Waiting for Obama

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 7, 2008; 12:13 PM

Reduced to obsolescence -- and fighting off emotions -- President Bush is apparently joining the legion of Americans waiting for Barack Obama.

Jeff Zeleny and Jackie Calmes write in the New York Times: "With the global economy on a knife's edge . . . the financial markets, foreign leaders and even the Bush administration are looking to Mr. Obama for signs of how he will manage the crisis. . . .

"The Obama camp is feeling pressure from the administration, according to several people familiar with the situation, specifically from Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., to 'co-own' the bailout program, which remains unpopular among voters despite a broad consensus that it was essential to avert wider economic collapse.

"The Treasury has reserved office space, so far unused, for Obama representatives. . . .

"In responding, Mr. Obama must strike a delicate balance between cooperating with an unpopular president whose policies he campaigned to change, and the inclination to wait until he takes charge in two and a half months to prescribe his own remedies. . . .

"Having promised change, Mr. Obama is not eager to join hands with Mr. Bush on the bailout."

Lori Montgomery and Kendra Marr write in The Washington Post: "In hopes of calming panicky markets, Obama is scheduled to meet Monday with President Bush at the White House, a meeting intended to showcase their desire for a smooth transition. Obama will not attend a global economic summit to be held in Washington next weekend, a senior official said, a sign that the outgoing president and his successor are still negotiating the parameters of what will be a delicate relationship over the next two months.

"So far, Bush has given little indication that he plans to allow the election results to alter his course in the final months of his presidency.

"'He doesn't change his principles or his policies,' White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters yesterday."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "The transition is a delicate dance in which the White House keeps the president-elect in the loop, and even solicits his input, but the decisions remain solely the president's.

"On Monday's discussion list for the current and future presidents: the financial crisis and the war in Iraq.

"'We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in,' Bush told a gathering of hundreds of employees from the presidential bureaucracy, gathered on the back lawn of the White House.

"'This will also be America's first wartime presidential transition in four decades,' he said. 'We're in a struggle against violent extremists determined to attack us, and they would like nothing more than to exploit this period of change to harm the American people.'"

And as Feller notes: "Bush's comments to his staff, under a gray sky on the South Lawn, also had the feel of an early goodbye with 75 days left in office. . . .

"By the time he finished speaking and offered a wave to the crowd, Bush grew emotional. Laura Bush leaned in to give him a hug."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "The White House was at his back; in front of him the South Lawn trees were ablaze with autumn colors under gray November skies.

"The speech sounded like a valedictory. At the end, Mr. Bush vowed to keep his promise to 'sprint to the finish,' a remark that seemed to push him to the verge of tears.

"'As we head into the final stretch, I ask you to remain focused on the goals ahead,' Mr. Bush said, his lips pursed and his face reddening slightly. 'I will be honored to stand with you at the finish line.'

James Gerstenzang, who also has photos, blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "The staff's applause triggered an apparent welling of emotions, and Bush did all he could do to keep them under control."

Moving Fast

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that Monday's meeting "underscores how rapidly the complex transition process is unfolding in a time of war and financial crisis. . . .

"No recent president-elect from an opposing party has been received at the White House so soon after an election, with Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter all taking two weeks or more to visit. The 2000 transition was unique because of the contested election between Bush and Al Gore, who did not concede the race until Dec. 13 of that year. Bush met with Clinton in the Oval Office six days later."

Stolberg and Pear write for the Times: "The White House is especially concerned that the nation will be vulnerable during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. In one sign of that, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, flew to Chicago to present Mr. Obama with his first top-secret intelligence briefing on Thursday."

The Legacy Fight Begins

Perino announced yesterday that the White House staff is finally free to start defending the president.

Q. "Dana, there's been a lot of analysis by pundits and commentators about the Obama victory and election, saying that that was in fact a rebuke or repudiation by the voters of eight years of George W. Bush's leadership. How do you react to that?"

