Concierge in Chief

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 14, 2008; 12:38 PM

Nobody cares what President Bush has to say anymore, and that will become even more blisteringly obvious starting tonight, as he plays host to a group of world leaders worried about the international economy. Our sitting president is almost completely irrelevant, except to the extent that he can soak up blame for the world financial crisis -- and throw a good party.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times: "President Bush delivered an impassioned defense of free-market capitalism on Thursday, on the eve of an international summit meeting where he is expected to get a tongue-lashing from foreign leaders who view the United States and his administration as responsible for worldwide financial misery.

"In a defiant declaration in his waning days as president, Mr. Bush traveled to Wall Street -- ground zero for a financial crisis that has spread around the globe -- to declare that the American system is still 'the engine of social mobility' and deliver an apparent warning to the world's leaders, and the incoming Obama administration, not to draw the wrong lessons."

The Times calls Bush's speech "an attempt to put him front and center in advance of the summit meeting, and to frame the debate on his terms."

But it doesn't seem likely to work. "'He's going to be much more the host and much less the chairman than he realizes,' Adam S. Posen, who advises foreign governments on economic coordination, said of Mr. Bush. 'He's going to be providing the snacks and the venue and making sure everybody's comfortable, but he is not going to be driving the agenda; that's the reality. The agenda-setting is with Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao.' . . .

"For Mr. Bush it is another reminder that his days as 'the decider' are soon to be over."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "After presiding over some of the most dramatic market interventions in U.S. history over the past two months, President Bush came to Wall Street on Thursday to urge world leaders not to venture too far down a path of government interference in capitalist economies. . . .

"Grant Aldonas, a former senior trade official in the Bush administration now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the tenor of the speech suggests Bush 'does not understand his moment.' He also said the administration has lost authority to argue against government intervention in the markets.

"'The disabling of capitalism has already begun and he's the one who started it,' Aldonas said. 'It rings hollow for an awful lot of people, not only in the marketplace but for world leaders abroad. . . . They are the ones who are going to have the leverage at the table.'"

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that "the timing, just weeks before Obama takes office, couldn't be worse for the president, already saddled with historically low approval ratings and a legacy darkened by an unpopular war in Iraq and now the financial debacle.

"If the summit ends with little agreement, it will become a forgettable footnote of Bush's handling of the economic crisis.

"If it ends in discord, it could further spook financial markets, only aggravating the economic predicament that Obama will inherit on Jan. 20. . . .

"The summit also could become a forum for critics who blame lax oversight and failures by regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere for the current meltdown, which started in the U.S. housing market and quickly spread across the world. . . .

"There's a desire to 'vent at the United States for creating this crisis and a desire by Russia and some others to at least speak out against the American style of capitalism and American greed, all things that created this crisis,' said Charles Freeman, a former Bush administration trade official. 'And if there is significant relatively public angst that comes out of it, and disunion between the parties at this event, I think that markets will react very, very badly to that.'"

But if the timing stinks, keep in mind that it was of Bush's choosing.

As Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess told Tim Harper of the Toronto Star: "The president knew very well this meeting would happen after the election and he knew the odds were very good that a Democrat was going to be elected.

"So was he challenging his successor, or was he just saying 'I'm still the president, so I will act as president'?"

The summit could still kick start significant changes to the world financial system.

Anthony Faiola and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "Nations are close to adopting a series of measures aimed at combating a global recession and laying the groundwork for a broad reconstruction of the international financial system, as world leaders arrive in Washington for a major economic summit this weekend.

"Among the most notable measures would be a new body to supervise the regulation of global financial institutions. The 'college of supervisors' would bring together international regulators to coordinate oversight of the world's 30 largest financial institutions, according to officials familiar with the plans. The new body would be designed to add an extra level of scrutiny to the way banks are monitored and to catch excessive risk-taking of the sort that contributed to the current economic crisis.

"The United States, European countries, Japan and major developing nations are also close to a deal to create an 'early warning system' to detect weaknesses in the global financial system before they reach epic proportions, according to diplomatic sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans were still being worked out.

