Bush the Gambler

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 6, 2008; 12:30 PM

It's too early to say how much success President Bush's $700 billion bailout will have in restoring stability to the financial markets. (So far, not so good.)

But it's certainly not too early to examine Bush's role in creating -- and hyping -- the crisis.

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "It's widely thought that the biggest gamble President Bush ever took was deciding to invade Iraq in 2003. It wasn't. His riskiest move was actually one made right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to any wartime economic sacrifice. Bush tried to remake the world on the cheap, and as the bill grew larger, he still refused to ask Americans to pay up. During this past week, that gamble collapsed, leaving the rest of us to sort through the wreckage. . . .

"To understand this link between today's financial crisis and Bush's wider national security decisions, we need to go back to 9/11 itself. From the very outset, the president described the 'war on terror' as a vast undertaking of paramount importance. But he simultaneously urged Americans to carry on as if there were no war. 'Get down to Disney World in Florida,' he urged just over two weeks after 9/11. 'Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.' Bush certainly wanted citizens to support his war -- he just wasn't going to require them actually to do anything. The support he sought was not active but passive. It entailed not popular engagement but popular deference. Bush simply wanted citizens (and Congress) to go along without asking too many questions.

"[T]he administration made no effort to expand the armed forces. It sought no additional revenue to cover the costs of waging a protracted conflict. It left the nation's economic priorities unchanged. Instead of sacrifices, it offered tax cuts. So as the American soldier fought, the American consumer binged, encouraged by American banks offering easy credit. . . .

"Bush seems to have calculated -- cynically but correctly -- that prolonging the credit-fueled consumer binge could help keep complaints about his performance as commander in chief from becoming more than a nuisance. Members of Congress calculated -- again correctly -- that their constituents were looking to Capitol Hill for largesse, not lessons in austerity. In this sense, recklessness on Main Street, on Wall Street and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue proved mutually reinforcing.

"For both the Bush administration and Congress, this gambit has turned out to be clever rather than smart. The ongoing crisis on Wall Street has now, in effect, ended the Bush presidency."

Dean Baker writes for the Center for Economic and Policy Research on Bush's recent maneuverings: "This is the first time in the history of the United States that the president has sought to provoke a financial panic to get legislation through Congress. While this has proven to be a successful political strategy, it marks yet another low point in American politics.

"It was incredibly irresponsible for President Bush to tell the American people on national television that the country could be facing another Great Depression. By contrast, when we actually were in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt said that, 'we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.'

"It was even more irresponsible for him to seize on the decline in the stock market five days later as evidence that his bailout was needed for the economy. President Bush must surely understand, as all economists know, that the daily swings in the stock market are driven by mass psychology and have almost nothing to do with the underlying strength in the economy.

"The scare tactics of President Bush, Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke created sufficient panic, so that by the time of the vote, much of the public believed that the defeat of the bailout may actually have had serious consequences for the economy. Millions of people have changed their behavior because of this fear, with many pulling money out of bank and money market accounts, and in other ways adjusting their financial plans.

"This effort to promote panic is especially striking since the country's dire economic situation is almost entirely the result of the Bush Administration's policy failures."

Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding the first in a series of hearings on the financial meltdown. Said committee chairman Henry Waxman: "To restore our economy to health, two steps are necessary. First, we must identify what went wrong. Then we must enact real reform of our financial markets. . . .

"We can't undo the damage of the past eight years. That's why I reluctantly voted for the $700 billion rescue plan. But we can start the process of holding those responsible to public account and identifying the reforms we need for the future."

More on the Wreckage

David Rothkopf writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "Two September shocks will define the presidency of George W. Bush. Stunningly enough, it already seems clear that the second -- the financial crisis that has only begun to unfold -- may well have far greater and more lasting ramifications than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"That's because while 9/11 changed the way we view the world, the current financial crisis has changed the way the world views us. And it will also change, in some very fundamental ways, the way the world works. . . .

"The financial chaos has brought down the curtain on a wide range of basic and enduring tenets also closely linked with the Reagan era, those associated with neoliberal economics, the system that the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has called 'that grab-bag of ideas based on the fundamentalist notion that markets are self-correcting, allocate resources efficiently and serve the public interest well.' Already this crisis has seen not just our enemies but even some of our closest allies wondering whether we are at the beginning of the end of both American-style capitalism and of American supremacy."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "The next president will inherit a daunting set of national security problems. Captivated at the start by an illusory belief that the United States could, and should, impose its will on the world's bad actors by shock and awe, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld drove the world's sole surviving superpower into a diplomatic, strategic, and fiscal ditch."

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "At the zenith of his presidency, George W. Bush wore a flight suit-- but now he's leaving his successor in a straitjacket. . . .

