The Disconnected President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 5, 2008; 1:04 PM

The headline on The Washington Post's front-page story on Saturday read: "For Bush in Last Year, It's the Principle; As Influence Wanes, He Stays Resolute." But the article would have easily supported a less generous headline: "For Bush in Last Year, a Major Disconnect; Impractical Proposals Defy Political Reality."

Dan Eggen surveyed the scene this way: "After U.S. gasoline prices surged to a record high this week, President Bush strode into the Rose Garden to unveil his plans for coping with skyrocketing energy costs: drill for oil in Alaska, add U.S. refineries and build more nuclear plants.

"Even the White House conceded that the ideas did not have a chance. Democrats howled, Republicans shrugged and Washington moved on.

"Ignoring the conventions of a lame-duck presidency, Bush is forging ahead with proposals that appear to have little chance of passage during his last nine months, relying on sharp rhetoric and strong-arm tactics in an attempt to influence the Democratic Congress. His plan for housing reform has languished since August, his push for a free trade pact with Colombia has been crushed, his climate-warming initiative has been largely ignored and he has yet to persuade the House to pass terrorist-surveillance legislation he deems vital to protecting the country.

"Presidential aides characterize Bush as intent on pursuing matters of principle, regardless of the polls. Democrats accuse him of needless stubbornness at the expense of improving a battered economy and addressing other problems. . . .

"Democrats say that on Colombia and other issues, Bush is marginalizing himself by repeatedly snubbing congressional leaders rather than attempting to work with them. . . .

"'He gets his ideas set, and he won't change them,' said Brendan Daly, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi's spokesman. 'That's just sort of the way he is.'"

And yet, as Eggen writes: "Administration officials express confidence about the prospects for several national security measures, such as supplemental war budget proposals being debated in Congress. Several White House aides also said they believe that new surveillance legislation will be pushed through by summer, when wiretap orders issued under a previous law begin to expire.

"'Don't ever underestimate the leverage of the presidency,' said a senior White House official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. 'Many of us here still believe there are a number of things that will get done.'"

'Clear and Candid'

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, defending his record and his rhetoric, said Saturday that his administration has been 'clear and candid' about the nation's economy.

"'We saw the economic slowdown coming, we were up front about these concerns with the American people, and we've been taking decisive action,' Bush said in his weekly radio address.

"The president's comments appeared at least partly in response to a drumbeat of criticism from Democratic leaders, who say his view of the economy is rosy and unrealistic. . . .

"Bush used the bulk of his weekly radio platform to pressure Congress, once again, into approving legislation he says would help the sluggish economy rebound even more.

"Among his agenda for lawmakers: make permanent his first-term tax cuts, which are due to expire in 2010; allow drilling for oil in northern Alaska and encourage more oil refining capacity; and modernize the Federal Housing Administration to allow some additional homeowners to refinance from subprime loans into government-backed mortgages.

"The president has made such arguments for weeks, to no avail on Capitol Hill."

Loud and Clear!

In a pool report, Jim Gerstenzang of the Los Angeles Times described the scene Friday as Bush took a tour of World Wide Technology Inc., an IT company outside St. Louis: "We saw the president at two stops: the first was in a nearly empty room, where several hard-side molded plastic padded shipping containers were awaiting shipment with radios, among other gear, to National Guard units for use in emergencies. The president picked up one two-way radio, a worker held another unit, and the president shouted 'hello!' (Actually, he moved the unit away from his mouth and called out to the worker who was perhaps four feet away. The actual voice was loud and clear; so, too, the sound carried a micro-second later on the radio).

"The second stop was in a classroom with about 20 workers. He sat down at a laptop, which showed employees in Phoenix, Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, Dallas and, on one screen, the president (who was wearing glasses to look at the screen) facing the laptop. He told the Dallas worker: 'Tell everybody down there in about 10 months I'm coming home.'"

Actually, it's more like eight and a half months. But who's counting?