But Michael McKee and Simon Kennedy write for Bloomberg: "Any shift toward substantive change to the international financial system will probably wait for another meeting after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

"'The most realistic outcome is an agreement to start putting in place principles for reforms, and then agree to meet again,' said Brad Setser, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Treasury official."

Happy Faces

Bush is the most unpopular president in polling history, but White House aides apparently can still find him a friendly audience. Charlie Hunt of the New York Post wrote in a pool report that Bush was "warmly welcomed at Federal Hall by the Manhattan Institute. Pres. Larry Mone called POTUS a 'profile in courage' for facing the two massive challenges of his presidency -- terrorism and the global market meltdown. 'He has made tough choices that kept America safe,' Mone said to cheers and standing applause."

Shredder Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees last week told the White House to preserve all records produced by the Bush administration and expressed 'particular concerns' whether Vice President Dick Cheney's office will comply with the law.

"'We believe it is vital the presidential and vice presidential documents belonging to the American people be preserved, including those related to key national security decisions in which the (office of the vice president) played an important role,' the senators wrote in the Nov. 7 letter to White House lawyer Fred Fielding. The letter was obtained by The Associated Press.

"The letter was sent by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sen. John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. They asked Fielding to detail steps being taken to preserve White House documents and hand them over to the National Archives and Records Administration.

"The senators asked whether the White House believes that any notes, document and records created in the White House by the president, vice president and their staffs may be destroyed without first consulting with the archivist of the United States, and if so which ones. It also asks whether Fielding has investigated a Washington Post report that some presidential orders are kept off White House records in a safe in office of the vice president's lawyer."

Barton Gellman wrote in The Washington Post in September: "The command center of 'the president's program,' as [senior Cheney aide David] Addington usually called it, was not in the White House. Its controlling documents, which gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency, lived in a vault across an alley from the West Wing -- in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on the east side of the second floor, where the vice president headquartered his staff.

"The vault was in EEOB 268, Addington's office. Cheney's lawyer held the documents, physical and electronic, because he was the one who wrote them. New forms of domestic espionage were created and developed over time in presidential authorizations that Addington typed on a Tempest-shielded computer across from his desk. . . .

"White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had 'no idea,' he said, that the presidential orders were held in a vice presidential safe. An authoritative source said the staff secretariat, which kept a comprehensive inventory of presidential papers, classified and unclassified, possessed no record of these.

"In an interview, Card said the Executive Office of the President, a formal term that encompassed Bush's staff but not Cheney's, followed strict procedures for handling and securing presidential papers.

"'If there were exceptions to that, I'm not aware of them,' he said. 'If these documents weren't stored the right way or put in the right places or maintained by the right people, I'm not aware of it.'"

Rule of Law Watch

Adam Cohen writes in a New York Times opinion piece that Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, "is dedicated to putting the restoration of the rule of law on the agenda of the incoming government. . . .

"Mr. Feingold has been compiling a list of areas for the next president to focus on, which he intends to present to Mr. Obama. It includes amending the Patriot Act, giving detainees greater legal protections and banning torture, cruelty and degrading treatment. He wants to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to restore limits on domestic spying. And he wants to roll back the Bush administration's dedication to classifying government documents.

"Many reforms could be implemented directly by the next president. Mr. Obama could renounce Mr. Bush's extreme views of executive power, including the notion that in many areas, the president can act as he wants without restraint by Congress or the judiciary. Mr. Obama also could declare his intention not to use presidential signing statements as Mr. Bush did in record numbers to reject parts of bills signed into law.

"Congress also has work to do. Many of the excesses of the last eight years have been the result of Mr. Feingold's colleagues' capitulation as much as presidential overreaching. He expects Congress to do more than just fix laws like the Patriot Act. He wants the Senate to question presidential nominees closely at their confirmation hearings about their commitment to the rule of law. And he hopes Congress will do its duty to impose the rigorous supervision it rarely imposed in the Bush years.

"Restoring the rule of law will not be easy, Mr. Feingold concedes. Part of the problem is that it is hard to know how much damage has been done. Many programs, like domestic spying and extraordinary rendition -- the secret transfer of detainees to foreign countries where they are harshly interrogated -- have operated in the shadows."

