Bush's Accountability Moment?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 2, 2008; 12:47 PM

Will the 2008 election be President Bush's long-awaited accountability moment?

After it was all over, Bush famously declared that the 2004 election had been his "accountability moment." But thanks to Karl Rove, that election was at least as much about John Kerry as it was about George Bush.

Bush won't be on the ballot this fall, of course, but his policies -- and his legacy -- will be. Voters will face a dramatic choice between a continuation of core Bush policies or a repudiation of them. On such issues as staying in Iraq, how to fight terror, the economy, tax cuts, health care and Social Security, John McCain basically adheres to Bush's views. Barack Obama represents the alternative.

And according to the polls, there is a pretty overwhelming hunger out there for a change.

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's record unpopularity is playing an unprecedented role in the 2008 campaign, complicating John McCain's task among key constituencies.

"Mr. Bush received a 66% disapproval rating in The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll for June, tying his own record for the highest ever for any president in the Journal/NBC poll. The previous highs were a 56% rating for Mr. Bush's father in late 1992, and a 50% score for President Clinton in 1993. In the long-running Gallup Poll, Mr. Bush's disapproval rating reached 69% this spring -- a record going back to the Truman administration. . . .

"Mr. Bush's second-term slide in the polls has been especially sharp among independents, a group that Sen. McCain depends on. Now for Mr. McCain to win in November, 'at least one-third of McCain's voters will have to be people who disapprove of the job George Bush is doing,' most of them independents, says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. And Sen. McCain must accomplish that feat while continuing to align himself with Mr. Bush on some of the administration's most controversial policies, notably the Iraq war."

What's the White House response to these polls?

"White House aides contend that polling methods fail to sufficiently sample their sympathizers, noting that the gap between self-identifying Democrats and Republicans tends to close dramatically in Election Day exit polling.

"More broadly, it's been common for voters to express a desire for change at the end of a two-term presidency, says Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president. . . .

"White House officials believe they've had a series of policy successes recently, including improving stability in Iraq, combating global HIV/AIDS and restoring close ties with Western Europe. They note that approval ratings for Congress are even lower than the president's -- at an abysmal 13% in the latest Journal poll. 'There's frustration with Washington, and our numbers reflect that,' Mr. Gillespie says. Unhappiness with the economy and high fuel prices is another factor. Aides insist that Mr. Bush's willingness to make unpopular decisions eventually will be vindicated."

McKinnon notes: "Mr. Bush's impact on the race could depend on whether voters blame the president's policies, or the president himself, for his administration's perceived failings. . . .

"Democrats say no matter how voters see that question, Sen. McCain is trapped in the president's toxic political shadow.

"'The American people are desperately looking for a fundamental change from President Bush's management, which is a problem for John McCain considering his desire to stay on the same path,' said Obama spokesman Bill Burton."

Gallup reports: "A recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds about two in three Americans concerned that John McCain would pursue policies as president that are too similar to what George W. Bush has pursued. Nearly half -- 49% -- say they are 'very concerned' about this.

"McCain faces a challenge in trying to convince voters to allow him to follow an unpopular president of the same party. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has attempted to link McCain to Bush by saying that electing McCain would effectively lead to a 'third Bush term.' Although McCain remains competitive in head-to-head matchups with Obama, the poll suggests that McCain may have more work to do to distance himself from Bush.

"It is clearly a delicate balancing act for McCain, as Bush remains relatively popular with the Republican base. While only 28% of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing as president, a majority of Republicans (60%) still do. Bush's approval rating among current McCain supporters is slightly lower, at 55%.

"Bush is deeply unpopular with Democrats (only 6% approve), and 9 in 10 Democrats say they are concerned that McCain's policies would be too similar to those of Bush. But among independents -- a group to which McCain has demonstrated appeal -- most are concerned about McCain-Bush similarities, including nearly half who are very concerned. Even one in five Republicans are very concerned about the similarities."

The poll also asked Americans how concerned they are that Obama would go too far in changing policies that Bush has pursued. Fifty percent said they were not too concerned or not concerned at all; 49 percent said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned. More than twice as many independent voters were very concerned about McCain being too similar to Bush than were very concerned about Obama being too different.

