Bush's Gas Pain

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 12:48 PM

It wasn't just his wistful words about magic wands that made President Bush's talk about lowering gas prices at his press conference yesterday feel particularly unrealistic. His most practical suggestion was to go back in time to 2002 and get Congress to allow oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness -- although even had that happened, those oil fields likely wouldn't yet be producing a drop.

Bush's repeated mention of magic wands -- i.e., "if there was a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it, of course" -- was a reprise of his comments two years ago, the last time gas prices were a major domestic issue.

And then, as now, Bush was neither talking -- nor being asked about -- two hugely significant factors that he could actually do something about: the war in Irq and the value of the dollar.

Indeed, here's what I wrote almost exactly two years ago, in a column entitled The Magic Wands Bush Won't Wave:

"Is there really nothing Bush could do about gas prices in the short term?

"The dynamics of gas prices are enormously complex, and the conventional wisdom has indeed been that the recent run-up in prices is just the market at work, responding to long-term supply and demand factors. If you buy into that explanation, then it's hard to see how the government could do much about it in the short term.

"But some alternate views are now emerging. They suggest that maybe there are some things Bush could do -- that, in short, Bush has some magic wands around, he's just choosing not to wave them.

"Here, according to what I've been reading lately, are some of the things Bush could conceivably do to conjure up lower prices:

"· Develop an exit strategy for Iraq. Fear of continued instability in the Middle East is widely seen as contributing to a 'risk premium' that's driving up crude oil prices.

"· Tamp down speculation on the oil-trading exchanges, either by re-regulating the markets, raising interest rates, or both. There is some evidence that avaricious speculators have driven the price way above the levels justified simply by supply and demand conditions.

"· Do something about the weak dollar. The dollar's dramatic drop against major currencies directly translates to higher gas prices for Americans. (But strengthening the dollar might require serious deficit reduction.)

"· Tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

"· 'Jawbone' producers into increasing production.

"· Aggressively investigate the possibility of price gouging by the oil industry."

Since then, the direct and indirect costs of the war have increased dramatically. It's not entirely a coincidence that before the 2003 invasion, oil cost less than $25 a barrel, and as of today costs $116. Similarly, the dollar's value has declined precipitously -- see my Nov. 8 column, Bush's Disastrous Dollar Policy.

Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy Newspapers takes a look at Bush's options today. He writes: "One step that could have an immediate impact would be to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with heavier, sour crude oil. Right now, the SPR is being partially filled by light, sweet crude, which is lower in sulfur. This is the variety most sought after by refiners and taking it off global markets and putting it into the reserve makes it more scarce, thus higher priced."

By contrast, Hall dismisses another proposal Bush revived yesterday -- for new U.S refineries to built on military bases. "Most military bases are far from the source of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and the pipeline infrastructure that leads from there. It makes a nice sound bite but isn't a real-world solution."

The Coverage

Dan Eggen and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Bush, reaching back to the earliest days of his administration, resurrected GOP demands for new drilling in the Alaska wilderness, fewer restrictions on oil refineries and other measures aimed at lowering fuel prices through higher production.

"Democratic leaders shot back that Bush is out of touch with struggling Americans, as he pours money into the Iraq war at the expense of domestic priorities. Senate leaders promised to unveil gasoline price legislation by week's end.

"Two oil giants, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, announced record profits yesterday totaling $17 billion in the first three months of the year. Exxon Mobil is expected to smash its own previous records for quarterly corporate profits tomorrow. Average gasoline prices, meanwhile, have surged to a new high of $3.60 per gallon. . . .

"Many of Bush's oil-related proposals date back to his first term,. . . . and failed to gain traction even when Congress was under GOP control. His remarks underscored his difficult political predicament, as he is hobbled by dismal approval ratings and overshadowed by a lively presidential campaign.

"Indeed, many lawmakers signaled yesterday that they would pay little heed to the president's criticisms, particularly on oil. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that 'people don't have time for finger-pointing from the White House right now."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The incredible shrinking presidency of George Walker Bush hit a new milestone yesterday: The commander in chief turned to sorcery. . . .

"[T]he wizard of the West Wing said he would use his supernatural powers, if he had them, to conjure up lower gas prices. 'I think that if there was a magic wand and say, 'Okay, drop price,' I'd do that,' said the illusionist. . . .