"Either Barack Obama or John McCain will have to lead a country crippled by debt--and that was before the $700 billion federal bailout of private lenders--and burdened by an array of practically inescapable military commitments. 'It's close to an impossible situation,' Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff in Bill Clinton's first term, told me. 'The next guy, whoever he is, will be a one-term president--if he is lucky.'"

Bush's Victories

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that "to the White House, the tide of negative headlines has obscured a series of significant legislative victories for a president wrongly written off as a lame duck.

"After a rough start and a setback in the House, for example, the White House managed to get its historic $700 billion financial rescue plan passed by Congress last week over strong opposition from many conservative House Republicans. The White House also won other legislative victories in recent weeks that, in quieter times, might have attracted wider notice.

"Take oil drilling. Bush over the summer lifted an executive ban on offshore oil drilling along much of the coastal United States and urged Congress to do the same with its own prohibition. . . .

"[J]ittery Democrats" late last month abandoned their opposition, "allowing an annual drilling ban to expire as part of a spending package passed in the House and Senate late last month.

"Congress also gave final approval last week to a landmark nuclear agreement between India and the United States, a deal that has been in the works for years and has been fiercely opposed by nuclear proliferation experts. . . .

"And to hear Bush tell it, he has no intention of slowing down in his final months. 'You know, we got a couple more hard months to go, and obviously we've got to deal with this financial situation,' Bush told reporters on Saturday after a visit to one of his boyhood homes in Texas. ' . . . There's a lot of work to be done.'"

One Republican's View

But it may be too late to change the dominant narrative. As Peter Baker writes in a New York Times Magazine story about retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.): "[T]he Republican brand under President Bush has, in Davis's view, been so tarnished that, as he likes to say, 'if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.' These will be Davis's last few weeks in Congress. He decided against re-election, disaffected by the partisanship, by a process he calls broken, by a party he considers hijacked by social conservatives. 'We're just not getting much done,' he said. . . .

"The way Davis sees it, the system has become dysfunctional. Bush has so destroyed the party's public standing and Congress has become so infected with a win-at-all-costs mentality that there is no point in staying. . . .

"As for Bush, Davis long ago lost faith. 'He's a disappointment,' Davis said. 'How else do you say it?' In his view, Bush grew isolated and surrounded himself with people who made bad decisions. The president, he lamented, failed to effectively tackle a rising deficit, Medicare and Social Security. He rose to the occasion after terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, but not after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. . . .

"Since Bush took office, with Republicans in charge of Congress for most of the last eight years, there has been little appetite for reaching across the aisle. The two sides, he says, are so divided that they are incapable of recognizing what he sees as the looming crisis of our time -- the massive debt accumulated during the Bush years. . . .

"The collapse of Wall Street reinforced his view that Washington has fallen down on the job. 'Nobody keeps an eye on anything unless it hurts the other party,' he said."

The Bush Critique

As we enter the last month of the presidential campaign, expect the heart of many endorsements of Barack Obama to be a scream of despair over what Bush has wrought.

Here, for instance, is the New Yorker: "The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages. The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction. . . .

"There is still disagreement about the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his horrific regime, but there is no longer the slightest doubt that the Bush Administration manipulated, bullied, and lied the American public into this war and then mismanaged its prosecution in nearly every aspect. The direct costs, besides an expenditure of more than six hundred billion dollars, have included the loss of more than four thousand Americans, the wounding of thirty thousand, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and the displacement of four and a half million men, women, and children. Only now, after American forces have been fighting for a year longer than they did in the Second World War, is there a glimmer of hope that the conflict in Iraq has entered a stage of fragile stability.

"The indirect costs, both of the war in particular and of the Administration's unilateralist approach to foreign policy in general, have also been immense. The torture of prisoners, authorized at the highest level, has been an ethical and a public-diplomacy catastrophe. At a moment when the global environment, the global economy, and global stability all demand a transition to new sources of energy, the United States has been a global retrograde, wasteful in its consumption and heedless in its policy. Strategically and morally, the Bush Administration has squandered the American capacity to counter the example and the swagger of its rivals. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other illiberal states have concluded, each in its own way, that democratic principles and human rights need not be components of a stable, prosperous future. At recent meetings of the United Nations, emboldened despots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran came to town sneering at our predicament and hailing the 'end of the American era.'"

And here's rocker Bruce Springsteen: "I've continued to find, wherever I go, America remains a repository of people's hopes, possibilities, and desires, and that despite the terrible erosion to our standing around the world, accomplished by our recent administration, we remain, for many, a house of dreams. One thousand George Bushes and one thousand Dick Cheneys will never be able to tear that house down.

