Plotting Bush's Undoing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 10, 2008; 12:48 PM

It looks like the Obama White House won't be wasting any time when it comes to rolling back the Bush agenda.

Ceci Connolly and R. Jeffrey Smith write in Sunday's Washington Post: "Transition advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have compiled a list of about 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts working with the transition team.

"A team of four dozen advisers, working for months in virtual solitude, set out to identify regulatory and policy changes Obama could implement soon after his inauguration. The team is now consulting with liberal advocacy groups, Capitol Hill staffers and potential agency chiefs to prioritize those they regard as the most onerous or ideologically offensive, said a top transition official who was not permitted to speak on the record about the inner workings of the transition.

"In some instances, Obama would be quickly delivering on promises he made during his two-year campaign, while in others he would be embracing Clinton-era policies upended by President Bush during his eight years in office.

"'The kind of regulations they are looking at' are those imposed by Bush for 'overtly political' reasons, in pursuit of what Democrats say was a partisan Republican agenda, said Dan Mendelson, a former associate administrator for health in the Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget. The list of executive orders targeted by Obama's team could well get longer in the coming days, as Bush's appointees rush to enact a number of last-minute policies in an effort to extend his legacy."

Here's John Podesta, Obama's transition chief, on Fox News Sunday: "There's a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we'll see the president do that. . . .

"I think that he feels like he has a real mandate for change. We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set."

Podesta in particular scolded Bush for last-minute administration maneuvers, such as planning to sell oil and gas leases in pristine wilderness areas in eastern Utah. "They want to have oil and gas drilling in some of the most sensitive, fragile lands in Utah that they're going to try to do right as they -- walking out the door. I think that's a mistake."

Closing Guantanamo

Marisa Taylor and Michael Doyle wrote on Friday for McClatchy Newspapers: "From expansive executive privilege to hard-line tactics in the war on terrorism, Obama must decide what he'll undo and what he'll embrace."

Among the thorniest issues: "How does he close the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba? He's pledged to shutter it, but how quickly can he do so when it holds some detainees whom no administration would want to release?

"Obama has declared coercive interrogation methods such as waterboarding unconstitutional and illegal, but will his Justice Department investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials who ordered or condoned such techniques?

"Will the new administration press to learn the full extent of the Bush administration's electronic eavesdropping and data-mining activities, and will it curtail or halt some of them?"

Well, we may now have the answer to question number one, at least.

Matt Apuzzo and Lara Jakes Jordan write for the Associated Press this morning: "President-elect Obama's advisers are quietly crafting a proposal to ship dozens, if not hundreds, of imprisoned terrorism suspects to the United States to face criminal trials, a plan that would make good on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but could require creation of a controversial new system of justice.

"During his campaign, Obama described Guantanamo as a 'sad chapter in American history' and has said generally that the U.S. legal system is equipped to handle the detainees. But he has offered few details on what he planned to do once the facility is closed.

"Under plans being put together in Obama's camp, some detainees would be released and many others would be prosecuted in U.S. criminal courts.

"A third group of detainees -- the ones whose cases are most entangled in highly classified information -- might have to go before a new court designed especially to handle sensitive national security cases, according to advisers and Democrats involved in the talks. . . .

"The move would be a sharp deviation from the Bush administration, which established military tribunals to prosecute detainees at the Navy base in Cuba and strongly opposes bringing prisoners to the United States."

Spencer Ackerman blogs: "[C]onsider not only that this is one of the first initiatives that Obama is pursuing -- it's one of the first that he's leaking, as well. This is as clear a signal as can be sent that the Bush era isn't just over, it will be actively rolled back."

Other Plans

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "US President-elect Barack Obama intends to push a comprehensive programme of social and economic reform beyond an immediate emergency stimulus package, Rahm Emanuel, the next White House chief of staff, indicated on Sunday.

"Mr Emanuel brushed aside concerns that an Obama administration would risk taking on too much when it takes office in January. He said Mr Obama saw the financial meltdown as an historic opportunity to deliver the large-scale investments that Democrats had promised for years¿

"In a radio address to the nation on Saturday, Mr Obama emphasised the urgency both of passing a fiscal stimulus package, which could include a middle-class tax cut, and of moving swiftly ahead on long-term public investments.