Justice Watch

Adam Zagorin writes for Time about new documents that highlight alleged misconduct by the Bush-appointed U.S. attorney and other prosecutors in the case of former Democratic Alabama governor Don E. Siegelman, whose conviction on corruption charges in 2006 is widely considered a prime example of the politicization of the Bush Justice Department.

"The documents, obtained by Time, include internal prosecution e-mails given to the Justice Department and Congress by a whistle-blower during the last 18 months. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which investigated the Siegelman case as part of a broader inquiry into alleged political interference in the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys by the Bush Justice Department, last week sent an eight-page letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey citing the new material.

"Conyers says the evidence raises 'serious questions' about the U.S. Attorney in the Siegelman case, who, documents show, continued to involve herself in the politically charged prosecution long after she had publicly withdrawn to avoid an alleged conflict of interest relating to her husband, a top GOP operative and close associate of Bush adviser Karl Rove. Conyers' letter also cites evidence of numerous contacts between jurors and members of the Siegelman prosecution team that were never disclosed to the trial judge or defense counsel.

"The letter to Mukasey is a signal that Democrats intend to probe what critics call the 'dark side' of the Bush Administration even after it leaves office, according to congressional sources. Besides the Siegelman prosecution, such investigations could focus on the authorization of harsh interrogation methods, and the role of the former White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers in the firing of U.S. attorneys."

Remember the Salmon!

It's one of the most visceral images we have of Vice President Dick Cheney's approach to government.

As Jo Becker and Barton Gellman wrote in The Washington Post last year, recounting events in early 2001: "In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake.

"Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. . . .

"Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River."

Now it looks like Bush is trying to clean up Cheney's mess a bit, for posterity's sake.

Peter Fimrite writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The most powerful opponents of efforts to remove four dams that have blocked salmon migration on the Klamath River for the past century did an about-face Thursday and agreed in principle to a dam-removal plan along the California and Oregon border.

"The proposal by Bush administration officials and PacifiCorp, the hydroelectric power company that distributes the water, would not remove the dams for 12 more years. It was nevertheless hailed by fishing groups, tribal representatives and environmentalists as the first big step in the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history.

"'This is a huge milestone toward what would be the largest river-restoration effort ever undertaken,' said Steve Rothert, California director of American Rivers, a national nonprofit river conservation group. 'There's still a lot of work to be done, but PacifiCorp went on record in front of the world and said this is a good deal and good policy.' . . .

"'If the data collected in the next four years shows that removing the four dams is environmentally and economically prudent, then the target date for removal is 2020,' said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, who admitted during a news conference that he is normally opposed to the removal of hydroelectric power plants. 'We had a directive from the president to have a collaborative solution, to do all we can to have an agreement that is visionary. . . . But it takes time.'

Jeff Barnard writes for the Associated Press: "In a statement released by the White House, Bush said the agreement for the dams turns 'what was a conflict into a conservation success.'"

But wait. Not so fast.

Eric Bailey writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the deal, which could require fiscally strapped California to finance $250 million of the demolition costs, came under immediate attack from foes who called it a scheme riddled with loopholes that favor farmers and other allies of the outgoing president. . . .

"Foes of the agreement said it makes no sense to strike a deal weeks before Barack Obama becomes president.

"'It's just nutty to commit to this with Bush heading out the door,' said Tom Schlosser, an attorney for the Hoopa tribe of Northern California.

"He and other foes say PacifiCorp might exploit the agreement as a delaying tactic, arguing that the deal has loopholes that allow the company to back out as late as 2012.

"In the meantime, they said, the agreement will essentially shut down California's water quality hearings on the Klamath dams.

"Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild said the deal also links dam removal to the $1-billion restoration package he believes favors farmers over fish.

"'This has been a well-orchestrated campaign by the Bush administration taking advantage of a desire for dam removal to sell another package that's actually bad for salmon and wildlife,' he said."

Transition Watch

Alexis Simendinger blogs for the National Journal about having "obtained documents sent by White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten to the heads of departments and agencies outlining the transition arrangements worked out between the current and incoming administrations.

