Bush in the Rearview Mirror

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 20, 2008; 1:21 PM

It's hard at this point to look ahead to the presidential election and its aftermath without looking back at the wreckage. And so, in the continued avalanche of newspaper endorsements of Democrat Barack Obama, a successful presidency is frequently being defined as the precise opposite of the current one.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board writes: "After eight years of George W. Bush, America needs a change in direction and a change in tone.

"It needs a president who understands that, yes, the world can be dangerous, but it is also complex. That the United States cannot defend its freedom by abandoning its principles. That it cannot ignore its allies one day and demand their help the next.

"It needs a president who knows that optimism, not fear, defines America. That tax cuts and deregulation alone are not an economic strategy. That Washington cannot sit idle when a great city is devastated by nature or when millions of hardworking Americans are devastated by losing their homes, their jobs, their health care.

"It needs a president who will listen and learn, and not confuse loyalty with competence. Who will ask Americans to sacrifice in the service of their country, not their party or self-interest. Who will be the leader Bush promised eight years ago -- a unifier, not a divider."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The U.S. Constitution, more than two centuries old, now offers the world one of its more mature and certainly most stable governments, but our political culture is still struggling to shake off a brash and unseemly adolescence. In George W. Bush, the executive branch turned its back on an adult role in the nation and the world and retreated into self-absorbed unilateralism."

In many of these endorsements, Republican John McCain's allegiance to core Bush principles is seen as disqualifying.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board writes: "In the past eight years, the policies and ideologies that have animated the Bush administration have proved disastrous in almost every field of endeavor, from foreign policy to economics to relatively straightforward tasks such as responding to natural disasters. . . .

"McCain has yet to explain how most of his proposed policies and approaches differ from those of the current president. From deregulation of Wall Street and tax cuts that favor the richest 5 percent of Americans to a more aggressive foreign policy, McCain's approach now reflects the same Republican orthodoxy that has governed this country since 2000. Time and again, he has been offered chances to explain how his philosophy differs from that of the current president, and he has not been able to do so.

"And it's not just a matter of policies. A third term under another Republican president would inevitably be populated by much the same cast of GOP staffers, executives and bureaucrats that has run Washington for so long and with such disastrous results."

The Palm Beach Post editorial board writes: "During Wednesday night's final presidential debate, John McCain said to Barack Obama: 'I am not President Bush.' It was one last failed attempt to convince enough voters that a McCain administration would be much different from the Bush administration. . . .

"In June 2005, Sen. McCain said on Meet the Press that 'on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.' Indeed, Sen. McCain advocated the invasion of Iraq just weeks after 9/11. After opposing the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts on the principled grounds that they would give too much to the wealthy and too little to most Americans, Sen. McCain has made extending those tax cuts the centerpiece of his ideological economic policy. Based on his own words, Sen. McCain would appoint the same anti-consumer Supreme Court justices Mr. Bush chose. Based on his own actions, Sen. McCain favors the Bush-style, hands-off attitude toward financial companies that contributed to the current crisis."

Even some newspapers that four years ago endorsed Bush are now advocating a U-turn. The New York Daily News editorial board writes: "The U.S. is in want of leadership that repairs a damaged economy, restores faith in government as an engine for the common good and returns competence to the White House after the spectacular failures of the Bush administration."

And the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board writes: "By necessity, the country's next commander in chief must also be its mender in chief, capable of inspiring his angry and divided constituents to join together in a recovery project to restore the peace, prosperity, and self-confidence we once knew. . . .

"Under the most intense scrutiny and attacks from both parties, Obama has shown the temperament, judgment, intellect and political acumen that are essential in a president that would lead the United States out of the crises created by President Bush, a complicit Congress and our own apathy."

Meanwhile, Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column that McCain "could have made separating himself from Bush the brave, central and even conservative focus of his campaign. Far from doing that, he embraced the Bush ethos -- if not the incredible shrinking man himself -- more tightly than ever. . . .

"The Bushian ethos that McCain embraced, as codified by Karl Rove, is larger than any particular vote or policy. Indeed, by definition that ethos is opposed to the entire idea of policy. The whole point of the Bush-Rove way of doing business is that principles, coherent governance and even ideology must always be sacrificed for political expediency, no matter the cost to the public good. . . .

"If politics strongarm everything, you end up with the rampant cronyism, nonexistent long-term planning and abrupt, partisan policy improvisations that fed the calamities of Iraq, Katrina and the economic meltdown."

The Powell Endorsement

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Colin L. Powell yesterday became the most prominent Republican to endorse Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, with the former secretary of state and retired four-star general declaring the senator from Illinois to be a 'transformational' figure who would 'electrify our country . . . [and] the world.'"