"'We can't afford to wait on moving forward on the key priorities that I identified during the campaign, including clean energy, healthcare, education and tax relief for middle-class families,' said Mr Obama. 'We also need a rescue plan for the middle class that invests in immediate efforts to create jobs and provides relief to families watching their paychecks shrink and their life savings disappear.'"

Not Everything Will Change

Alec MacGillis and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post about "a trio of Bush appointees who will likely stay in place for at least the first year or two of Obama's presidency.

"In confronting the financial crisis and weakening economy, Obama must turn to Ben S. Bernanke, a Republican and former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, who will lead the Federal Reserve for at least the first year of the new administration.

"In assuming control of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama must work with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was appointed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for a two-year term that will end in late 2009 and, by tradition, can expect to be appointed for a second term as the president's top military adviser. . . .

"And in guarding against terrorist attacks -- while correcting what he considers the Bush administration's excesses -- Obama will rely upon FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, whose term expires in 2011."

Today's Historic Visit

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Barack Obama has never set foot in the Oval Office. Talk about making an entrance. In a sit-down discussion Monday with President Bush, the president-elect will get his first feel for the place where momentous decisions will soon fall to him. . . .

"The moment is sure to be steeped in history, part of a symbolic changing of a guard to Democratic leadership and the country's first black president. But it will be substantive as well, as Bush and Obama are expected to review the nation's enormous economic downturn and the war in Iraq.

"'I'm going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship, and a sense that both the president and various leaders of Congress all recognize the severity of the situation right now and want to get stuff done,' Obama said last week when asked about his meeting with Bush. . . .

" Josh Bolten, Bush's chief of staff, said Bush and Obama will be the only ones in the room when they meet.

"'I'm sure each of them will have a list of issues to go down,' Bolten said, interviewed on C-SPAN by reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post. 'But I think that's something very personal to both of them. I know the president will want to convey to President-elect Obama his sense of how to deal with some of the most important issues of the day. But exactly how he does that, I don't know, and I don't think anybody will know.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "For nearly two years on the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama rarely missed a chance to take a swipe at President Bush. The name George W. Bush invariably followed the phrase 'failed policies' in Mr. Obama's speeches. 'When George Bush steps down,' Mr. Obama once declared, 'the world is going to breathe a sigh of relief.'

"On Monday, Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, may find himself conveniently forgetting those words -- or at least delicately stepping around the fact that he had said them. As the president-elect, he will be welcomed at the White House as an honored guest of its current occupant, Mr. Bush, for a meeting that could be as awkward as it is historic. . . .

"For Mr. Bush, the meeting has a distinct upside: the chance to take the edge off his unpopularity. Democrats are already praising him as gracious for his post-election speech in the Rose Garden, where he said it would be a 'stirring sight' to see the Obama family move into the White House. The meeting on Monday will give Mr. Bush an opportunity to produce lasting images of that graciousness.

"'The important thing he gets out of it,' the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, 'is a public perception of him as somebody who is leaving in classy fashion, by opening his house and his information and his government. He wants to leave on a note that says he did everything possible to help this next president run the country.'"

Indeed, Lydia Saad reports for Gallup: "Monday's White House meeting between President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama presents a remarkable contrast between one of the least popular two-term presidents in modern times at the close of his administration, and one of the most popular candidates to win the presidency.

"According to Gallup Poll Daily tracking from Nov. 6-8, only 27% of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing as president. This contrasts with the 70% of Americans holding a favorable view of Obama."

And Paul Steinhauser

writes: "As President-elect Obama visits the White House, a new national poll suggests that the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the most unpopular president in the six decades since presidential approval ratings were first measured.

"Seventy-six percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Monday disapprove of how George W. Bush is handling his job as President. That's an all-time high in CNN polling, or in Gallup polling dating back to World War II."

"'No other president's disapproval rating has gone higher than 70 percent. Bush has managed to do that three times so far this year,' says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. 'That means that Bush is now more unpopular than Richard Nixon was when he resigned from office during Watergate with a 66 percent disapproval rating.'"