Perino: "Over the next couple of months our team will have an opportunity to talk about the President's record. And for the past two years, we studiously followed the President's direction, which was to not insert ourselves in the campaign, not to rise to the debate when we were attacked. And it was really hard sometimes. I made the mistake one time of defending the President during one of the primary debates on health care, and I ended up -- was right in the middle of all the 2008 election debate, and that's not what the President wanted. So we worked very hard to be disciplined and not get ourselves involved in the 2008 campaign. Now we'll have a chance to talk more about what the President has done in the world of education, HIV/AIDS, immigration, energy policy, the economy. We'll have a chance to do that, and I think you'll start seeing that sometime in December."

Q. "Now that the voters have ruled, do you see in any way the voters' decision against another Republican term as being a reflection on how they feel about the President?"

Perino: "I think it could be a reflection of a lot of things."

But the legacy fight will be an uphill battle for the White House.

Ed Hornick writes for CNN: "With record low approval ratings and intense criticism for his handling of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the economy, the word most used to label George W. Bush's presidency will be 'incompetent,' historians say.

" 'Right now there is not a lot of good will among historians. Most see him as a combination of many negative factors,' said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

"'He is seen as incompetent in terms of how he handled domestic and foreign policy. He is seen as pushing for an agenda to the right of the nation and doing so through executive power that ignored the popular will,' he added."

Then again, "Harvard University political history scholar Barbara Kellerman said when President-elect Barack Obama takes over in January, people may view Bush in a new light.

"'I think it's possible when people have stopped being as angry at the Bush administration as they are now ... that they will realize that some of this is just . . . the luck of the draw.'"

Ronald Brownstein writes in the National Journal: "The 2008 election represented a final grade on Bush's bruising and polarizing political strategy. To a degree unmatched by modern presidents, Bush governed more by mobilizing his base than by reaching out to voters and interests beyond it. His legislative strategy centered on minimizing dissent among congressional Republicans; his electoral strategy revolved around maximizing his vote among Republicans and conservative independents. On both fronts, his guiding principle was deepen, not broaden.

"Through Bush's first term, that approach generated undeniable successes. The congressional Republican majority, demonstrating levels of party unity unequaled since around 1900, passed key elements of his agenda. A skillfully engineered surge in Republican turnout powered his re-election and GOP congressional gains in 2002 and 2004.

"But through Bush's second term, this insular strategy grew unsustainable. By targeting so many of his policies toward the priorities of his conservative base, Bush ignited volcanic opposition from Democratic voters and steadily alienated independents. Because he had done so little to court voters beyond his ardent core, he lacked a well of good will to draw on when events turned against him, first with Katrina and Iraq, later with the economy. His disapproval rating soared to heights unsurpassed in modern polling."

Realignment Watch

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "[E]ight years after Karl Rove stormed into Washington proclaiming that he would create a 21st-century version of the Republican realignment that emerged from William McKinley's victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896, today's emerging Republican minority looks confined to Bryan's base in America's rural backwaters. The future in American politics belongs to the party that can win a more racially diverse, better educated, more metropolitan electorate. It belongs to Barack Obama's Democrats."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Right now, many commentators are urging Mr. Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform.

"Let's hope that Mr. Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice.

"About the political argument: Anyone who doubts that we've had a major political realignment should look at what's happened to Congress. After the 2004 election, there were many declarations that we'd entered a long-term, perhaps permanent era of Republican dominance. Since then, Democrats have won back-to-back victories, picking up at least 12 Senate seats and more than 50 House seats. They now have bigger majorities in both houses than the G.O.P. ever achieved in its 12-year reign.

"Bear in mind, also, that this year's presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies -- and the progressive philosophy won."

MSNBC's Chris Matthews declares Karl Rove "the biggest loser of the year. Karl Rove thought he could build a Republican party by dividing the country, by grabbing what he thought was the cultural right of this country, and using it to build a majority of the country, that this would be a permanent Republican majority based upon division, by harsh choices, the people had to choose between being patriotic or not, being for wars or not, being with the cultural values of the right or not."

