traveled the country to make pro-trade speeches and angry statements about the 'petty politics' that he sees threatening one of his administration's major legacies.

"They joined Mr. Bush in sharply criticizing a decision by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to scuttle a vote on a free trade agreement with Colombia. And indirectly but unmistakably, they rebuffed calls by the two Democratic presidential candidates to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Mexican President Felipe Calderon was particularly blunt, warning that weakening the 14-year-old pact would damage the Mexican economy and could create 'even greater migratory pressure' on Mexicans to cross the border to look for work in the U.S.

"'We agreed that this is not the time to even think about amending it or canceling it. This is the time to strengthen and reinvigorate this free trade agreement,' he said. . . .

"With the U.S. economy in a slump, the Democratic presidential candidates have questioned free trade and NAFTA in an attempt to appeal to voters in states hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs to lower-cost producers in other countries."

Recession? What Recession?

Here's the transcript of yesterday's joint press availability.

When a reporter asked "how deep and how long will the economic recession be in the United States," Bush replied: "First of all, I -- we're not in a recession. We're in a slowdown. We grew in the fourth quarter of last year. We haven't had first quarter growth statistics yet. But there's no question we're in a slowdown. And people are concerned about it, obviously. I'm -- of all the three of us standing up here, I'm probably the most concerned about the slowdown. After all, it's affecting the people who I have the honor of representing."

He spoke optimistically about the economic stimulus package he signed in January, and then -- surprise -- insisted: "The key is for Congress not to raise taxes during this period of time, and send a signal that they're not going to raise taxes."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Mr. Bush's statement that the U.S. economy isn't in recession drew criticism from Democrats. 'It seems like President Bush is living on another planet,' said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.). 'Coupled with runaway spending on an unending war in Iraq, President Bush's legacy can be summed up in a single word -- denial.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's comments on the U.S. economy were consistent with his refusal to describe current economic conditions as a 'recession,' commonly defined as two consecutive quarters in which gross domestic product falls. Although that has not happened, the Federal Reserve has reported that economic conditions have weakened, with manufacturing output down 0.5 percent in the first three months of this year, consistent with a recession. And in congressional testimony this month, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said that a 'recession is possible' -- but that growth could pick up later in the year."

Gas Watch

Bush also got a question about skyrocketing gas prices.

Q: "Thank you, Mr. President. Oil prices today rose above $118 a barrel. It's another record. Are Saudi Arabia and other oil producers -- are they our adversaries, or have you had any success with your recent appeals with them? And also, the effect of the gasoline prices, isn't that about to erase or certainly erode the benefit of the economic stimulus package?"

Bush: "No question rising gasoline prices are like a tax on our working people. And what's happening is, is that we've had an energy policy that neglected hydrocarbons in the United States for a long period of time, and now we're paying the price. We should have been exploring for oil and gas in ANWR, for example. But, no, we made the decision -- our Congress kept preventing us from opening up new areas to explore in environmentally friendly ways. And now we're becoming, as a result, more and more dependent on foreign sources of oil. . . .

"I'm -- I'm obviously concerned for our consumers. All the more reason to have passed a rebate, tax relief. And all the more reason for the United States Congress to keep the tax relief I passed permanent. . . . In a time of rising gasoline prices, we need to be sending a message to all Americans, we're not going to raise your taxes."

But maybe there's something else he could do.

Matthew Hay Brown blogs for Tribune: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under fire from House Republicans for failing to contain rising gas prices, is appealing to President Bush for help.

"In a letter today, the California Democrat asks Bush to direct the Justice Department to investigate oil cartel price-fixing, authorize the Federal Trade Commission to pursue and punish 'price gougers,' end tax breaks for oil companies and invest the savings in renewable energy.

"'Lastly, your administration must use the authority given to it by the Congress to end market manipulation,' Pelosi writes. 'We cannot wait to act in the face of these price increases.'"

Speaking of Tax Cuts

The White House press office called attention in an e-mail to reporters this morning to a piece by former Bush aide Peter Wehner on the National Review Web site.

Wehner writes: "In a recent article in the Financial Times, Clive Crook wrote about the fiscal consequences of the Bush administration. According to Crook, 'With ill-designed tax cuts and reeling indiscipline on spending (partly, but not only, because of the war) the Bush Administration turned this [surplus] into a deficit.' He wrote about the 'fiscal incontinence of the Bush administration' and that 'Mr. Bush has done the cause of fiscal moderation grave harm.'"

Wehner calls Crook "shallow and uninformed in this analysis."

The crux of Wehner's counter-argument is this: "If President Bush's tax cuts had not been enacted into law, the economy during the last seven years would have been weaker, growth would have been slower, and therefore the deficit may well have been larger."

But that's sheer fantasy.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: "Congressional Budget Office data show that the tax cuts have been the single largest contributor to the reemergence of substantial budget deficits in recent years. Legislation enacted since 2001 has added about $2.3 trillion to deficits between 2001 and 2006, with half of this deterioration in the budget due to the tax cuts."