An Earlier Encounter

In this excerpt from his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounted two early meetings with Bush. At the second, Bush called Obama over -- "Obama!" -- and after some smalltalk, "[t]he president turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president's hand," Obama wrote. "'Want some?' the president asked. 'Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.' Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt."

According to Obama, Bush then gave him the following advice: "You've got a bright future. Very bright. But I've been in this town a while and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you've been getting, people start gunnin' for ya. And it won't necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip. Know what I mean? So watch yourself."

But at an earlier White House breakfast, Obama wrote that he had "witnessed a different side of the man.

"The president had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points -- the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform social security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees -- when suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch.

"The president's eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and I appreciated the wisdom of America's founding fathers in designing a system to keep power in check."

Bill Sammon of Fox News writes: "President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama are probably hoping their meeting Monday goes better than their first get-together, which left a bad taste in the mouths of both men."

Sammon writes: "When I quoted from this passage to Bush during an Oval Office interview, the president seemed irritated to learn he had been taken to task by the senator he once counseled.

"'I thought I was actually showing some kindness,' Bush said indignantly. 'And out of that he came with this belief?'

"The president added with a bit of a scowl: 'He doesn't know me very well.'"

Keeping His Distance

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Barack Obama speaks, and the world listens -- more intently, at this point, than it does to the actual president of the United States. President-elect Obama can inspire and alarm, calm markets or add to jitters. And with the nation in economic crisis, he seems keenly aware of that. . . .

"But he is avoiding doing anything now, either as a sitting senator or as president-elect, that would give him ownership of decisions made between now and Inauguration Day. Obama will not attend the G-20 meeting on Nov. 15, a summit of world leaders to be convened in Washington for crisis economic talks."

And Robert Schmidt and Kristin Jensen write for Bloomberg: "Barack Obama doesn't plan to name a Treasury secretary or fill other top positions on his economic team this week, people familiar with the matter said, as he tries to keep from being drawn into Bush administration decisions he may disagree with. . . .

"Postponing the appointment beyond this week avoids putting Obama's team in an awkward position as Bush hosts a world economic summit in Washington Nov. 14 and 15. Obama's advisers don't want the president-elect or any senior appointees to be involved in meeting.

"'The Bush administration is of the mind that misery loves company,' said Paul Light, a professor of organization studies at New York University. 'Obama is well advised to stay away from the summit and keep his staff away from the summit.'

"Leaders of the European Union last week gave Obama an out, calling for a second summit meeting at least 100 days after this weekend's gathering in Washington. That would mean the next meeting would occur after Obama has been sworn in as president on Jan. 20."

Transition Watch

Robert Barnes, Dan Eggen and Anne E. Kornblut write in The Washington Post: "Faced with one of the most important transfers of presidential power in American history -- amid wars on two fronts, the looming threat of terrorism at home and a full-blown economic crisis -- the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama team have responded with exceptional cooperation on those issues, aides and outside experts say. . . .

"Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, said the White House is even preparing a 'tabletop' exercise to simulate how Obama's national security officials should respond in the event of a terrorist attack. . . .

"'I think that Bush sees this as an important part of his legacy and really believes that how you go out is a good measure of who you are,' said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is advising the transition panel."

But give it time.

"The Bush White House has a 'well-deserved reputation for secrecy,' [Paul C. Light, a transition expert at New York University] said, which he expects to come into conflict with the desire of the Obama team for classified information, ongoing policy memoranda and ways to 'penetrate the day-to-day workings of the administration.'

"'Obama is going to want more access than Bush is willing to give,' Light said."

Opinion Watch

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column about Obama's victory: "The festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place -- in cities all over America.

He continues: "The post-Bush-Rove Republican Party is in the minority because it has driven away women, the young, suburbanites, black Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, educated Americans, gay Americans and, increasingly, working-class Americans. Who's left? The only states where the G.O.P. increased its percentage of the presidential vote relative to the Democrats were West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas. Even the North Carolina county where Palin expressed her delight at being in the 'real America' went for Obama by more than 18 percentage points.