Defining the Change

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Boston Globe op-ed that "in crucial respects, the Bush era will not end Jan. 20, 2009. The administration's many failures, especially those related to Iraq, mask a considerable legacy. . . .

"Throughout the long primary season, even as various contenders in both parties argued endlessly about Iraq, they seemed oblivious to the more fundamental questions raised by the Bush years: whether global war makes sense as an antidote to terror, whether preventive war works, whether the costs of 'global leadership' are sustainable, and whether events in Asia rather than the Middle East just might determine the course of the 21st century.

"Now only two candidates remain standing. . . .

"While McCain may differ with the president on certain particulars, his election will affirm the main thrust of Bush's approach to national security.

"The challenge facing Obama is clear: he must go beyond merely pointing out the folly of the Iraq war; he must demonstrate that Iraq represents the truest manifestation of an approach to national security that is fundamentally flawed, thereby helping Americans discern the correct lessons of that misbegotten conflict.

"By showing that Bush has put the country on a path pointing to permanent war, ever increasing debt and dependency, and further abuses of executive authority, Obama can transform the election into a referendum on the current administration's entire national security legacy. By articulating a set of principles that will safeguard the country's vital interests, both today and in the long run, at a price we can afford while preserving rather than distorting the Constitution, Obama can persuade Americans to repudiate the Bush legacy and to choose another course."

By contrast, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "We're beginning to understand why Barack Obama keeps protesting so vigorously against the prospect of 'George Bush's third term.' Maybe he's worried that someone will notice that he's the candidate who's running for it.

"Most Presidential candidates adapt their message after they win their party nomination, but Mr. Obama isn't merely 'running to the center.' He's fleeing from many of his primary positions so markedly and so rapidly that he's embracing a sizable chunk of President Bush's policy. Who would have thought that a Democrat would rehabilitate the much-maligned Bush agenda? . . .

"Perhaps it is dawning on Mr. Obama that, if he does become President, he'll be responsible for preventing any new terrorist attack. So now he's happy to throw the New York Times under the bus....

"[T]he next President, whether Democrat or Republican, is going to embrace much of Mr. Bush's foreign and antiterror policy whether he admits it or not."

The Economic Legacy

Peter S. Goodman writes in the New York Times about "the gloom spreading across the economy. . . .

"Plummeting home prices have in recent months eliminated jobs for hundreds of thousands of people, from bankers and real estate agents to construction workers and furniture manufacturers. Tighter lending standards imposed by banks in the wake of huge mortgage losses have made it hard for many Americans to secure credit -- the lifeblood of expansion in recent years -- crimping the appetite of consumers, whose spending amounts to 70 percent of the economy.

"Joblessness has accelerated, and employers have slashed working hours even for those on their payrolls, shrinking the size of paychecks just as workers need them the most.

"Now, add to that unsavory mix the word from automakers that sales plunged in June -- by 28 percent for Ford, 21 percent for Toyota and 18 percent for General Motors -- a sharp sign that consumers are pulling back, making manufacturers more likely to cut production and impose more layoffs. Until recently, the weak labor market has been marked more by the reluctance of employers to create new jobs than by mass layoffs.

"Among economists, the sense is broadening that the troubles dogging the economy will be stubborn, leaving in place an uncomfortable combination of tight credit and scant job opportunities perhaps well into next year."

Becoming the Enemy

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of 'coercive management techniques' for possible use on prisoners, including 'sleep deprivation,' 'prolonged constraint,' and 'exposure.'

"What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

"The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

"Some methods were used against a small number of prisoners at Guantánamo before 2005, when Congress banned the use of coercion by the military. The C.I.A. is still authorized by President Bush to use a number of secret 'alternative' interrogation methods. . . .

"The 1957 article from which the chart was copied was entitled 'Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War' and written by Alfred D. Biderman, a sociologist then working for the Air Force, who died in 2003. Mr. Biderman had interviewed American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities.

"Those orchestrated confessions led to allegations that the American prisoners had been 'brainwashed,' and provoked the military to revamp its training to give some military personnel a taste of the enemies' harsh methods to inoculate them against quick capitulation if captured.

