Bush's Leadership Deficit

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 26, 2008; 12:43 PM

The emergency White House summit that President Bush called as a special favor to Republican presidential candidate John McCain backfired spectacularly yesterday afternoon, leaving what had appeared to be an emerging bipartisan deal in shatters.

So this morning, it was time for the president to come out and show some real leadership.

Instead, Bush briefly popped out of the Oval Office to deliver what, all things considered, may be his lamest remarks ever. Here they are, in their entirety:

"Good morning. My administration continues to work with the Congress on a rescue plan. And we need a rescue plan. This is -- it's hard work. Our proposal is a big proposal. And the reason it's big and substantial is because we got a big problem.

"We also need to move quickly. Now, anytime you have a plan this big, that is moving this quickly, that requires legislative approval, it creates challenges. Members want to be heard. They want to be able to express their opinions, and they should be allowed to express their opinions.

"There are disagreements over aspects of the rescue plan, but there is no disagreement that something substantial must be done. The legislative process is sometimes not very pretty, but we are going to get a package passed. We will rise to the occasion. Republicans and Democrats will come together and pass a substantial rescue plan.

"Thank you very much."

Yesterday's Leadership Debacle

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "A high-stakes White House meeting that was supposed to seal an agreement on a $700 billion plan to avert financial disaster on Wall Street unexpectedly dissolved into a heated argument over an alternate proposal by conservative Republicans, leading congressional leaders to clash over a deal that had suddenly turned sour.

"This is deteriorating," President Bush declared as the meeting grew more heated, according to one of the participants."

David Rogers writes for Politico that "the meeting was described as among the wildest in memory. A beleaguered President Bush had to struggle to maintain order and reassert himself. . . .

"[T]he whole sequence of events confirmed Treasury's fears about the decision by Bush, at the urging of McCain, to allow presidential politics into what were already difficult negotiations."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "It was an implosion that spilled out from behind closed doors into public view in a way rarely seen in Washington. . . .

"It was the very outcome the White House had said it intended to avoid, with partisan presidential politics appearing to trample what had been exceedingly delicate Congressional negotiations."

Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery write in The Washington Post: "Before the meeting broke up, President Bush had issued a stark warning about the impact on the nation's economy if the measure did not pass. 'If money isn't loosened up, this sucker could go down,' Bush said, according to one person in the room."

After attending a meeting with McCain earlier in the day, "House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) floated a new plan for addressing the crisis that has hobbled global markets. . . .

"As [Democratic presidential candidate Barack] Obama and [House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney] Frank peppered Boehner with questions about the new proposal, Bush rejected the idea as a too-broad rewrite of his administration's plan, according to the handwritten notes of one Democrat present.

"'Don't start over,' Bush said. 'Don't start over.'"

James Oliphant writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Democratic supporters. . . suggested that the man who had come into town to save the agreement, Republican presidential contender John McCain, had, in fact, wrecked it by encouraging the fracas. . . .

"The foundation for a congressional agreement was actually laid Wednesday, when the White House agreed to several key alterations in its original proposal, particularly caps on executive pay for companies that participate in a Treasury Department program to buy up 'toxic' mortgage-backed assets from banks, Wall Street firms and other financial institutions."

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "Even for a party whose president suffers dismal approval ratings, whose legislative wing lost control of Congress and whose presidential nominee trails in the polls, it was a remarkably bad day for Republicans.

"A White House summit meeting on Thursday meant to shore up John McCain's shaky campaign 'devolved into a contentious shouting match.' And that's how McCain's own campaign described it. . . .

"By midnight, it was hard to tell who had suffered a worse evening, Bush or McCain. McCain, eager to shore up his image as a leader who rises above partisanship, was undercut by a fierce political squabble within his own party's ranks.

"The consequences could be worse for Bush, and for millions of Americans if the impasse sends financial markets tumbling, as some officials fear."

A Rare Joint Appearance

Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman note in The Washington Post: "Yesterday's photo opportunity amounted to Bush's first public appearance with McCain since May, when the two briefly shook hands on a tarmac at the Phoenix airport. The Republican nominee has sought to distance himself from the president, whose approval rating has touched new lows in recent polling, and campaign aides have said they have no plans to ask Bush to appear on the campaign trail."

The Economists' View

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A funny thing happened in the drafting of the largest-ever U.S. government intervention in the financial system. Lawmakers of all stripes mostly fell in line, but many of the nation's brightest economic minds are warning that the Wall Street bailout's a dangerous rush job."

Neil Irwin and Cecilia Kang write in The Washington Post that "almost 200 academic economists -- who aren't paid by the institutions that could directly benefit from the plan but who also may not have recent practical experience in the markets -- have signed a petition organized by a University of Chicago professor objecting to the plan on the grounds that it could create perverse incentives, that it is too vague and that its long-run effects are unclear. . . .