'I Guess I'll Go Home and Mow the Lawn'

Bush gave a short, newsless speech in the company's warehouse. Then he spent about an hour giving long-winded answers to a total of five questions from workers and invited Republican guests.

As is becoming more common, he did a lot of looking ahead and looking back -- not all of it entirely lucid.

Asked what his plans were after leaving the White House, he responded: "Thank you. Yes. I'm heading home. (Laughter.) I tell people that, first of all, it's been a huge honor to serve the country, and I'm really glad I did. . . .

"A couple of points on that. What's probably counterintuitive to you is that this has been a great experience for our family. I've lived in the White House now for seven and a half years, and the furniture is interesting -- (laughter) -- but it's like a museum. (Laughter.) . . .

"You know, obviously, there's some good days and some bad days. I feel so strongly about my principles and my values and I'm an optimistic guy; that what may appear to be really difficult to deal with -- like my buddies from Midland, Texas -- that for me it's just part of the job. Interestingly enough, it is a lot harder to have been the son of the President than to be the President. (Laughter.)

"And so it's been a joyous experience. You know, one of the great, really fun things we do is we welcome our pals from West Texas to the White House, and they come to the Oval Office, they're walking around; they say, man, I can't believe I'm here. And then they take a look at me -- (laughter.)

"So the first thing is I'm heading home. I came from Texas with a set of values, and I'm going to go home with the same set of values. In order to be making consistent decisions in this complex world, you can't be shifting your principles in order to be the popular guy. (Applause.) I guess I'll go home and mow the lawn. (Laughter.)"

Then he offered some advice to his would-be successors: "I think it's going to be very important, as you pay attention to the presidential race, to try to come up with not only who you agree with, obviously, but whether that person knows how to delegate; knows how to set up a structure so that good information can make it into the Oval Office in a way that enables good decision-making. The temptation, of course, is to walk in the Oval Office and say, oh, man, you're looking beautiful. And the President doesn't need somebody -- because generally he's not looking beautiful. The President needs somebody to walk in and say, here's what I think.

"So when you think about good, solid advisors -- at least in my case -- think about somebody like Condoleezza Rice, or Hank Paulson who used to run Goldman Sachs, or Bob Gates. These are strong, capable people. And my job is to make sure that the environment is such that they can walk in and say, Mr. President, here's what I'm thinking, here's my advice. And their job, by the way, once the President makes up his mind, is say, 'Yes, sir, Mr. President.' (Laughter.)"

Blogger Duncan Black ( Atrios) writes: "Watching Bush speak you realize he's a really dumb person who thinks everyone in the room is even dumber than he is."

Waxing Eloquent

The president and the first lady sat down this morning for a six-minute live interview with "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts. The interview was held on the National Mall as part of a series the show is doing on "7 Wonders of America." Here's the White House transcript.

Roberts: "You know, America considers this their front lawn; this is your backyard. You see it all the time. Does it still amaze you, sir?"

Bush: "It does. It's a beautiful place. In the spring, the flowers are fantastic. In the fall, the -- it's just such a -- kind of a place that's so fresh. In the winter, of course, it's got a lot of snow. (Laughter.) Summer is real hot. . . . "

Roberts: "Well, this time next year there will be somebody else that will be occupying this beautiful house right here. And it was in November you talked to my colleague, Charlie Gibson, and you felt that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee."

Bush: "Yes."

Roberts: "Do you still feel that way?"

Bush: "Then I reminded everybody I predicted the Detroit Tigers to win the American League pennant last year, too. (Laughter.) So I'm not a very good political forecaster. We'll let the Democrats decide. I predict John McCain will be living up there."

Gone By in a Flash

Speaking of interviews, Newsweek's Jon Meacham recently sat down with the first lady and daughter Jenna.

Meacham: "It's been a long seven years."

Laura Bush: "It's gone by in, like, a flash."