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that Powell's embrace of Obama is "an effort to reshape a legacy that he himself considers tainted by his service under President Bush. . . .

"In saying he would vote for Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain, Mr. Powell aligned himself squarely against Mr. Bush, who has been counting on a Republican victory next month to see through his strategy of avoiding a rigid timetable for withdrawals in Iraq -- the issue, more than any other, on which the president's legacy will rest.

"Mr. Powell's role in selling the invasion, despite his frequent clashes with other members of Mr. Bush's team about how to proceed, has also come to dominate his own place in history. . . .

"Mr. Powell had a tumultuous tenure as President Bush's first-term secretary of state, when he was frequently undercut by Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, in the period before the Iraq war. Although Mr. Powell had major misgivings about the war and what he considered the inadequate number of troops, he not only agreed to the invasion but also made the administration's case for war in a presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003."

Here's the transcript of Powell's interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw.

Brokaw: "There's a summing up going on now as, as the Bush/Cheney administration winds down. We'd like to share with our audience some of what you had to say about the two men who are at the top of the administration. At the convention in 2000, this is Colin Powell on President Bush and Dick Cheney at that time."

(Videotape, July 31, 2000)

Powell: "Dick Cheney is one of the most distinguished and dedicated public servants this nation has ever had. He will be a superb vice president. The Bush/Cheney team will be a great team for America. They will put our nation on a course of hope and optimism for this new century."

(End videotape)

Brokaw: "Was that prophetic or wrong?"

Powell: "It's what I believed. It reflected the agenda of the new president, compassionate conservatism. And some of it worked out. I think we have advanced our freedom agenda, I think we've done a lot to help people around the world with our programs of development. I think we've done a lot to solve some conflicts such as in Liberia and elsewhere. But, at the same time, we have managed to convey to the world that we are more unilateral than we really are. We have not explained ourself well enough. And we, unfortunately, have left an impression with the world that is not a good one. And the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we've left with the rest of the world. . . .

"We are still the inspiration of the rest of the world. And we can come back. In 2000, it was moment where I believed that the new administration coming in would be able to achieve the agenda that President-elect Bush had set out of compassionate conservatism."

Brokaw: "But it failed?"

Powell: "I don't think it was as successful--excuse me (clears throat)--I don't think it was as successful as it might have been. And, as you see from the presidential approval ratings, the American people have found the administration wanting."

What's at Stake

The New York Review of Books asked a bevy of liberal heavyweights to write about what's at stake in the coming election. And a lot of them couldn't help but look backward.

Russell Baker starts off this way: "The new century has opened with a pervasive sense of American decline, and for good reason. The history of the Bush years is anything but a tonic for the spirit: the nation deceived by official lies into endless Middle Eastern warfare, loss of America's good reputation around the world, erosion of the middle class, astounding budget deficits, growing financial dependence on China, that sinister power-grabbing operation in the vice-president's office, torture. . . .

"And now the collapse of Wall Street, home office of triumphant world capitalism, its famous masters of the universe forced to endure the humiliation of asking for government handouts."

David Bromwich writes that "the public has been allowed to witness, here again, the slowness of George W. Bush to recognize the proportions of a calamity: a want of leadership, and of competence lower down, that is reminiscent of the disorders in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 and the effects of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. One cause of the sheer magnitude of these catastrophes has been the cynical contempt shown by this administration toward professional competence. The names of Douglas Feith, L. Paul Bremer, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Brown tell us all that needs to be said."

Mark Danner writes: "Obama has arisen out of a plain of scorched earth, a longed-for rebirth at the logical limit of an exhausted politics. Seven years after September 11 the 'wartime president' has brought his War on Terror to a dead end in the bloody stalemate in Iraq, where American dollars now fund both the Iranian-allied Shiite government and the former Baathist insurgents, and on the Afghanistan--Pakistan border, where $10 billion of US aid now buys the bullets that Pakistani soldiers fire at US special forces hunting a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda. At home the President turned huge surpluses into vast deficits, more than doubling the national debt, and pushed the deregulatory zeal of the Reagan administration into a frightening near-collapse of the entire financial system."

Transition Watch

Michael D. Shear, Michael Abramowitz, Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "If Sen. Barack Obama wakes up as the president-elect on Nov. 5, he will immediately assume responsibility for fixing a shredded economy while the Bush administration is still in office. If Sen. John McCain wins the election, he will face an imminent confrontation over spending with a Democratic Congress called back into special session with the goal of passing a new economic stimulus package.

"Either way, the 77-day period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, traditionally known simply as the transition, is sure to present difficult challenges to a new president buffeted by intense forces, political and economic, without any chance to recover from the long and bruising campaign.