"The critics can be roughly divided into two camps. One group thinks money should be directly infused into banks, which should allow it to trickle down through the financial system to borrowers. A second group thinks the government should buy individual mortgages, thus helping ordinary Americans more directly, with the benefits trickling up to the banks. . . .

"Many of these critics don't care for the assumption behind the administration's plan that the market is now pricing these mortgage securities incorrectly, a problem that the government intervention aims to fix.

"'The premise appears to be that the market is irrationally pessimistic,' wrote Greg Mankiw, a Harvard University economist and [a] former Bush economic adviser, on his blog this week. 'That might be so. Nonetheless, one has to be at least a bit skeptical about the idea that government policymakers gambling with other people's money are better at judging the value of complex financial instruments than are private investors gambling with their own.'"

Opinion Watch

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes that "there are still crucial questions that the Bush administration has left unanswered: Why $700 billion? Why the enormous rush? And what happens if this doesn't work? What happens if the Treasury overpays for these assets, risking a run on the dollar? And - far worse - what happens if even $700 billion isn't enough, or if it isn't effective because of improper allocation? . . .

"The core of this problem goes back to the public's lack of trust in the Bush administration. Many have pointed out that one of the reasons the public is so skeptical of this bailout is that the administration is handling it the same way it handled the run-up to the Iraq war: by asking for unlimited authority while claiming that imminent catastrophe is around the bend. They were wrong, as we all know by now, and there aren't any guarantees about this move either. The country is taking an enormous risk under a leader we can no longer trust. This administration, and this nation, is paying a steep price for its lost credibility."

On Bush's Mind

Scott Mayerowitz writes for ABC News: "Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said today that our nation's leaders -- especially President Bush -- are 'in a panic' and haven't thought through the $700 billion bailout plan in a rush to pass it by the end of the week.

"'I don't think he understands or knows much about any of this and it shows,' O'Neill said."

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times about Democratic commentator Paul Begala's assertion on CNN yesterday that Bush is "a high-functioning moron, and that's what Congress treats him as. Both parties."

Iran Watch

Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian: "Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites but was told by President George W Bush that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for the rest of his presidency, senior European diplomatic sources have told the Guardian.

"The then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, used the occasion of Bush's trip to Israel for the 60th anniversary of the state's founding to raise the issue in a one-on-one meeting on May 14, the sources said. . . .

"Bush's decision to refuse to offer any support for a strike on Iran appeared to be based on two factors, the sources said. One was US concern over Iran's likely retaliation, which would probably include a wave of attacks on US military and other personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on shipping in the Persian Gulf.

"The other was US anxiety that Israel would not succeed in disabling Iran's nuclear facilities in a single assault even with the use of dozens of aircraft. It could not mount a series of attacks over several days without risking full-scale war. So the benefits would not outweigh the costs."

In an accompanying commentary, Steele writes that Bush's response to Olmert "may turn out to be the best decision in his eight-year term. It is easy to deride this president and there is much to deride him for, but when he does the right thing it deserves to be applauded."

Torture Watch

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "The techniques themselves -- forced nudity, sleep deprivation, painful shackling -- had been used for years to prepare U.S. fighter pilots for possible capture by an enemy. But Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force instructor, said he was shocked in 2003 to see the same harsh methods used haphazardly on Iraqis in a U.S. prison camp.

"'It had morphed into a form of punishment for those who wouldn't cooperate,' said Kleinman, a career intelligence officer and survival-school instructor. . . .

"'I told the task force commander that the methods were unlawful and were in violation of the Geneva Conventions,' he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. . . .

"In one instance, he said, a detainee was forced to kneel under a spotlight, flanked by guards toting iron bars, while interrogators shouted questions at him. Each answer automatically elicited a hard slap across the face -- a pattern that was repeated without pause for 30 minutes. When Kleinman intervened to stop the questioning, the interrogators appeared baffled. 'They didn't seem to think it was a problem,' he said.

"A second detainee interrogated in Kleinman's presence was subjected to sleep deprivation and painful stress positions. A third had all his clothes physically torn from his body and was ordered to stand continuously for 12 hours, 'or until he passed out,' Kleinman said.

"When Kleinman complained about the practices, various Defense Department officials agreed that the techniques probably violated Geneva Conventions standards but the interrogations continued unabated, he said. By then, six months into the Iraq war, White House and Defense Department lawyers had issued legal opinions that declared the Iraqi detainees to be 'unlawful enemy combatants' not covered by Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners of war. . . .

"Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman... noted that many of the aggressive techniques approved by Pentagon officials -- and witnessed by Kleinman and others -- were later used against detainees at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

"'The clear message to our troops was that the abuse of detainees was permissible activity,' Levin said."