Meacham: "Has it? Has it?"

Laura Bush: "It has. I mean, my girls went from freshmen in college to 26-year-old grown women."

Meacham: "Are you ready for it to be over?"

Laura Bush: "Not really. . . . "

Meacham: "What about for you, Jenna?"

Jenna Bush: "Well sure I'm looking forward to it. . . . I'm ready for, you know, somebody else to be on CNN, of course. I mean, I think he's done a great job. And I admire anybody that would put themselves out there like that. . . . [But] I'm ready for somebody else to try to do it. I'm ready to have my parents back."

Misunderestimating India

I shouldn't have said Bush made no news at all on Friday. Alistair Scrutton writes for Reuters: "A remark by President George W. Bush saying India was partly responsible for rising global food prices has sparked a nationalistic storm across the political spectrum, with the defence minister calling it a 'cruel joke'.

"The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's main opposition party, threatened on Monday to force a parliamentary debate on Bush's remarks that India's increasingly prosperous middle classes were helping push up prices. . . .

"Praising the growing prosperity of developing countries, Bush said on Friday 'there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class'.

"'That's bigger than America . . . and when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up,' Bush said, according to a White House transcript. . . .

"West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, one of India's main leftist leaders, was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying Bush 'has gone out of his mind since his downfall is near'.

"One thing that failed to spark debate in India was Bush's estimate that there were 350 million middle class Indians -- despite that figure being challenged by many experts.

"A study by the McKinsey Global Institute last year estimated India's middle classes numbered only 50 million, out of a total 1.1 billion population."

Iran Watch

Michael Smith writes in the Times of London: "The US military is drawing up plans for a 'surgical strike' against an insurgent training camp inside Iran if Republican Guards continue with attempts to destabilise Iraq, western intelligence sources said last week. One source said the Americans were growing increasingly angry at the involvement of the Guards' special-operations Quds force inside Iraq, training Shi'ite militias and smuggling weapons into the country.

"Despite a belligerent stance by Vice-President Dick Cheney, the administration has put plans for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities on the back burner since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in 2006, the sources said.

"However, US commanders are increasingly concerned by Iranian interference in Iraq and are determined that recent successes by joint Iraqi and US forces in the southern port city of Basra should not be reversed by the Quds Force. . . .

"President George W Bush is known to be determined that he should not hand over what he sees as 'the Iran problem' to his successor. A limited attack on a training camp may give an impression of tough action, while at the same time being something that both Gates and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, could accept."

But wait, here's a rare sign of de-escalation. Sameer N. Yacoub writes for the Associated Press: "A top Iraqi official said Sunday there was no conclusive evidence that Shiite extremists have been directly supplied with some Iranian arms as alleged by the United States.

"Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq does not want trouble with any country, 'especially Iran.'"

But wait. Dabbagh takes it all back in interviews arranged by helpful U.S. officials. Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi government said Sunday that it has 'concrete evidence' Iran is fomenting violence in Iraq and that a high-level panel had been formed to document the proof. . . .

"Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called reporters late Sunday night to clarify remarks he made at a news conference earlier in the day, when he appeared to say that there was no hard evidence that Iran was allowing weapons to come into Iraq. Dabbagh said his comments had been misinterpreted.

"'There is an interference and evidence that they have interfered in Iraqi affairs,' Dabbagh said in an interview arranged by a U.S. official. When asked how he would characterize the proof that Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq, he said: 'It is a concrete evidence.'"

And Michael R. Gordon, a New York Times reporter with a history of credulous reporting of administration claims, writes: "Militants from the Lebanese group Hezbollah have been training Iraqi militia fighters at a camp near Tehran, according to American interrogation reports that the United States has supplied to the Iraqi government.