"The challenge of putting the country back on a sound financial track has altered what under the best of circumstances would have been a frenzied period spent forming a new government. Instead, Obama or McCain will be forced to assemble a new administration even as he helps shape policies to ward off further declines in the economy."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "With President Bush's approval at 25 percent and the country hungry for change, will either Obama or McCain seek a collaboration on decision-making with the White House? And with the economy teetering, can either afford to stand on the sidelines until January?

"The transition may pit the demand for change with the need for continuity in treating the ailing financial system. 'That's the dilemma for Obama and McCain,' said presidential historian Robert Dallek. 'That's going to be ticklish business -- to keep a certain distance from Bush but to say and do things' to inspire confidence and cushion the blows of the worsening recession."

A Global Summit

David Cho, Dan Eggen and Zachary A. Goldfarb write in The Washington Post that Bush on Saturday announced plans "to host an emergency summit of leaders from the world's top economies to map out a response to the global financial crisis,. . . .

"The objectives set for the summit are every bit as far-reaching as those of the 1944 landmark meeting in Bretton Woods, N.H., attended by 44 Allied nations to remake the global financial system after the Great Depression. . . .

"The agenda would address a wide range of challenges such as increasing the transparency of markets, revising the rules that govern the flow of investment around the world and improving oversight of big banks, ratings agencies and hedge funds, a senior White House official said. . . .

"[T]he conclave could give Bush a chance to put his stamp on the global financial system before his term runs out.

"A joint statement issued after a meeting of Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso at Camp David said the European Union, France and the United States had agreed to hold 'a series of summits on addressing the challenges facing the global economy,' starting with one in the United States 'soon after the U.S. elections.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "any discussion of international oversight of financial markets is delicate and, in the White House's view, problematic. . . .

"Just hours before the joint statement, Mr. Bush, in an appearance with Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Barroso at Camp David, warned that any effort to overhaul the international financial system must 'preserve the foundations of democratic capitalism -- a commitment to free markets, free enterprise and free trade.' . . .

"Mr. Bush's offer to hold a summit meeting in the United States appeared to be an effort by the administration to wrest control of the proceedings from Mr. Sarkozy. Earlier Saturday, Mr. Sarkozy secured the agreement of the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to host a meeting in December. But the senior White House official said that offer was now moot."

But wait -- after the election, Bush will be even more of a lame duck than he is today. So what use is all of this?

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush took no questions in making his announcement and said nothing about the role his successor might play at the summit. But a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the gathering's details, said, 'Of course we would be interested in the views of the president-elect and would welcome his input.'

"The official also left open the possibility that the president-elect, who will take office Jan. 20, would be invited to the summit. That could transform it from a meeting at which Bush, as a lame duck, might be unwilling to agree to significant reforms into a gathering of potentially more consequence."

Sandy Levinson blogs for Balkinization: "So what exactly will constitute George W. Bush's 'hosting' duties? Will he serve the visitors drinks and introduce them to his successor, noting that he (Bush) has become a truly dead duck and should basically be ignored? Or will he purport to negotiate and to 'represent' the interests of the US, even if (or perhaps especially if) his successor has decidedly different notions of what those interests are? Will Sarkozy and Brown (and others in attendance) constantly be looking over Bush's shoulder in order to move away and talk with Obama or McCain? Or will they feel a duty to pretend to take Bush seriously?"

Recession Watch

The Associated Press reports: "One of President Bush's top economic advisers said Sunday that parts of the country probably already are experiencing a recession and it could take a few months before the clogged credit system starts working again. . . .

"The White House has been loath to use that word, both because the technical definition has not been met and because it carries such negative weight.

"Speaking in a broadcast interview Sunday from California, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers noted that national unemployment stands at 6.1 percent. Ed Lazear said some parts of the country, such as California, have even higher rates of people out of work.

"'We are seeing what I think anyone would characterize as a recession in certain parts of the country,' Lazear said."

Iraq Watch

Mary Beth Sheridan and Ernesto Londoño write in The Washington Post: "Key members of the Iraqi parliament's largest political bloc have called for all American troops to leave this country in 2011 as a condition for allowing the U.S. military to stay here beyond year's end, officials said Sunday.

"The change sought by the influential United Iraqi Alliance would harden the withdrawal date for U.S. troops. A draft bilateral agreement completed this week would require American forces to leave by December 2011 but would allow for an extension by mutual agreement. . . .

"The concerns voiced by Shiite lawmakers represent a significant stumbling block in what many U.S. and Iraqi officials anticipate will be a contentious process that could take weeks -- if it succeeds at all."

Alissa J. Rubin and Suadad Al-Salhy write in the New York Times: "From the American standpoint, there is no satisfactory backup option, and without legal authorization for the military's continued presence in Iraq, the troops cannot function."