"In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military. In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners."

The American Civil Liberties Union today released thousands of pages of documents related to Navy investigations of civilians killed by coalition forces in Iraq, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU filed in June 2006.

And Christopher Hitchens writes in Vanity Fair about trying waterboarding firsthand: "You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it 'simulates' the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning -- or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure."

Iran Watch

Is a war with Iran in the offing? Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker this week about an expansion of covert operations, prompting more speculation that Vice President Cheney has plans to address the Iranian nuclear threat -- possibly by force -- before he and Bush leave office. (See my Monday column.)

Matt Corley blogs for thinkprogress.org that Andrea Mitchell asked Hersh on MSNBC yesterday if the U.S. was "planning military action" against Iran or "planning to support Israeli military action?"

Hersh: "Oh, you know, how the hell do I know? . . . What I can tell you is we're loaded for bear. And we've been looking at it for three years... If Israel goes -- I'll tell you what Cheney says privately. . . . What he says privately is, 'We can't let Israel go because, first of all, they don't have the firepower, we do. We have much more firepower. And secondly, if they go, we'll be blamed anyway.'"

For his part, Bush certainly didn't dampen speculation about possible Israeli action during his brief press availability in the Rose Garden this morning.

After Bush spoke about his goals for the upcoming G8 summit, he was asked two direct questions about Israel. Was he confident they wouldn't launch an independent attack on Iran? Would he strongly discourage such an attack? Bush dodged both questions entirely, repeating his position that "all options are on the table."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "In the new cold war between America and Iran, the United States appears to be running some limited covert operations across the Iranian border. But according to knowledgeable sources, this effort shares the defect of broader U.S. policy toward Iran -- it is tentative and ill-coordinated, and it undermines diplomacy without bringing serious pressure on the regime. . . .

"The proponents of a tougher U.S. strategy argue that Iran should be confronted everywhere it operates, much as the Reagan administration decided to challenge the Soviet Union, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. This hard-line faction, usually identified with Vice President Cheney, would like to see a systematic effort to disrupt the Iranian economy, foment internal political opposition and, in general, raise the cost to Iran of its foreign activities. But so far, that argument for a rollback of Iranian power hasn't prevailed inside a divided administration."

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tuesday that prospects for a military attack by either the United States or Israel on the Islamic republic before the end of the Bush administration are 'almost nil,' and he dismissed a recent Israeli military exercise and warnings from Washington as 'psychological warfare.' . . .

"In a long interview with American journalists, Iran's top diplomat also indicated a readiness to negotiate a U.S.-backed proposal to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Iran is 'seriously and carefully examining' it, Mottaki said. . . .

"Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian-born political scientist at George Mason University, said the pair of comments 'suggest that the Iranian government is much more interested in finding a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue.'"

Iraq Watch

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Iraq has met all but three of 18 original benchmarks set by Congress last year to measure security, political and economic progress, according to a report by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"The embassy's evaluation, compiled in May, contrasts sharply with other recent assessments that Iraq has failed to achieve many of the goals that the Baghdad government and President Bush said would be reached by the end of 2007. A report by the Government Accountability Office, released last week, cited little improvement in the political and economic spheres and noted continuing military problems despite a significant decline in overall violence."

Anne Flaherty writes for the Associated Press that "Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., who requested the administration's updated assessment, scoffed at the May report, which he says uses the false standard of determining whether progress on a goal is 'satisfactory' versus whether the benchmark has been met. He estimates that only a few of the 18 benchmarks have been fully achieved."

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Caught off guard by recent Iraqi military operations, the United States is using spy satellites that ordinarily are trained on adversaries to monitor the movements of the American-backed Iraqi army, current and former U.S. officials say.

"The stepped-up surveillance reflects breakdowns in trust and coordination between the two forces. Officials said it was part of an expanded intelligence effort launched after American commanders were surprised by the timing of the Iraqi army's violent push into Basra three months ago."

Sabrina Tavernise writes in the New York Times: "Iraq's foreign minister said Tuesday that the United States had agreed to lift immunity for foreign security contractors operating in Iraq, making them subject to prosecution under Iraqi law, according to Iraqi politicians. . . .