"The actual real America is everywhere. It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of 'patriotism.' What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That's not who we are."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that "after nearly eight years of a president who could barely form a coherent sentence, much less a strategic thought . . . [w]hat Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back. Sense and pragmatism and the idea of considering-all-the-options are back. Studying one's enemies and thinking through strategic problems are back. Cultural understanding is back. Yahooism and jingoism and junk science about global warming and shabby legal reasoning about torture are out. The national culture of flag-pin shallowness that guided our foreign policy is gone with the wind. And for this reason as much as any, perhaps I can renew my pride in being an American."

Nicholas Kristoff writes in his New York Times opinion column that Bush "adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can't think of anybody I've ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column that "now we have the delicious irony that a white president from a patrician family, whose administration was so negligent about America's poor and black citizens, was so incompetent that he helped elect the first black president."

Dead Ender Watch

Jim Towey, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about his former boss: "Count me among those who will miss him and his bedrock decency. . . .

"Mother Teresa was asked at the end of her life whether she was discouraged because after decades of caring for the dying and destitute in Calcutta little seemed to have changed. She replied, 'No. God doesn't call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful.'

"History will decide whether George W. Bush was a successful President. But he was faithful. He had a charge to keep and he kept it."

Another Secret Order

Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "The United States military since 2004 has used broad, secret authority to carry out nearly a dozen previously undisclosed attacks against Al Qaeda and other militants in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, according to senior American officials.

"These military raids, typically carried out by Special Operations forces, were authorized by a classified order that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed in the spring of 2004 with the approval of President Bush, the officials said. The secret order gave the military new authority to attack the Qaeda terrorist network anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the United States. . . .

"According to a senior administration official, the new authority was spelled out in a classified document called 'Al Qaeda Network Exord,' or execute order, that streamlined the approval process for the military to act outside officially declared war zones. Where in the past the Pentagon needed to get approval for missions on a case-by-case basis, which could take days when there were only hours to act, the new order specified a way for Pentagon planners to get the green light for a mission far more quickly, the official said."

Bush Legacy Watch

Jonathan Mahler writes in the New York Times Magazine: "The assertion and expansion of presidential power is arguably the defining feature of the Bush years. Come January, the current administration will pass on to its successor a vast infrastructure for electronic surveillance, secret sites for detention and interrogation and a sheaf of legal opinions empowering the executive to do whatever he feels necessary to protect the country. The new administration will also be the beneficiary of Congress's recent history of complacency, which amounts to a tacit acceptance of the Bush administration's expansive views of executive authority. For that matter, thanks to the recent economic bailout, Bush's successor will inherit control over much of the banking industry. 'The next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House,' Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale and an influential legal blogger, told me a few weeks ago."

George Packer blogs for the New Yorker: "Since the Clinton years, this has been the era of the permanent campaign, with the line between running for election and running the country practically erased. Bush took Karl Rove into the White House, turned policy into an arm of politics, and governed the same way he campaigned: treat the press as an out-of-favor interest group, control the message at all cost, repeat it incessantly regardless of changing facts, admit no mistakes, show no uncertainty, reward loyalists, and ignore critics or else, if necessary, destroy them. This approach to what's known as strategic communications won Bush two elections; it also helped destroy his Presidency. Campaigning and governing are not the same. They are closer to being opposites. . . .

"The problem with strategic communications is that the White House that lives by it slowly becomes incapable of dealing with reality. When bad news comes, the impulse is to deny it, and that impulse turns into a mental habit. Eventually, those in power are the last to figure out the truth (in this sense, Katrina was a direct result of the kind of mentality that had already led to disaster in Iraq). The Administration can't answer the arguments of its critics because it has long since stopped listening to them. It finds itself increasingly isolated, not just from potential supporters, but from the truth."

Packer urges Obama to "make himself and his aides more, not less, available to reporters than they've been. Not just because I belong to that particular interest group and it would be the democratic thing to do. It's because I want him to succeed."

Late Night Humor

Jimmy Kimmel, via U.S. News: "Obama held the first news conference today as president-elect. Some veteran White House reporters were a little bit confused because he didn't make up any words and almost everything he said made sense."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the cheering crowds, Dwane Powell on getting ready for the big visit, Daniel Wasserman on filling Bush's shoes, Kevin Siers on Bush's victory phone call, Jim Morin on the big trap, Rob Rogers on Bush's legacy and Ann Telnaes on Bush's sprint to the finish.

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