"The memos are historical documents that represent the agreements between the two sides, spelling out in detail what the Bush administration will do for the incoming Obama team. The two main documents, a policy statement for department heads and a memorandum of understanding signed last Saturday by Bolten and John Podesta, co-chair of the president-elect's transition team, include a comprehensive discussion about high-level contacts and a clear dispute-resolution mechanism -- an important addition.

First Lady Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Laura Bush, broadening her reach as a foreign policy spokeswoman for the Bush administration, condemned the Taliban on Thursday as 'cowardly and shameful' for this week's attack on eight Afghan schoolgirls who were doused with acid. . . .

"Although she has spoken out on other foreign policy matters, notably human rights abuses in Myanmar, the former Burma, it is unusual for the first lady to issue an official foreign policy statement in her own name."

The Cheney-Biden Meeting

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President-elect Joe Biden was all smiles Thursday when he paid a courtesy call the man he will succeed, Dick Cheney. But he has insisted he wants to be nothing like him. Biden has called Cheney 'the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history' and said he couldn't name a single good thing Cheney had done. . . .

"Despite the harsh words during the campaign, the Cheneys invited Biden and his wife, Jill, to the Naval Observatory, which is the official vice president's residence, for an hourlong tour Thursday. Biden said he had been in some of the first-floor rooms before. But it was his first look at much of the mansion that will be his first Washington residence after decades of commuting by train from Delaware.

"Both couples were on their best behavior, at least during their greetings on the porch that reporters observed. . . .

"As reporters left afterward, a Secret Service agent could be heard telling another agent standing guard for the famously reclusive vice president, 'I haven't seen press here since I've been here.'"

Cox News Service reporter Ken Hermanblogged video from outside the Observatory.

My favorite headline, from the Australian newspaper the Age: "Smiles nailed on as Cheneys and Bidens get cosy."

Leading By Example

Charles Bremner writes in the Times of London about an account that emerged yesterday about a conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, when Sarkozy was in Moscow in August to broker a ceasefire in Georgia.

"With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia's Government. . . . [T]he Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. 'I am going to hang [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili by the balls,' Mr Putin declared.

"Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. 'Hang him?' -- he asked. 'Why not?' Mr Putin replied. 'The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.'

"Mr Sarkozy . . . tried to reason with him: 'Yes but do you want to end up like Bush?' Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: 'Ah -- you have scored a point there.' "

Karl Rove Watch

Luke Thomas reports for FogCityJournal.com: "Two members of the antiwar group CodePink were arrested today after a second attempt to execute a citizens' arrest of former Bush administration chief of staff, Karl Rove, failed.

"The incident took place during a debate between former Senator John Edwards and Rove who were guest speakers at the Commercial Finance Association's annual convention held at the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco.

"While handcuffed to each other and blowing whistles, CodePink members Janine Boneparth, 58, and Nancy Mancias, 38, walked on stage holding up photos of dead soldiers killed in Iraq.

"'Ladies and gentlemen, Karl Rove is a war criminal!' they said.

"The peace activists were escorted off stage, arrested, and later charged with trespassing."

Jason Dearen writes for the Associated Press that Rove "remarked on the handcuff incident by saying a friend told him, 'Don't worry. That's how people in San Francisco say hello.'"

Time Lapse Watch

James Gerstenzang, blogging his last post for the Los Angeles Times, compares "two pictures demonstrating the toll of the years on President George W. Bush: The hair more gray, the wrinkles pronounced.

"The first, in the initial weeks of his presidency, shows a confident Bush at a Townsend, Tenn., elementary school on Feb. 21, 2001. The Twin Towers were still standing. The American economy was still standing tall. Here is a president on top of the world. . . .

"The second, below, shows the president in the Rose Garden on Oct. 14, 2008, speaking to reporters. The topic was the financial rescue package."

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "Earlier today, President Bush was in New York, and he gave a speech about the financial crisis and other major problems facing the country. That's right. The speech was called 'So Long Suckers.'"

Cartoon Watch

Steve Sack, Rex Babin and Mike Luckovich on White House puppies; and Jeff Danziger and Marshall Ramsey on passing the torch.

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