"They will, however, be leaving office, dropping the national tragedies of Katrina, Iraq, and our financial crisis in our laps. Our sacred house of dreams has been abused, looted, and left in a terrible state of disrepair. It needs care; it needs saving, it needs defending against those who would sell it down the river for power or a quick buck. It needs strong arms, hearts, and minds. It needs someone with Senator Obama's understanding, temperateness, deliberativeness, maturity, compassion, toughness, and faith, to help us rebuild our house once again. But most importantly, it needs us. You and me. To build that house with the generosity that is at the heart of the American spirit. A house that is truer and big enough to contain the hopes and dreams of all of our fellow citizens. That is where our future lies. We will rise or fall as a people by our ability to accomplish this task. Now I don't know about you, but I want that dream back, I want my America back, I want my country back."

Chasing the Money

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "It took President Bush just 28 minutes to pivot from the nation's economic mess to making up for lost time on the political fundraising circuit.

"Bush signed a $700 billion bill 2:48 p.m. EDT on Friday that was aimed at bailing out tattered Wall Street and getting credit markets across the nation moving again. It was a lightning-fast turnaround between Capitol Hill passage and presidential signature, as the bill had been given Congress' final blessing less than an hour and half before.

"By 3:16 p.m. EDT, the president's motorcade pulled away from the White House on his way out of town, for a weekend of raising money for Republican candidates and relaxing at his ranch in Texas."

Bush Visits Boyhood Home

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post from Midland: "Bush returned to this windswept West Texas oil city Saturday . . . hosting a closed-door fundraiser and then, in an unannounced detour, visiting the humble three-bedroom rambler that was, for a while, home to two future presidents.

"Struggling in Washington with two wars, a collapsing economy and record disapproval ratings, Bush seemed a bit wistful after a quick tour of his refurbished boyhood home. Standing on a small patch of front lawn with first lady Laura Bush, the president told reporters that it was a 'heartwarming experience' that reminded him of his vows to never forget his Texas roots."

From the transcript: "[T]his is one of the three homes I lived in, and I kind of remember it. The bedroom -- actually I do remember the wood on the wall that -- in the bedroom."

Bush lived there from age five to nine.

"[I]t's the first time I've been back here since I've been the President, and it's -- it was just a very heartwarming experience.

"You know, I've told my friends here, I said, you know, I'm not going to change as a person because of politics or Washington -- that's what I said when I left. I think they appreciate that. I want them to know that, you know, even though I had to deal with a lot of tough issues, that I'm still the same person that they knew before and that, you know, I'm wiser, more experienced, but my heart and my values didn't change."

The Palin-Cheney Connection

At the vice presidential debate on Thursday, moderator Gwen Ifill asked Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee, about her views on the vice presidency.

Said Palin: "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are."

Ifill later followed up: "Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?"

Ruth Marcus blogged for washingtonpost.com: "Only the complete quote can capture the full extent of her floundering."

So here's the entire response: "Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also."

But beneath the floundering lay a pretty clear admiration of Cheney's views.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is hard to tell from Ms. Palin's remarks whether she understands how profoundly Dick Cheney has reshaped the vice presidency -- as part of a larger drive to free the executive branch from all checks and balances. Nor did she seem to understand how much damage that has done to American democracy."

Satyam Khanna reports for thinkprogres.org: "Interviewed on CNN[Sunday], the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, author of a new biography of Cheney's vice presidency, said that the idea of 'flexibility' for the VP is a signature Cheney idea:

"GELLMAN: Well, it sounded like Dick Cheney could have written that description. The idea of 'flexibility' on the one hand and 'do what we have to do,' those are two of the watch words of a man who believes in executive supremacy and believes that other branches of government and the public actually cannot restrict the executive. . . .

"BLITZER: What I hear you saying, if she were vice president she would, you see Dick Cheney as a role model, is that what you are saying?

"GELLMAN: Yeah. Well, what you aspire to do and what you can do are two different things. It came from a relationship with the very specific president and came from his own enormous experience and skill."

Blogger Marcy Wheeler writes: "Dick Cheney has succeeded because he is a master of bureaucracy. He knows how to manipulate the machines of our government at every level--and does so with consummate skill.

"Palin, by contrast, can't even manage to pull off personal vendettas in Alaska's small government without leaving blood and tracks in the snow revealing her work. Sure, she's got Cheney's instinct for punishing disloyalty. But aside from that, she's got none of Cheney's skill."

The Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle editorial board writes that "as Palin's Democratic opponent Joe Biden accurately said, Cheney has been perhaps the most dangerous vice president in American history.