Torture Watch

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) writes in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post: "The Oct. 15 news story ' CIA Tactics Endorsed in Secret Memos; Waterboarding Got White House Nod' confirmed what President Bush indicated in an interview with ABC News in June: that the administration not only knew of but also approved the use of torture as an interrogation technique against detainees in the war on terrorism. . . .

"In June, I sent a letter with 56 other members of Congress to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey requesting that he appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the administration's policies regarding the interrogation of detainees have violated federal criminal laws. The administration responded that because U.S. officials had acted in good faith while engaging in waterboarding and other activities, they were somehow above U.S. law, specifically the War Crimes Act and the Anti-Torture Act. This response was indicative of the callous disregard the administration has shown toward the Constitution since coming to power in 2001. The Democratic-led Congress remains extremely concerned about torture as an interrogation technique and will continue to hold administration officials accountable for their actions even after they leave office."

Gitmo Watch

Laura Rozen blogs for Mother Jones: "A potentially explosive new court filing by the lawyers for Lakhdar Boumediene and five other Guantanamo detainees suggests that the Bush administration ordered the Bosnian government to arrest and hold the men after an exhaustive Bosnian investigation had found them innocent of any terrorism related activity and had ordered their release, in order to use them as props in Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech."

The filing "lays out the case that the Bush administration threatened at the highest levels to withdraw diplomatic and military aid to the Balkan nation if Bosnia released the men, which its own three-month investigation had found innocent of any terrorism charges in the days leading up to Bush's January 2002 State of the Union."

In his speech, Bush claimed: "Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy."

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is seeking to recall a military jury that gave a light sentence to Osama bin Laden's driver in one of the first trials at Guantanamo Bay, arguing that the judge improperly credited the defendant for time he had already spent in the detention facility."

Bypassing the Law

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "In a newly disclosed legal memorandum, the Bush administration says it can bypass laws that forbid giving taxpayer money to religious groups that hire only staff members who share their faith.

"The administration, which has sought to lower barriers between church and state through its religion-based initiative offices, made the claim in a 2007 Justice Department memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel. It was quietly posted on the department's Web site this week."

The memo draws "a sweeping conclusion that even federal programs subject to antidiscrimination laws can give money to groups that discriminate. . . .

"But several law professors who specialize in religious issues called the argument legally dubious."

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post that legal experts predict that many rulings of the Office of Legal Counsel will be made public in the waning days of the Bush administration, "as officials try to lock in policies they favor before a successor takes the stage.

"Dawn E. Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor and a former acting chief of the OLC, asserted that the Bush administration's broad view of executive power and its tendency to bypass Congress made it all the more important for the next president to begin reviewing legal opinions right after the November election."

Our Standing in the World

A new public-opinion poll conducted by eight leading world newspapers -- including the Guardian, France's Le Monde, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, Canada's La Presse and Mexico's Reforma -- "shows that opinion of America has dropped sharply since the start of the decade. In France 75% say their view of the US has got worse or much worse since President George Bush replaced Bill Clinton in 2001; in Canada 77%; in Switzerland 86% and in Japan 62%. . . .

"In British results, from ICM/Guardian polling, 67% of voters say their opinion of the US is worse than it was before the Bush presidency began. Only 21% say it has improved. . . .

"Many people now fear rather than warm to America. In France 25% of voters say relations with the US are tense, against 38% who say they are friendly and 39% who think they are neutral. In Japan only 16% say friendship and 19% tension, with 62% neutral. In no country does a majority think relations should be described as friendly. . . .

"The survey also finds strong opposition to any attack on Iran and - in the six countries questioned on the issue - majority support for a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq."

Cheney Watch

The New York Post editorial board wishes Vice President Cheney a speedy recovery from his latest round of heart problems, and adds: "That not all Americans would wish Cheney a quick recovery is a sad commentary on a currently polarized society.

"Yes, Cheney is one of the most controversial VPs in US history, but he is also an extraordinarily dedicated public servant.

"During a period of profound international instability and danger, Cheney has been unafraid to make tough decisions. Indeed, he's been a forceful presence in the Bush administration.

"In return, he has been demonized by Democrats, liberal activists and the media."

As it happens, Cheney is flying to Missouri today to headline two private fundraisers for Republican candidates. There's a luncheon for congressional candidate Blaine Luetkemeyer and an afternoon reception at Rush Limbaugh's brother's house for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder's re-election campaign.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "And this week, President Bush announced a $250 billion . . . plan for the government to directly buy shares of the nation's leading banks to make sure they're run properly. They're going to make sure they're run properly, yeah. Because one thing we know is that the people who gave us a $9 trillion debt, they know how to handle money."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's haunted house, Walt Handelsman on Bush's finger pointing, Signe Wilkinson on Bush's achievements, Dwane Powell on Bush the chicken and Ted Rall on Bush's next move.

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