"Some Iraqi politicians also want to end immunity for American soldiers, a demand the United States military has strongly opposed. . . .

"Another point the Americans appeared to be conceding, Iraqi politicians said, was control of airspace over Iraq, an important strategic lever that would determine who is authorized to fly over the country.

"Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament, said the concession was simply part of political maneuvering. Iraq does not have a full-fledged air force and lacks the equipment and expertise to take control of air traffic over the country. As a result, he said, the United States would 'keep control even if it was handed to Iraqis.'"

Afghanistan Watch

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war there began in late 2001, as resilient and emboldened insurgents have stepped up attacks in an effort to gain control of the embattled country."

Asked this morning whether Afghanistan had now replaced Iraq as the central front on the war on terror, Bush didn't answer.

South Korea Watch

Initially, Bush was going to visit South Korea in early July. Then, after street protests against the import of U.S. beef, the visit was suddenly off.

Now, the Associated Press reports: "Before attending the Summer Olympics in Beijing next month, President Bush will visit South Korea, the site of violent protests over the import of U.S. beef.

"The White House made the announcement on Tuesday, the same day that American beef returned to South Korean store shelves under a new import agreement."

But as AFP reports from Seoul, that didn't go over well, either: "The United States has apologised for unilaterally announcing the dates of President George W. Bush's visit to South Korea in August, a senior Seoul presidential official said Wednesday.

"Dennis Wilder, an Asian affairs director at the White House's National Security Council, said Tuesday that Bush will visit Seoul on August 5 and 6, just before going to the Beijing Olympics.

"But the office of President Lee Myung-Bak said in a statement the date has not been fixed as consultations are still under way.

"Hours later, Washington offered an apology through diplomatic channels for unilaterally disclosing the dates, the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

"'The US side has expressed regret. We decided to accept it,' he said.

"'We have conveyed our understanding to the US side over its expression of regret. Our side has told the US side that it should not be repeated,' the official said."

AFP in Washington quotes White House spokeswoman Dana Perino this morning, saying: "There was a little bit of an apology from the United States, but I think that it's pretty minor. We're working on the dates, and as soon as we have them set, we'll let people know."

Housing Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush expressed confidence Tuesday he will reach a deal with Congress on a housing-rescue plan, but only if lawmakers show 'less politics.'

"The president's comments came as many homeowners are saddled with mortgage payments they can't afford and face foreclosure. The Senate is considering a $300 billion plan to back cheaper loans for people who risk losing their home, but that measure has stalled for now."

As Feller notes, Bush made his quick stop at a credit-counseling agency in Arkansas "in between two fundraisers.

"By dropping in a bit of official business, the White House defrayed the cost of the trip for candidates and state parties and made the trip less overtly political. Ultimately, taxpayers end up paying most of the bill for any political travel by the president."

One surprise yesterday: On his way out of Little Rock, Bush had his motorcade pull over so he could join a young girl's birthday party outside. Here are the pictures.

Arrest or Impeach?

Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: " Ed Felien, who runs a neighborhood newspaper, argued before a Minneapolis District Court judge in May that the county attorney should be ordered to arrest the president when he arrives [for the 2008 Republican National Convention in September] -- and charge him with murder.

"A former member of the Minneapolis City Council, Felien believes that Bush committed third-degree murder by sending Minnesota National Guard troops to Iraq on false pretenses."

In a separate post, Neuman notes that CNN anchor Lou Dobbs is citing tainted tomatoes as a reason to impeach Bush.

From his June 22 show: "You know, I have heard a lot of reasons over the years as to why George W. Bush should be impeached. But for them to leave the Food and Drug Administration in this state, its leadership in this sorry condition and to have no capacity apparently or will to protect the American consumer --- that is alone to me sufficient reason to impeach a president who has made this agency possible and has ripped its guts out in its ability to protect the American consumer."

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Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on McCain as a prisoner of Bush's war; Steve Benson on Bush and North Korean; Rob Tornoe on the torture outrage; David Horsey on Bush's Afghanistan surprise.

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