And as Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post in October 2006, even the Bush administration's own economists don't claim the tax cuts paid for themselves -- never mind reduced the deficit.

Environment Watch

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "When the Bush administration announced proposed regulations Tuesday to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, even some environmentalists applauded. But then they read the fine print.

"Tucked deep into a 417-page ' Notice of Proposed Rulemaking' was language by the Transportation Department stating that more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions embraced by California and 17 other states are 'an obstacle to the accomplishment' of the new federal standards and are 'expressly and impliedly preempted' by federal law. . . .

"The language showed that beneath the bipartisan veneer of support for new fuel economy standards - approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in December - the conflict is still raging between the White House and the states over who will set the nation's first limits on greenhouse gases."

Petraeus Watch

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates today announced that Gen. David Petraeus, who rose to prominence as the top commander in Iraq during the past year, is his choice to become the next commander of U.S. Central Command.

A team of Washington Post reporters telegraphed this back in September, reporting: "For two hours, President Bush listened to contrasting visions of the U.S. future in Iraq. Gen. David H. Petraeus dominated the conversation by video link from Baghdad, making the case to keep as many troops as long as possible to cement any security progress. Adm. William J. Fallon, his superior, argued instead for accepting more risks in Iraq, officials said, in order to have enough forces available to confront other potential threats in the region.

"The polite discussion in the White House Situation Room a week ago masked a sharper clash over the U.S. venture in Iraq, one that has been building since Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Middle East operations, sent a rear admiral to Baghdad this summer to gather information. Soon afterward, officials said, Fallon began developing plans to redefine the U.S. mission and radically draw down troops.

"One of those plans, according to a Centcom officer, involved slashing U.S. combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010. In an interview, Fallon disputed that description but declined to offer details. Nonetheless, his efforts offended Petraeus's team, which saw them as unwelcome intrusion on their own long-term planning. The profoundly different views of the U.S. role in Iraq only exacerbated the schism between the two men.

"'Bad relations?' said a senior civilian official with a laugh. 'That's the understatement of the century. . . . If you think Armageddon was a riot, that's one way of looking at it.'"

And it's been clear for some time now whose side Bush was taking.

As Michael Abramowitz wrote in The Washington Post in April: "In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. In so doing, Bush's working relationship with his field commander has taken on an intensity that is rare in the history of the nation's wartime presidents."

Fallon was forced out in March. And now Petraeus gets his job.

Torture Watch

The American Civil Liberties Union announced yesterday that it had filed a Freedom of Information Act request"for the release of a report on a long-running investigation of the FBI's role in the unlawful interrogations of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) launched the investigation after internal government documents- uncovered by an ACLU lawsuit - revealed that FBI agents stationed at Guantánamo Bay expressed concern after witnessing military interrogators' use of brutal interrogation techniques.

"According to recent media reports, the OIG investigation has been completed for months. The Defense Department, however, has blocked the OIG from releasing it, claiming that the report still needs to be reviewed and redacted by the Pentagon."

Syria and North Korea

Jay Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor before Israel bombed the site last September, the Bush administration is set to tell Congress.

"The new information could increase the position of hard-liners in Congress and the administration who have argued against a deal being negotiated to dismantle North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. The hard-liners say Pyongyang hasn't provided enough assurances it will dismantle its atomic arsenal in return for economic and diplomatic incentives.

"Neither Israel nor the U.S. has made public information about the strike in Syria, though speculation has been widespread that the targeted site was a nascent nuclear reactor. Some Republicans have charged that the U.S. is playing down the matter to avoid hurting talks with North Korea.

"This week, the Central Intelligence Agency is expected to begin briefing members of the Senate and House intelligence committees on the Israeli strike, according to congressional and administration officials. The briefings will be based in part on intelligence provided by the Israeli government, they said.

"The CIA is expected to say it believes North Korea was helping Syria develop a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor similar to the Yongbyon facility North Korea built north of Pyongyang, said an official familiar with the deliberations. It also is likely to say North Korean workers were active at the Syrian site at the time of the Israeli attack.

"It isn't clear what specific evidence the U.S. officials will present to support their allegations."

Paul Richter and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "The CIA officials will tell lawmakers that they believe the reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons but was destroyed before it could do so, [a] U.S. official said. . . .

"After a breakthrough last year in which North Korea agreed to shut down its only functioning nuclear production facility, it was rewarded with fuel oil and the release of frozen bank funds. But talks stalled after the Bush administration demanded that Pyongyang provide a full description of its past nuclear activities by a December 2007 deadline.

"Shifting course, U.S. officials said two weeks ago that it would be sufficient for the North Koreans to acknowledge U.S. concerns about their nuclear activities. In return, administration officials would remove North Korea from the stigmatizing U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and Pyongyang would no longer be subject to U.S. trade sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a 1917 law.

"The administration shift appeared to give ground to North Korea in the negotiations, spurring fierce criticism from U.S. conservatives and debate over the broader plan to ease sanctions as a step toward dismantling Pyongyang's weapons programs. . . .