"An American official said the account of Hezbollah's role was provided by four Shiite militia members who were captured in Iraq late last year and questioned separately."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "As usual with Gordon's articles, nothing is done here other than uncritically repeating Bush administration claims under the cover of anonymity. Virtually every paragraph in this article is nothing more a mindless recitation of uncorroborated assertions which he copies from Bush officials and then weaves into a news narrative, with the phrase 'American officials say' tacked on at the end or the phrase 'according to officials' unobtrusively interspersed in the middle."

Iraq Watch

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush sent lawmakers a $70 billion request Friday to fund U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next spring, which would give the next president breathing room to make his or her own war policy.

"Friday's request fills in the details of the $70 billion placeholder that the White House asked for when it sent its budget to Congress in February. The money is for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

"Congressional analysts say Bush's request would bring the total spending since Sept. 11, 2001, to fight terrorism and conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to $875 billion.

"The request comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill are struggling to move Bush's pending $108 billion request for the current year. Democratic leaders say they're likely to add the $70 billion for next year to that measure, which would allow them to avoid a politically painful vote on war funding in the heat of campaigning for the November elections."

Abigail Hauslohner writes for Time: "For months now, top U.S. military commanders have been trumpeting the growing strength of Iraq's 559,397-strong security forces, trained and armed by the U.S. military at a cost of $20.4 billion. Iraqi military competence is critical to U.S. plans to withdraw by July the last of five combat brigades sent to Iraq as part of General David Petraeus' 'surge' strategy. But on the battlefield, the Iraqis are frequently found wanting and often have to be rescued by U.S. troops."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The only mission that needs to be accomplished is an orderly exit from Iraq, and Mr. Bush is no closer to acknowledging that reality. . . .

"Mr. Bush . . . has made clear that he will keep troops in Iraq until he leaves office -- and then abandon the mess to his successor. The three senators who want his job should insist that he address these problems now."

Gitmo Watch

Sue Pleming of Reuters has this astonishing news: "The Bush administration could announce plans by the end of its term in January to close Guantanamo prison and an upcoming Supreme Court ruling might be the impetus for this, senior U.S. officials and experts say. . . .

"'A decision could be made in this administration to announce the closure of Guantanamo. It is unlikely in the next nine months that Guantanamo could be physically (closed) but it is possible the policy decision could be taken to close it,' said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition he was not identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. . . .

"The Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks whether Guantanamo prisoners have rights under the U.S. Constitution even though they are held on the base in Cuba, where the United States has had a presence for about 100 years.

"The court decision could influence whether the U.S. government announces plans to close the prison before Bush leaves office in January 2009, several officials said.

"'If the Supreme Court concludes that the detainees have constitutional rights, then there would be little legal difference between holding them in Guantanamo or holding them on the (U.S.) mainland,' one senior official said."

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Reliable information is still scarce about Guantánamo, but increasingly we're gaining glimpses of life there -- and they are painful to read."

What information there is "suggests two essential truths about Guantánamo:

"First, most of the inmates were probably innocent all along, but Pakistanis or Afghans turned them over to America in exchange for large cash rewards. The moment we offered $25,000 rewards for Al Qaeda supporters, any Arab in the region risked being kidnapped and turned over as a terrorism suspect.

"Second, torture was routine, especially early on. That's why more than 100 prisoners have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo. . . .

"Both Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates have pushed to shut down Guantánamo because it undermines America's standing and influence. They have been overruled by Dick Cheney and other hard-liners. In reality, it would take an exceptional enemy to damage America's image and interests as much as President Bush and Mr. Cheney already have with Guantánamo."

Torture If You Must?

The Washington Post editorial board writes that U.S. anti-torture laws shouldn't be disregarded: "If a terrorist plot is averted through the use of harsh techniques, those who sanctioned or carried out the interrogation must nevertheless be held accountable and at the very least required to explain their decisions. The acts may be understandable and at times even forgivable, but they can never be understood from the outset to be legally sacrosanct."