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "At the time, Kleinman called his now retired commander, Col. John Moulton II, to express concern about the harsh methods he saw being used in several interrogations. He said Moulton checked with his superiors and called him back to say the techniques had been specifically approved. Moulton later told investigators that he understood that the Pentagon's general counsel or higher had approved the measures, and that the prisoners were considered terrorists and were not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

"The Geneva Conventions, however, did apply in Iraq."

In an essay last month for NiemanWatchdog.org, where I'm deputy editor, Kleinman questioned the administration's torture policies.

Gonzales Watch

Murray Waas reports for the Atlantic: "The Justice Department is investigating whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales created a set of fictitious notes so that President Bush would have a rationale for reauthorizing his warrantless eavesdropping program, according to sources close to the investigation.

"President Bush reauthorized the surveillance program on March 11, 2004, one day after the hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to sign a certification saying that the program was legal and could therefore continue.

"In reauthorizing the surveillance program over the objections of his own Justice Department, President Bush later claimed to have relied on notes made by Gonzales about a meeting that had taken place the day before (March 10), in which Gonzales and Vice President Cheney had met with eight congressional leaders -- also known as the 'Gang of Eight' -- who receive briefings about covert intelligence programs. According to Gonzales's notes, the congressional leaders had said in the meeting that they wanted the surveillance program to continue despite the attorney general's refusal to certify that it was legal.

"But four of the congressional leaders present at the meeting say that's not true; they never encouraged the White House to sidestep the objections of the attorney general and continue the program without his approval.

"Investigators are skeptical of the notes because Gonzales did not write them until days after the meeting with the congressional leaders, and he wrote them after both Bush and Gonzales had together signed a reauthorization of the surveillance program.

"Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time he met with the congressional leaders, has told investigators working for the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General that President Bush personally directed him to write the notes so that he could 'memorialize' what the legislators had told him, according to a report made public by the Inspector General's Office on September 2 and sources close to the investigation."

Waas writes that Gonzales's assertions about that meeting to Congress are "currently under investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general as possible perjury or as a false statement under oath."

In a separate story, Waas writes: "Although this president is famously known for rarely becoming immersed in the details--even on the issues he cares the most about--Gonzales has painted a picture of Bush as being very much involved when it came to his administration's surveillance program."

Carrie Johnson wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month about a Justice Department report on the mishandling of those notes after they were written. Gonzales "told investigators that he could not recall whether he took [them] home . . . and that he did not know they contained classified information, despite his own markings that they were 'top secret -- eyes only."

And in his new book, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman writes at length about how the internal conflict over Bush's spying program nearly led to a mass resignation of top officials.

India Nuke Watch

AFP reports: "Bush told visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday that he was 'working hard' to push their stalled civilian nuclear pact through the US Congress. . . .

"'The people of India deeply love you,' said the prime minister, who was making likely his final visit to see Bush before the US president's term ends in January."

Environment Watch

In a pretty clear sign that Vice President Cheney still has some items left on his to-undo list, Bush yesterday announced the nomination of F. Chase Hutto III to be assistant secretary of energy for international affairs and domestic policy. Hutto is a senior Cheney aide.

As Kate Sheppard writes for Grist: "Hutto, who has been a leading opponent of environmental regulations within the administration, would be in charge of the department's policies on climate change -- if he is confirmed by the Senate. According to the DOE's website, in this post Hutto would serve as the 'primary advisor to the Secretary and the Department on energy and technology policy development,' oversee policy analysis, and lead the DOE's international activities. . . .

"Earlier this month, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), both members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged Bush not to nominate Hutto to the post. The two issued a statement today condemning the selection.

"'Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse. A Cheney aide who represents everything that is wrong with the direction of our energy and environmental policies is now helping lead the Department of Energy,' said Menendez in a statement. 'This is highly concerning to those of us who want to end our addiction to oil, create jobs, lower energy prices, and reduce global warming pollution.'

"Since the Senate is pretty busy right now, it's not likely that they'll take action on Hutto's nomination. And even if he is appointed, there are only 116 days left in the administration. Not that anyone's counting."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "Bush says he believes that Congress now can work together in a spirit of bipartisanship to solve the economic crisis. And you know what that means, folks. . . . He's drinking again."

Jon Stewart puts Bush 2008, the economic fear monger, and Bush 2003, the Iraq fear monger, side by side. He concludes: "It really is true what they say: Those who do not study the past get an exciting opportunity to repeat it."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on where McCain stands, David Horsey on the Bush who cried wolf, Peter Brookes on George W. Blaine, Jim Borgman on a heckuva job, Bob Gorrell on Bush's new motto and Nate Beeler on Bush's new pitch.

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