Guest Michael Crowley of the New Republic responds: "You know, Rove got his big realignment in the end. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong direction. Better luck next time."

Not Dead Yet

Renee Schoof writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In the next few weeks, the Bush administration is expected to relax environmental-protection rules on power plants near national parks, uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and more mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.

"The administration is widely expected to try to get some of the rules into final form by the week before Thanksgiving because, in some cases, there's a 60-day delay before new regulations take effect. And once the rules are in place, undoing them generally would be a more time-consuming job for the next Congress and administration."

The New York Times editorial board writes about the federal Bureau of Land Management's revived plan to sell oil and gas leases in pristine wilderness areas in eastern Utah that have long been protected from development.

"This sort of pillage would be hard to justify even if Utah's reserves were large enough to make a difference, which they are not. . . .

"This is but the latest of President Bush's last-minute assaults on the environment. The incoming Obama administration will have to quickly review and reverse these decisions or find ways to mitigate the damage."

Rollback Watch

Meanwhile, Democrats are talking rollback.

Ceci Connolly blogs for The Washington Post: "Lawmakers and top health aides on both the House and Senate sides have been preparing lists of what they consider to be the most onerous or offensive Bush administration executive orders, rules and regulations that a President Obama could rescind quickly.

"The most obvious target is lifting federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

"On Obama's final campaign swing through Colorado, Rep. Diana DeGette (D) 'reminded him that since President Bush's restrictions were done by executive order, he can simply reverse them by executive order,' the congresswoman said an interview Thursday. 'He was very receptive to that.'

"Democrats are also pushing to overturn a directive by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt that would make it difficult -- some say impossible -- for states to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program."

Elizabeth Holtzman, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, tells Obama: "One area in which you urgently and immediately need to make a clean break with the failed policies of the Bush administration is the issue of torture. Few things have harmed America's image more in the eyes of the world than the revelations of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere.

"Our treatment of prisoners has become a recruitment tool for Al Qaeda. Torture violates bedrock constitutional values of human dignity implicit in our Bill of Rights. And abandoning torture does not leave us defenseless; as a former district attorney, I have seen smart police work solve impossible cases innumerable times.

"On your first day of office, I urge you to issue an executive order repealing any authorizations for torture or prisoner mistreatment as the first step in making that clean break."

Iraq Watch

What effect has Obama's election had on the bogged-down talks between Iraq and the White House that would set rules for U.S. troops as of January? It depends on who you read.

Ernesto LondoƱo, Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Two days after the election of Barack Obama, Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.

"'Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date,' spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq's position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.

"Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama's views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions. Dabbagh said negotiations to reach a status-of-forces agreement, which would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008, would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month."

Alissa J. Rubin writes in the New York Times: "Barack Obama may have been elected only three days ago, but his victory is already beginning to shift the political ground in Iraq and the region.

"Iraqi Shiite politicians are indicating that they will move faster toward a new security agreement about American troops, and a Bush administration official said he believed that Iraqis could ratify the agreement as early as the middle of this month.

"'Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011,' said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. 'If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama.'"

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The United States delivered Thursday what it said was the final text of the controversial accord on the stationing of U.S. forces in Iraq, but Iraq said more talks are needed before the government can accept it. . . .

"Administration officials said President Bush sees the agreement as key to shaping his legacy on Iraq. They said Bush wanted to leave the presidency with a solidified relationship between the United States and an indisputably sovereign Iraq.

"To the White House, 'SOFA is a sign of success,' a second U.S. defense official, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly, told McClatchy."

There are also varying reports about what exactly the latest version of the agreement says about withdrawal.

McClatchy says: "Bush also accepted Iraq's request for firmer language in its call for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of 2011, two defense officials said, although they did not know the details of the wording."