Cheney Watch

Here's Vice President Cheney headlining a Republican fundraiser in Tulsa on Friday: "John F. Kennedy once said, 'There is no way to maintain the frontiers of freedom without cost and commitment and risk.' We are learning this lesson once again, in these decisive early years of a new century. And when the history is written, it'll be said that we lived in a safer country, and a more hopeful world, because George Bush was President of these United States."

McCain and Bush

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "John McCain's senior campaign staff and President Bush's senior White House staff are so close that the McCain folks let the Bush folks know in advance whenever McCain is about to distance himself from the unpopular president, says a top McCain aide. . . .

"'We have an excellent relationship with the White House,' Black told reporters at a Friday lunch. 'The senior staffs talk literally every day, sometimes more than once a day.'"

University Commencement Watch

Gayle Perez writes for the Pueblo (Colo.) Chieftain that White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, a 1993 graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo (then the University of Southern Colorado), "returned to her alma mater Saturday to deliver the 2008 commencement address" and said "she is living a dream job.

"'I have had the time of my life in the White House,' said the energetic speaker. 'I've learned so much. I study every night as if I'm going to have a final every day for the rest of my time at the White House. If I mess up, I'm just not going to flunk; I could start a war.'"

High School Commencement Watch

Sandhya Somashekhar writes in The Washington Post from tiny Greensburg, Kan.: "President Bush delivered on Sunday the commencement address for a graduating class of 18 students whose high school was leveled by a tornado last year that wiped out most of their town. . . .

"'When the Class of 2008 walks across this stage today, you will send a powerful message to our entire nation: Greensburg, Kansas, is back and its best days are ahead.'"

Judicial Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about the ongoing confrontation over Bush's judicial nominations: "Only a few weeks ago, the White House appeared pleased that Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) agreed, under GOP pressure, to move three appellate nominees through the Senate by Memorial Day. Here was an opportunity, some conservatives thought, to finally approve the long-standing nomination of former Justice Department official Peter D. Keisler for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and provide reinforcements for the 4th Circuit, a conservative bulwark that handles some of the country's most sensitive terrorism cases.

"But as Memorial Day approaches, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Democrats have other ideas. They do appear to be on track to fulfill Reid's promise of approving three Circuit Court nominees, but only one of the three can be fairly described as someone Bush wanted."

Another Bush Aide to CNN

Abramowitz also reports: "Fran Fragos Townsend is going into the punditry business. Since leaving the White House as homeland security adviser, Townsend has been consulting for multinationals on crisis management, national security and other issues and been appointed to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. Now she has signed a contract to provide commentary on terrorism and national security for CNN, joining Tony Snow as another Bush administration refugee opining for the cable network."

Wedding Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Next Saturday's wedding of 26-year-old Jenna Bush, one of President and Laura Bush's twin daughters, will not be televised and will not be at the White House. Amid the lavenders, yellows and blues of spring wildflowers on the president's 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch, it will be a private affair. Extremely private.

"High-tech fences, surveillance cameras and untold numbers of Secret Service agents will keep the uninvited miles away. Federal Aviation Administration rules -- and military interceptor aircraft -- will ensure that paparazzi lenses will be nowhere in the nearby sky.

"Celebrity gawkers of the political variety may be disappointed. The editors at People magazine definitely are. But historians and political observers say the nation -- at war in two far-off places, afflicted by economic malaise and ready to be done with this president -- is in no mood to watch lavish nuptials unfold at the White House."

Conventional Wisdom Watch

Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom feature gives Bush the big red down arrow: "Finish with a flourish? Nah. With eight months to go, he's just phoning it in."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "According to the latest CNN poll, President Bush's disapproval rating, 71%. . . . That's unbelievable, isn't it, that 29% still approve?"

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on Cheney's favorite game; Pat Bagley on missions accomplished; Joel Pett on Bush as gambler; Rob Rogers on Bush as doctor; Rex Babin on how Bush doesn't get it; Ted Rall on what Bush's torture memos can do for you.

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