"[T]he president had something else up his sleeve. He used his appearance before the White House press corps to perform one of the oldest tricks in the book: blaming Congress. He faulted lawmakers 16 times in his opening statement alone."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "Democrats pushed back, accusing Mr. Bush of trotting out old ideas and of favoring big oil companies at the expense of average Americans. . . .

"Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said: 'He says he's concerned with high gas prices and high food prices and student and home loan problems. But the truth is that the president has closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears as these crises have grown.'"

Matthew Hay Brown blogs for Tribune: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will give President Bush this much: He's one of a kind.

"'Only President Bush could allow Big Oil to write our nation's energy policy, guarantee billions in oil tax breaks and refuse to stand up to OPEC or crack down on price gouging, and then shirk responsibility for gas prices that have more than doubled and oil prices that have quadrupled since he took office,' the Nevada Democrat said today. 'Only President Bush could be surprised to learn that gas was approaching $4 a gallon and then claim the White House is concerned about high gas prices.'"

Michael M. Phillips, Greg Hitt and Sarah Lueck note in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Bush's broadside, launched Tuesday at a Rose Garden news conference, came as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 73% of U.S. citizens disapprove of his management of the country's economic policy, up from 66% last month and the worst rating of his presidency."

Inertia Watch

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Americans are pumping their paychecks into their gas tanks, and the economy is in a stall. Food scarcities threaten governments overseas and spur hoarding at home. Foreclosures are up, home sales are down. Progress in Iraq and Afghanistan is halting.

"Despite this confluence of crises on the nation's doorstep, official Washington is beset by election-year inertia. After a fleeting bipartisan moment in January produced the rebate checks that began going out this week, the House and Senate floors have been given over to partisan sniping and small-bore bills."

So whose fault is it? Hulse writes that "there is plenty of blame to go around. Democrats, and some Republicans, are trying to wait out the Bush administration, hoping to find a more receptive audience in whomever the next president is. Both parties are pushing political initiatives, trying to avoid tough votes themselves while inflicting them on the other side. Republicans are happy to slow legislation out of ideological opposition and an urge to flummox Democrats, forcing votes on even the most routine matters in the Senate."

Indeed, the stalemate will continue unless either Bush or the Democrats make a genuine effort to compromise. But revisiting ANWR is certainly not an attempt at compromise.

As Hulse writes: "Bush set Congressional eyes rolling on Tuesday when he pushed again for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an initiative that could not clear Congress when Republicans were in charge and would offer little in the way of immediate help.

"Democratic leaders see Mr. Bush as unyielding, unreasonable and unwilling to compromise on any front. They viewed the president's ultimatum on Tuesday on a war spending bill as typical. He pledged he would not budge from a $108 billion ceiling he had set for a bill that Democrats hoped to use as a way to provide some domestic economic relief and new benefits for members of the military."

About ANWR

The Anchorage Daily News explains that "opening the coastal plain is strongly opposed by environmentalists, most Democrats and a few moderate Republicans because of the area's environmental sensitivity and arguments that even large amounts of ANWR oil wouldn't help much, especially the immediate problem of high prices.

"In 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that it would take about 10 years before oil would flow from ANWR if drilling were approved. By 2025, it said, the additional oil would have only a slight impact on global oil prices and cause a decline in gasoline prices of less than a penny a gallon, using constant 2003 dollars."

Tom Doggett writes for Reuters that Bush's claim that had Congress approved ANWR drilling, the United States would be less addicted to foreign oil and fuel prices would be lower "doesn't reflect the long lead time to develop the refuge's huge oil reserves, which would not be available for several more years." He also explains that "initial volumes would still be small" even if Congress had approved the administration's plan in 2002.

"Bush during his first year in office made giving energy companies access to the estimated 10 billion barrels of crude in the refuge the centerpiece of his national energy policy that sprouted from Vice President Dick Cheney's controversial and secretive energy task force," Doggett writes.

Bush, Libby, and the Rule of Law

John Diedrich writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "When President Bush erased the prison term of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, he reinforced some Americans' perception that status can affect justice, according to the judge who sentenced Libby.

"In commuting the 2 1/2 -year prison term of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Bush called U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton's sentence excessive, given Libby's 'exceptional public service' and lack of criminal history.

"Walton, whom Bush nominated to the District of Columbia bench, acknowledged Tuesday that Bush's decision was part of the system, but he also said it fed some people's notion that justice isn't equal.

"'The president has that authority and exercised it, and that has to be respected,' said Walton, who is to speak Thursday in Milwaukee at a literacy event.