The Post says: "References to the 2011 withdrawal deadline were modified to emphasize that any troops remaining beyond that date would be there by Iraqi invitation."

The Times says: "The Americans also added language to make explicit what kinds of troops would remain after the withdrawal in 2011, said a Bush administration official knowledgeable about the security pact. Those still in Iraq would be primarily trainers and air traffic controllers, the official said."

Afghanistan Watch

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration, in the midst of a wide review of its war strategy in Afghanistan, is likely to recommend soon to the incoming Obama administration that the U.S. push for further expansion of the Afghan army as the surest path to an eventual U.S. withdrawal, The Associated Press has learned.

"It's too late in President Bush's tenure for a major change of direction in Afghanistan, but the White House wants to produce a kind of road map for the next administration, not just in terms of military effort but also in other areas such as integrating U.S. and international civilian and military aid."

Middle East Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The White House made it official yesterday: There will be no Middle East peace pact on President Bush's watch.

"The long-shot effort by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been written off months ago by many analysts in both the region and the United States, but the White House had insisted that a deal remained possible. Yesterday, however, just two days after Barack Obama was elected president, officials confirmed that they will leave the issue to the new president."

The View From Abroad

Alan Cowell writes in the New York Times: "From the front lines of Iraq to more genteel spots like Harry's Bar in Paris, the election of Barack Obama unlocked a floodgate of hope that a new American leader will redeem promises of change, rewrite the political script and, perhaps as important as anything else, provide a kind of leadership that will erase the bitterness of the Bush years."

New White House Forming

I wrote yesterday about Obama's selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff.

Anne E. Kornblut and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "The selection of the fellow Illinois Democrat, a close Obama friend who embraces a sharp-edged approach to politics, could signal a rapid succession of appointments. Obama is expected to announce in the coming days that he will place two senior campaign aides, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, in key roles. Those early staffing decisions, coupled with reports that a number of prominent and established people are under consideration for Cabinet roles, suggests that Obama is focused more on projecting a reassuring image of continuity and competence than of quickly bringing wholesale change to a nation facing two wars and a severe economic downturn. . . .

"'What is beginning to take shape is a group of people that are unified in their purpose but diversified in their perspectives and views,' said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). 'All of them are rooted in pragmatism and reality in the context of accomplishing demonstratable results. He's going to have a group of people that from Day One all know what they're doing, are deeply committed to Senator Obama's philosophy, but isn't a 'yes' group, not at all.'"

James Carney writes for Time: "Throughout the presidential campaign, Republicans took delight in portraying Barack Obama as all talk and no action. But his naming of Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff shows that the Democratic President-Elect has no intention of letting that charge stick.

"Obama may speak beautifully and inspirationally about hope and change, about bipartisan cooperation and a better America. But he clearly understands that you just can't sit around talking about all the good things you want to do when you get to the White House and then expect them to happen all by themselves. . . .

"Instead, you bring in a guy like Emanuel, the most hard-headed, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed, smart-as-hell, get-it-done-or-get-out-of-my-way Washington insider of his generation. And you put him in charge of a White House staff whose task it is -- and this is putting it conservatively -- to conceive, propose, promote and somehow push through Congress the most ambitious agenda any President has carried forth at least since Ronald Reagan rode into town with a lopsided grin in January 1981."

Steve Hendrix and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "According to two previous inhabitants of the office next door to the Oval Office, Emanuel's key asset as chief of staff will be his well-established friendship with his new boss. That probably will be enough to compensate for the political brush fires sparked by Emanuel's flint-and-steel personality.

"'The job is to tell the president what he needs to know, not necessarily what he wants to know,' said Kenneth Duberstein, who served as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. 'Because of his relationship with the president-elect, Rahm will be able to deliver not just the good news but the tough news as well. He has the ability to be a reality therapist inside the White House.'