"He was an architect of the Iraq invasion and the bloody mess that followed. He fought against diplomacy and in favor of unilateral action, attitudes that have damaged America's posture abroad. He has been a power behind the throne of George Bush, and he has done so without a shred of accountability. He's fought attempts by Congress to bring him to account, to question his war role, to have him turn over public records, to behave, in short, as a public servant.

"No one wishing to be vice president should seek to emulate Cheney. Indeed, as the Bush administration winds down, it's important that the National Archives, Congress and the American people demand a full accounting of the Cheney influence on the Bush presidency."

And speaking of the public record, the Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "In three months, the Bush-Cheney administration will be history. Scholars who want to study that history won an important victory last month when a federal judge ordered Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the National Archives to preserve all of Cheney's official papers pending the outcome of a lawsuit brought by a citizens' group and individual historians and archivists. . . .

"Given this vice president's penchant for secrecy, the judge was wise not to take at face value the assurance that Cheney and the National Archives would safeguard documents that might later be ruled to be the property of the American people. We hope that her injunction is only the first step in securing access for future historians to the records of perhaps the most powerful vice president in history."

Or is Palin the New Bush?

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann suggests that Palin's folksy, outside-the-Beltway style seems familiar.

Bush's Judicial Appointments

Dan Horn writes in the Cincinnati Enquirer: "President Bush visits Cincinnati on Monday to discuss what he hopes will be one of his most enduring legacies: the judges he's appointed to the federal courts.

"The focus this election year is on the president's handling of the economy, the Iraq war and homeland security, but conservatives and liberals agree the president's judicial appointments could help shape American society for years and even decades.

"Bush has appointed 326 judges - more than one-third of the federal judiciary - and most share his conservative philosophy on issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty to affirmative action.

"'His judicial appointments have drastically changed the legal landscape,' said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican and outspoken advocate for conservative judges. 'It may be his greatest legacy.'"

Robert Barnes writes in The Washington Post: "There were not many conspicuous tributes to the legacy of President Bush at last month's Republican National Convention, but there was at least one.

"It was a campaign button with the words 'Thanks, W' across the top and photos of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. beneath the letters.

"Conservative legal activists view the two men as remarkable successes in Bush's quest to move the court to the right."

Patrick Healy writes in the New York Times that Bush's remarks are "likely to draw at least an implicit contrast between Mr. Obama and the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain."

Justice Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Buried in a lengthy report about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys is the disturbing explanation of how the White House blocked Justice Department investigators from obtaining pertinent documents. . . .

"Nora R. Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, who was recently appointed special prosecutor for the matter. Ms. Dannehy comes to her assignment with considerably more legal muscle than the Justice Department investigators have; for one, she has the power to summon current and former administration officials -- a power Justice lawyers did not enjoy. [Karl] Rove and [Harriet] Miers should be at the top of her list. Ms. Dannehy must also be unflinching in her examination of whether current or former administration officials obstructed justice or made false statements."

John Farmer writes in his Newark Star-Ledger opinion column that "what the Bush White House did, if the report is on the mark, amounts to a presidential coverup."

Farmer sees Rove's fingerprints all over the ouster of one U.S. attorney in particular, David Iglesias of New Mexico.

"It was to Rove that a Republican New Mexico state senator, then involved in a hot election fight, fired off an e-mail complaining about Iglesias' failure to drop the indictment hammer on Democrats.

"Some time later, [Republican Rep. Heather] Wilson took her demands directly to Rove at a White House breakfast, telling him that pressing Iglesias for action against Democrats was 'a waste of breath.' The guy had to go was her message.

"Not to worry, Rove told her. 'That decision has already been made,' Rove assured Wilson, according to published reports at the time. 'He's gone.' And he was. That very same day, in fact.

"But who made the call? Ay, there's the rub. Was it Bush himself? Or did Cheney lower the boom? Maybe Rove had enough juice to do the job himself; he clearly knew in advance that Iglesias' head was about to roll. Alas, we'll probably never know the full story unless Rove mans up and takes the stand himself -- or the Fifth, whichever seems wiser."

For more, see my column from last Monday, Pointing the Finger at the White House.

Quote of the Week

Via Dan Eggen in The Post: "'I think we all know the moment things began to turn around in Iraq: It was when the USO decided to deploy Jessica Simpson.'

"-- President Bush, speaking Wednesday at the United Service Organization World Gala in Washington."

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "President Bush signed the Wall Street bailout bill, but he said our economy continues to face serious challenges. Bush said he thought those challenges could be overcome as soon as he leaves office in two months."

Cartoon Watch

A Tom Toles sketch on the perfect ending to eight years, and Walt Handelsman has a winner in his caption contest.

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