"Some administration officials are believed to be unhappy with the latest developments in talks with North Korea. But several analysts were skeptical of speculation that the briefing might have been initiated by internal opponents who hope to set off an outcry that would scuttle any deal with Pyongyang."

In my Sept. 21, 2007 column, I noted how Bush snapped at reporters who asked about the air strike at a news conference, flatly refusing to comment.

Equal Pay Watch

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post that "the White House threatened to veto a bill that would make it easier for victims of discrimination to sue their employers over unequal pay.

"The measure, which is scheduled for a vote today in the Senate, aims to reverse a controversial Supreme Court decision from last spring. That ruling held that Lilly Ledbetter, the lone female supervisor at an Alabama tire plant, could not sue her employer over unequal pay because the alleged discrimination that cut her wages occurred years before she filed a complaint.

"The House approved the bill, dubbed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, last summer. . . .

"Yesterday, officials reasserted a veto threat issued in July, saying that the Ledbetter ruling was fair and that the bill 'far exceeds the stated purpose of undoing the Court's decision.'"

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times that Bush may not need his veto, as Senate Republicans said they were confident they would be able to block the legislation.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Far from eliminating the current statute of limitations for filing pay discrimination claims, as some opponents claim, it merely restores a reasonable notion of when the clock starts running....

"The act's defeat would please the Bush White House and the United States Chamber of Commerce. It would be a significant civil rights setback."

Anatomy of a Bush Trip

Mark Pazniokas writes in the Hartford Courant: "President Bush is coming to Connecticut on Friday to talk about saving millions of Africans from malaria and one Republican congressional candidate from defeat.

"One topic will be tackled publicly near a housing project in Hartford, and the other will be privately addressed at Henry Kissinger's estate in the Litchfield Hills.

"They are linked.

"By holding an official event on malaria in Hartford, public funds can be used to pay for a presidential trip that also will include a fundraiser in Kent for a congressional challenger, David Cappiello."

The White House's Secret Weapons

There's been remarkably little response to David Barstow's report in the New York Times over the weekend that the Pentagon used military analysts who commented regularly on radio and TV "in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald says the lack of follow-up is all about the media's own culpability: "Media organizations simply ignore -- collectively blackout -- any stories that expose major corruption in their news reporting, as evidenced by the fact that no major network or cable news programs have ever meaningfully examined the fundamental failures of the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq."

Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Scott Collins blames the television networks, bad timing, and the fact that "[m]any Americans confronted with stories of media manipulation by government officials aren't, at this point, shocked and awed."

Phil Carter blogs for washingtonpost.com that the article is "a reminder of the Bush administration's modus operandi, which goes something like this: 'We know what's best for you; we'll tell you what you need to know; trust us.' Once the administration decided on its strategy for Iraq, it adopted that position with all possible certainty, leaving zero room for doubt, dissent or discussion. Every organ of the administration focused on marshaling support for this policy. In the public affairs arena, that meant delivering a message that supported the policy -- regardless of the ground truth. . . .

"Our democracy has broken down as the result of this logic, with the result that the people no longer support this war, yet the war grinds on anyway."

Poll Watch

Gallup reports that Bush "averaged a 31.3% approval rating in his most recent quarter in office (spanning Jan. 20-April 19), a new low for his presidency."

Laura Bush Watch

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "If Laura Bush had a real, honest-to-goodness day job, she would be well advised to keep it. The first lady, taking time out from whatever she would normally be doing, made her debut yesterday as the anchor of a network morning show, co-hosting the third hour of 'Today' on NBC. For a president's wife, she was okay, but it's unlikely she'll be a candidate to take over for Oprah should Winfrey ever retire.

"Daughter Jenna, on the other hand, showed a striking poise during her moments on camera, seemingly more enthusiastic about being there than either her mother or her twin sister, Barbara, who was a more passive presence."

Here video of the first lady's tour of the Bush home in Crawford.

Live Online

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

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart takes note of the recent government audit disclosing that the Bush administration lacks a comprehensive plan to combat terrorism in the parts of Pakistan where al-Qaeda is regenerating its ability to attack the United States.

"Senior military analyst" Rob Riggle responds: "I knew it! I knew it! I knew this [expletive deleted] didn't know where he was going. I mean all of us, we were all in the back seat, America was just in the back seat, you know, acting like, 'You know, I don't think this is the way to defeat al Qaeda,' and he's like 'Heh. I know what I'm doing. Heh heh. I know a shortcut through Iraq. Everybody, come on know, just trust me! Heh heh heh.' And we're all like, 'I don't know, maybe we should ask for directions, you know? I'm pretty sure al Qaeda is the other way.' And he's like, 'Shut up! Shut up! What the hell? I'll dump your ass in Yemen. You're just like your mother. Keep your hand off the radio, [expletive deleted]."

Cartoon Watch

David Horsey suggests a new approach for the White House press corps.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive