Bush's Vapid Reassurances

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 18, 2008; 12:25 PM

Briefly emerging from his near-invisibility during the nation's terrifying financial crisis, President Bush this morning offered brief, unsubstantive and unpersuasive assurances.

"The American people are concerned about the situation in our financial markets and our economy," he said, in a dazzling statement of the obvious. "And I share their concerns."

To emphasize just how concerned he is, Bush announced: "I've canceled my travel today to stay in Washington, where I will continue to closely monitor the situation in our financial markets and consult with my economic advisors." But in reality, canceling his travel was the only way to avoid a public-relations disaster: Up until late last night, Bush had been planning on headlining two big-money Republican fundraisers in Huntsville, Ala., and Palm Beach, Fl.

And here is what you might call the "money quote": "[M]y administration is focused on meeting these challenges. The American people can be sure we will continue to act to strengthen and stabilize our financial markets and improve investor confidence. "

Anbody reassured? I didn't think so.

His remarks, made just outside the Oval Office, lasted less than two minutes. Nothing he said changed the growing awareness in Washington that, despite being the nation's first MBA president, Bush has been and remains largely AWOL as the nation's wealth dwindles away.

And of course, he took no questions.

On Tuesday, Bush ignored a shouted question while touring hurricane damage in Galveston. "Mr. President, what are you going to do about AIG?" Tabassum Zakaria of Reuters yelled out. Bush shot back: "We're here talking about the people of Galveston, Texas. They've got a great mayor and they're working hard."

Yesterday, Bush ignored Associated Press reporter Deb Riechmann's request for comment during a photo op with Panama's President Martin Torrijos. The exchange was not reflected in the official transcript of his newsless event. But Cox News Service reporter Ken Herman captured it on video, and provided his own transcription:

"'With all due respect,' [Riechmann] said with all due respect, 'you haven't taken any questions since Aug. 6.'

"'I can't hear what you said,' Bush responded, with all due respect.

"'This way please, through the Rose Garden,' a pool wrangler said, with all due respect.

"'You got to speak with a louder voice,' Bush said, with a smile and all due respect.

"'I can't hear you,' he added. 'I'm old.'"

And Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press this morning: "As he finished his very brief statement and turned to walk back into the Oval Office, a reporter asked if he believed the economy was still sound. The president kept walking."

Before Bush's 263-word statement this morning, Catherine Dodge and John Brinsley wrote for Bloomberg: "This week, President George W. Bush held a state dinner for Ghana's president, surveyed Texas hurricane damage, posed with Youth of the Year award finalists, and met with Army General David Petraeus.

"During that time, Bush has publicly uttered 160 words about the worst Wall Street crisis since the Great Depression, saying the government is working to ' reduce disruptions' in U.S. financial markets.

"As Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke confronted the collapse of Lehman Brothers Inc., the sale of Merrill Lynch & Co., the biggest stock market drop in seven years, and a government takeover of American International Group Inc., the president has been conspicuous by his absence.

"'It's George W. Who?' said Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"'The country is facing an economic 9/11,' said Leon Panetta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. 'To deal with that kind of situation, the president has to take charge and tell the country not only what is going on, but what he is going to do about it. You can't just leave it to the secretary of the Treasury.' . . .

"The president, who hasn't held a press conference in more than two months, hasn't taken questions about the crisis and canceled plans to issue a statement after meeting Sept. 16 with advisers, including Paulson and Bernanke. . . .

"'We decided it would be best to limit public comment about markets today,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. Perino put out a two-sentence statement, reporting that Bush appreciates efforts 'to strengthen and stabilize the markets.'"

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "The vastly unpopular president, who has not held a formal press conference since July 15th or taken questions on the economy since a September 7 television interview, worries that anything he says could become fodder in the race to the November 4 elections, explained spokeswoman Dana Perino."

Keith Koffler writes for Roll Call: "'We're being held to some bizarre standard, to have the president comment just to fill a news cycle,' said one White House official. 'The last thing markets want is public commentary.'

"White House aides have made vague hints that Bush may soon be produced for cross-examining."

Dan Eggen blogged yesterday for The Washington Post: "Following a shift in message by GOP presidential candidate John McCain, the White House today avoided asserting that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong -- a regular talking point for President Bush and his aides.

"Instead, White House press secretary Dana Perino said 'a mixed picture' of positive and negative developments have led to 'challenging times' for the U.S. economy."

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times that "the fingers of blame" for the crisis "are pointing in all directions" -- including, of course, toward Bush.

"With Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House for the first six years of Mr. Bush's tenure, a climate favoring deregulation prevailed, which spawned the current crisis, Democrats assert. . . .

"The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, has lambasted the White House for the crisis and announced hearings to begin this week, only to postpone them because the witnesses -- top government regulators including Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. -- are too busy trying to contain the damage.

"Speaking to reporters on Wednesday after a meeting with committee chairmen about the crisis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, attacked the Bush administration, saying, 'Because of the inattention or a decision on their part to have crony capitalism in our country, Americans across the country are feeling the pain of this.'

"She said the committees headed by Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Henry A. Waxman of California would hold hearings to 'examine the Bush administration's mismanagement of financial market regulation and how it led us to this remarkable failure.'

"Mr. Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said his committee would examine 'what was happening with the people who were in charge in the Bush administration and in the regulatory agencies headed by people appointed by President Bush.'"

Analysis and Opinion

AFP reports: "Fears of a global financial collapse have cast a dark cloud over US President George W. Bush's final months in office, after years in which he claimed the US economy as a major success story."

Steven Pearlstein writes in The Washington Post: "This is what a Category 4 financial crisis looks like. Giant blue-chip financial institutions swept away in a matter of days. Banks refusing to lend to other banks. Russia closing its stock market to stop the panicked selling. Gold soaring $70 in a single trading session. Developing countries' currencies in a free fall. Money-market funds warning they might not be able to return every dollar invested. Daily swings of three, four, five hundred points in the Dow Jones industrial average.

"What we are witnessing may be the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen -- paper losses measured in the trillions of dollars. Corporate wealth. Oil wealth. Real estate wealth. Bank wealth. Private-equity wealth. Hedge fund wealth. Pension wealth. . . .

"What is really going on, at the most fundamental level, is that the United States is in the process of being forced by its foreign creditors to begin living within its means."

David Leonhardt writes in his New York Times column: "The Bush administration, the Fed and Congress, meanwhile, continue to focus on the immediate crises, with little attention to the underlying reasons that the economy has gotten into this mess -- a stagnation of incomes, an explosion of debt and a decidedly outdated, and limp, approach to government oversight."

Joseph Stiglitz writes for the Guardian: "Houses of cards, chickens coming home to roost - pick your cliche. The new low in the financial crisis, which has prompted comparisons with the 1929 Wall Street crash, is the fruit of a pattern of dishonesty on the part of financial institutions, and incompetence on the part of policymakers."

He adds: "[I]t is difficult to have faith in the policy wherewithal of a government that oversaw the utter mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina. If any administration can turn this crisis into another depression, it is the Bush administration."

Ezra Klein blogs for the American Prospect: "According to The Wall Street Journal, Bush was briefed on the rescue after it was in play. And even then, he was only 'briefed.' There's been no effort on the part of the White House to even advance the idea that Bush is an engaged participant who's actively signing off on these actions, possibly because suggesting his involvement in a crisis of this complexity would cause the stock market to run and hide in a corner."

At thinkprogress.org, Ali Frick watched MSNBC host Chris Matthews take on Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) last night:

"Noting that a 'normal president' would be more visible during such a crisis, Matthews compared Bush's response to the current financial turmoil to his handling of Hurricane Katrina:

"MATTHEWS: 'I'm just asking you where's the President of the United States tonight? You got Paulson out there. Where's the President? He's pulling one of these Katrinas again. Where is he? The country's worried like hell when you lose this amount of value in the wealth of this country in a matter of days. You'd think the President would come on television and explain the situation to the American people. I'm just asking where he is. That's all I'm asking.'

"CANTOR: 'Chris, you'll have to ask -- I don't know where he is. I assume he's in the White House.'"

Nelson D. Schwartz writes in the New York Times: " Is the United States no longer the global beacon of unfettered, free-market capitalism?

"In extending a last-minute $85 billion lifeline to American International Group, the troubled insurer, Washington has not only turned away from decades of rhetoric about the virtues of the free market and the dangers of government intervention, but it has also probably undercut future American efforts to promote such policies abroad."

Matthew Yglesias blogs for Thinkprogress.org: "Who knew the ' Washington Consensus' would die in Washington, DC under a Republican President in a mad fit of bailouts and nationalizations?"

Aubrey Cohen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer interviews author Naomi Klein: "President Bush was recently quoted as saying that Wall Street 'got drunk and now it's got a hangover.'

"The administration was serving the drinks, Klein said. 'And I'm arguing that Bush was bartender in chief.'"

Gellman and Cheney

While I was away, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman came out with a new book -- "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency" -- based in part on the series he and Jo Becker wrote last summer.

Excerpts from the new book ran in The Post on Sunday and Monday. There was a news story on Tuesday. Gellman was Live Online on Wednesday.

It's fascinating stuff, and some of what Gellman writes demands further exploration and discussion. I'll have extended reaction in the coming days.

Albatross Watch

Robin Toner and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "Despite an intense effort to distance himself from the way his party has done business in Washington, Senator John McCain is seen by voters as far less likely to bring change to Washington than Senator Barack Obama. He is widely viewed as a 'typical Republican' who would continue or expand President Bush's policies, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. . . .

"The percentage of Americans who disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is conducting his job, 68 percent, was as high as it has been for any sitting president in the history of New York Times polling. And 81 percent said the country was heading in the wrong direction.

"The poll found that 46 percent of voters thought Mr. McCain would continue Mr. Bush's policies, while 22 percent said he would be more conservative than Mr. Bush. (About one-quarter said a McCain presidency would be less conservative than Mr. Bush's.) At a time when Mr. McCain has tried to appeal to independent voters by separating himself from his party, notably with his convention speech, 57 percent of all voters said they viewed him as a typical Republican, compared with 40 percent who said he was a different kind of Republican."

Catherine Dodge and Holly Rosenkrantz write for Bloomberg: "There is an invisible man in the 2008 election: the president of the United States.

"Republican candidates have all but shunned him, save those who need him to help raise money. And to the extent any president can keep a low profile, George W. Bush is doing it.

"Saddled with one of the lowest approval ratings in polling history, the president is still in demand to shake the party money tree, though almost all of that is done out of the public eye.

"'Sadly, a highly visible presence by the president will hurt the party and hurt John McCain,' Bush's former spokesman Ari Fleischer said. . . .

"The president, who toured the Beijing Olympics last month, spent more time in front of cameras with the U.S. women's beach volleyball team than he has lately with the Republican nominee."

Robert Draper writes for CQ: "On June 22, 2004, Bush took McCain's buddy Lindsey Graham aside during a White House function and, standing on the Truman balcony, told Graham that, as the latter would remember it, 'he saw John as the guy who would carry on his legacy in Iraq.'"

Afghanistan Watch

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the people of Afghanistan his 'personal regrets' Wednesday for U.S. airstrikes that have killed civilians and said he would try to improve the accuracy of air warfare, the imperfect fallback for U.S. commanders who say they don't have enough ground forces for the deepening Afghanistan war. . . .

"Gates' unusual apology followed a frank assessment from the top military commander in Afghanistan: There aren't enough U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, so the military is relying more heavily on air power. Air power runs a greater risk of civilian deaths in a country where insurgents do not wear uniforms and they intentionally mix with the general population."

Anand Gopal writes for the Christian Science Monitor: "'Civilian casualties is becoming the main issue in the relationship between the West and Afghanistan,' says Nasrullah Stanikzai, lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Kabul University. If the trend of high levels of casualties continues, he says, it could drive a permanent wedge between Afghans and the US."

Pakistan Watch

Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain write in The Washington Post: "A new reported U.S. missile strike inside Pakistan on Wednesday threatened to undermine American efforts to defuse a growing confrontation with Pakistan over aggressive U.S. military actions against Islamist extremists in the country's turbulent northwest border region."

India Nuke Deal Watch

Ed Johnson writes for Bloomberg: "The nuclear energy accord between the U.S. and India is a 'bad deal' that may damage efforts against proliferation and Congress must reject it unless more safeguards are introduced, arms control advocates said.

"India continues to produce fissile material and the agreement may indirectly assist the country's nuclear weapons program, academics, former diplomats and disarmament organizations wrote to members of Congress yesterday."

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post that "opponents say India's record on nonproliferation is not as unblemished as is claimed by the White House, which regards the nuclear pact as one of the foreign-policy highlights of the Bush administration's second term. Critics, including former U.S. diplomats, military officers and arms-control officials, accuse the White House of rushing the agreement through Congress without considering the long-term implications."

Al Qaeda Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The car bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, which killed 16 people Wednesday, is the deadliest single terrorist attack on a U.S. government facility since September 11. . . .

"That grim milestone could undercut claims of overall success in the war on terror. Indeed, Yemen--as much as Pakistan and Afghanistan--remains a country where U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have been hampered by repeated setbacks."

And in what Isikoff and Hosenball call an "ominous" prospect, "the militants who carried out Wednesday's attack might have been fighters who had returned from battle in Iraq -- a potential harbinger of more operations to come."

Iran Watch

Herb Keinon writes in the Jerusalem Post: "US President George W. Bush will not attack Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program before his term ends in January, David Wurmser, a key national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney up until last year, has told The Jerusalem Post.

"'No, Bush won't go,' Wurmser said when asked whether he thought the US president would want to take military action before he left office. . . .

"'Two things have to be in place for there to be an attack,' Wurmser said. 'That time has run out, and that diplomacy has run out. The feeling to a large extent now is that diplomacy is working, that there is a trend in the regime toward moderation, that pressure is building on the regime.'

"Wurmser said his certainty that no US action was in the works had to do with the fact that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now clearly had the upper hand in the administration in her struggle with Cheney."

Secret Law Watch

Steven Aftergood writes on his Secrecy News blog: "New legislation would require the Attorney General to report to Congress whenever the Department of Justice issues a legal opinion indicating that the executive branch is not bound by an existing legal statute.

" The bill, introduced September 16 in the Senate by Senators Russ Feingold and Dianne Feinstein, responds to the Bush Administration's use of secret opinions from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to circumvent binding legal restrictions on domestic surveillance, torture and other practices."

Perino Averts Foreclosure

Mary Ann Akers writes for washingtonpost.com: "Talk about the mortgage crisis hitting the White House smack in the mouthpiece! . . .

"President Bush's chief spokeswoman tells the Sleuth she has now paid her delinquent property tax bill in full and, therefore, she expects to avoid a scheduled sale this week of her Capitol Hill house. . . .

"Perino blames the snafu on her mortgage company, which she declined to identify. She says her mortgage company handles payment of her property taxes and, well, 'it was a mistake'."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on McCain and Bushonomics, Jeff Danziger on McCain's brand, Dan Wasserman on Comrade Bush, Adam Zyglis on Bush's disaster tour, Stuart Carlson on the Bush lesson, Larry Wright on Bush's place in history, Paul Zanetti on Bush's legacy, and Guy Badeaux on Bush's ignoble end.

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