"Mack McLarty, Clinton's first chief of staff, who has known Emanuel since the 'War Room' days of the 1992 presidential campaign, agreed.

"'My sense is that they have a relationship that is authentic and that will give them an important level of trust,' McLarty said. 'Given that, I think the strength of his high-energy personality will serve him well.'"

First Dog Bites Reporter

Kathleen Koch and Erika Dimmler write for CNN: "President Bush's dog, Barney, demonstrated his technique for dealing with the media Thursday . . . sinking his teeth into Reuters TV White House correspondent Jon Decker. . . .

"The First Dog's teeth punctured the skin and Decker started bleeding, so he was sent to see presidential physician, Dr. Richard Tubb. Tubb gave Decker a two- to three-day supply of antibiotics, and told him to come back Friday for a tetanus booster.

"'I don't know what he did, but apparently Barney didn't like it,' says April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network, who captured the entire incident on her Flip video camera."

Here's the gripping video.

Denver Three Watch

The Denver Post reports: "A federal judge has dismissed part of a lawsuit filed by two activists who said their rights were violated by White House officials and volunteers when they were removed from a 2005 visit to Lowry by President Bush.

"U.S. District Court Chief Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that Leslie Weise and Alex Young had no constitutional right to be present at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum because it was a 'limited private forum or limited nonpublic forum.'

"'President Bush had the right, at his own speech, to ensure that only his message was conveyed,' Daniel wrote. 'When the president speaks, he may choose his own words.' . . .

"Weise and Young were among three people, referred to as the 'Denver Three,' removed from the museum before Bush started speaking. They had obtained tickets for the taxpayer-financed event from a local congressional office, but when they pulled into the parking lot in a car bearing the bumper sticker 'No More Blood For Oil,' they were pegged as potential troublemakers by White House staff."

Will They?

Alexander Panetta writes for the Canadian Press: "The U.S. ambassador to this country offers an audacious prediction to Canadians who might be eager to see the back of the White House's exiting occupant . . .

"David Wilkins . . . has often described Bush as a personal friend and continues to defend his president in the face of bleak approval ratings back home and widespread contempt abroad. . . .

"He described Bush as a man who has kept North America safe, who has strongly supported the free trade that has enriched Canada, and who has responded to concerns over softwood lumber and border security. . . .

"'Many Canadians might be surprised by this statement,' Wilkins told The Canadian Press.

"'But I would submit to you that Canadians are going to miss George Bush more than they think they are.'"

Whitehouse.gov Watch

Christina Bellantoni writes for the Washington Times: "The Web address won't change, but WhiteHouse.gov will never look the same. . . .

"[A]ll signs point to a revolutionized way of White House communication with America and the world.

"'The most interesting thing to watch will be what do they and how do they reinvent the way a president speaks to the American people,' said Simon Rosenberg of the liberal think tank NDN and a veteran of the Clinton White House.

"'There's no doubt this is going to be more of a YouTube presidency than a fireside chat presidency,' he said. . . .

"Mr. Obama will inherit a Web operation that has improved over the years but is sterile - a press release clearinghouse with no blog and which shares little in common with the vibrant graphics- and video-heavy BarackObama.com that attracted millions of supporters.

"The Obama team went live Thursday with Change.gov, which included blog postings and had a similar framework for providing information to Web users."

Kevin Anderson blogs for the Guardian: "After watching Barack Obama's effective and innovative digital strategy use social networking and mobile phones to communicate with his supporters and also give them ways to channel their enthusiasm into action, I was left thinking what he might do with that digital network once he was elected. . . .

"We're getting a sense of what that looks like with Change.gov."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: "Barack Obama is now gonna receive the daily White House intelligence briefing on things like, you know, security and terrorism, stuff like that. It's the same briefing President Bush gets every day, but without the pictures and the color by numbers."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on the White House attic, Adam Zyglis on the landslide, Bob Gorrell on the big headline, and Mike Lane on the fond farewell.

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