"'The downside is there are a lot of people in America who think that justice is determined to a large degree by who you are and that what you have plays a large role in what kind of justice you receive. . . . It is crucial that the American public respect the rule of law, or people won't follow it.' . . .

"Walton, who said he and his family were threatened after he handed down the sentence, said the time he gave Libby was at the low end of federal sentencing guidelines."

I believe this is only Walton's second public statement about Bush's decision. Back in July, in a footnote to a ruling about the conditions of Libby's parole, he wrote that he was "perplexed" by the act of clemency:

"In commuting the defendant's thirty-month term of incarceration, the President stated that the sentence imposed by this Court was 'excessive' and that two years of supervised release and a $250,000 alone are a 'harsh punishment' for an individual convicted on multiple counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to federal investigators. Although it is certainly the President's prerogative to justify the exercise of his constitutional commutation power in whatever manner he chooses (or even to decline to provide a reason for his actions altogether), the Court notes that the term of incarceration imposed in this case was determined after a careful consideration of each of the requite statutory factors, and was consistent with the bottom end of the applicable sentencing range as properly calculated under the United States Sentencing Guidelines."

For more about Bush's decision, see my July 3 column, Obstruction of Justice, Continued.

Parallel Universe Watch

You'll never guess who's complaining about subsidies for millionaires -- and who's defending them.

Believe it or not, it's Bush who's fighting for income caps in the pending Farm Bill -- and Democratic leaders who are balking.

David Rogers writes for Politico: "The White House mounted a last push for more reforms in a pending Farm Bill Tuesday, with President Bush accusing lawmakers of continuing subsidies to 'multimillionaire' producers at a time of rising prices at the grocery store.

"Thus far, House-Senate negotiators have been willing to exclude only wealthy individuals who earn $500,000 or more in nonfarm income. But there were signs of new movement Tuesday night, and the administration is pressing for a 'hard cap' that would deny commodity payments to even full time farmers whose average adjusted gross income over three years exceeded $500,000. . . .

"For the White House, the income cap remains a signature issue after first wanting a still lower $200,000 ceiling. And for this Republican president, Tuesday's press conference was a rare example of using the class card to full political effect at a time of rising food prices."

What he heck is going on here? I asked Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and close observer of the Farm Bill. "It's a parallel universe," he said. "You would think that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would be the ones demanding reform. . . and George Bush would be the one defending the wealthy individuals in this game, but it's been the exact opposite."

Cook, who has a blog called Mulch, isn't sure what's motivating Bush. "I don't know why this issue of paying subsidies to wealthy people got under his skin," Cook said, "But it did."

As for the Democrats? "I think it's pretty much been a craven political calculation," Cook said.

Syrian Reactor Watch

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Tuesday that last week's disclosure of what senior American officials called evidence of a nearly completed nuclear reactor in Syria was intended to warn North Korea and Iran about the dangers of spreading nuclear weapons. . . .

"Making the first remarks in public about the Israeli attack by any American official, Mr. Bush said that his administration maintained a cloak of secrecy to avoid the risk of further military conflict in the region, including possible Syrian retaliation against Israel. He said that risk of conflict 'was reduced' now.

"Mr. Bush did not explain why exactly the administration disclosed the information at this point, but the timing coincided with renewed efforts to persuade North Korea to abide by last year's agreement to acknowledge all of its nuclear activities."

Iran Drumbeat Watch

David Martin reported on the CBS Evening News last night: "A second American aircraft carrier steamed into the Persian Gulf today as the Pentagon ordered military commanders to develop new options for attacking Iran. The planning is being driven by what one officer called the 'increasingly hostile role' Iran is playing in Iraq - smuggling weapons into Iraq for use against American troops. . . .

"Targets would include everything from the plants where weapons are made to the headquarters of the organization known as the Quds Force, which directs operations in Iraq. Later this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to confront the Iranians with evidence of their meddling and demand a halt.

"And if that doesn't produce results, the State Department has begun drafting an ultimatum which would tell the Iranians to knock it off - or else."

David Morgan writes for Reuters that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that the second carrier was a "reminder" to Iran. . . .

"Gates flatly denied a suggestion that the presence of two U.S. carriers in the Gulf could be a precursor to military action against Tehran.

"'This deployment has been planned for a long time,' Gates said. 'I don't think we'll have two carriers there for a protracted period of time. So I don't see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder.'

"He declined to elaborate on his remarks and provided no details about the deployment."

GSA Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Scott Higham write for The Washington Post: "At the request of the White House, General Services Administration chief Lurita Alexis Doan resigned last night as head of the government's premier contracting agency, ending a tumultuous tenure in which she was accused of trying to award work to a friend and misusing her authority for political ends."

Cheney and the Whales

House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman has just released a series of internal administration documents, which he describes in a letter to Susan E. Dudley, who oversees federal regulatory policy for the White House's Office of Management and Budget: "The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered species on Earth, with only about 300 individual whales alive today. Yet for over a year, [your] Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has blocked the National Marine Fisheries Service from issuing a rule to protect these whales from being killed by ships. According to documents obtained by the Committee, the rule's delay appears to be due to baseless objections raised by White House officials, including officials in the Office of the Vice President."

The White House Way

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "A Congressional watchdog agency has found that White House officials repeatedly intervened in the government's scientific process for assessing the health risks of toxic chemicals, prompting Sen. Barbara Boxer to threaten giving Congress control of the program.

"The Government Accountability Office reported today that the White House's budget office, the Pentagon and other agencies had delayed or blocked efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to list chemicals as carcinogens by requesting more research or more time to review the risks. . . .

"GAO officials also faulted the administration for setting new rules that keep secret any involvement by the White House or a federal agency in a decision about the risks of a chemical.

"'In the risk assessment program, you don't want anyone but the scientists involved,' John Stephenson, GAO's chief investigator for environmental programs, told lawmakers. 'That is our major problem - the lack of transparency.'. . .

"A top EPA official, who was grilled at a hearing before Boxer's committee today, responded that it was helpful to have more input from the White House and other agencies."

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: "John Stephenson, GAO's director of natural resource programs, told the Senate Environment Committee that the White House Office of Management and Budget not only is closely involved in the chemical assessments but 'actually dictating which assessments that the EPA can undertake.' . . .

"Many of the deliberations over risks posed by specific chemicals 'occur in what amounts to a black box' of secrecy because the White House claims they are private executive branch deliberations, the report said."

Torture Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "The Senate Intelligence Committee voted Tuesday to limit CIA interrogators to techniques approved by the military, which would effectively bar them from waterboarding prisoners, congressional officials said.

"The vote on an amendment by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., taken behind closed doors as the committee debated legislation to authorize money for intelligence operations in 2009, marks at least the second attempt by intelligence overseers in Congress to regulate CIA questioning of detainees. . . .

"President Bush vetoed the 2008 intelligence authorization bill in March because it included the same curbs on questioning techniques. This interrogation provision, if passed by the full Senate and House, would likely face the same fate."

Neil C. Livingstone, who runs a crisis-management company, writes in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed: "Even if one believes that waterboarding should not be practiced by the United States, does that mean under all circumstances? . . .

"[W]hat if there is solid intelligence that a chemical, biological or radiological weapon has been smuggled into one of our great cities and set to detonate in an hour? The probable consequences are dire: thousands dead, the U.S. economy severely damaged, the public and policy-makers so traumatized that they are likely to take precipitous action, perhaps even a nuclear strike, against the nation that harbored the perpetrators. Is that really what we want, or should the president have the authority to use extraordinary means to try to prevent such a catastrophe before it occurs? . . .

"We entrust the president with nuclear weapons; surely we can trust the president to authorize the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in times of national emergency."

Dinner Redux

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The New York Times has been taking hits of late for its new policy of boycotting the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. The Times apparently has decided that the media-politician chumminess is unseemly and maybe even borderline unethical."

First, dinner headliner Craig Ferguson on Saturday had this to say: "Shut the hell up, New York Times, you sanctimonious, whining jerks!"

Then at yesterday's news conference, as Kamen writes: "President Bush took another pop at the Times. After Bush called on Times White House reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, she said: 'I'm still waiting for my exclusive at the ranch,' referring to ABC News White House reporter Martha Raddatz's private interview with Bush in Crawford.

"'I'm at a loss for words,' Bush said. 'If only you'd have been at the White House correspondents' dinner, I would have invited you.'"

No Escape

Vinny Ditrani writes for The Record in New Jersey: "James Butler said he has a question to ask President Bush when he meets him today at the White House.

"'What about these gas prices?' the Giants' safety said is the one thing he'd like to know from the commander-in-chief, who will greet the Super Bowl XLII champs."

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Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on the rebate checks; Clay Bennett on Bush's preoccupation.

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