The Return of Debate?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 1, 2008; 12:54 PM

The way President-elect Barack Obama is assembling his brain trust doesn't just indicate a dramatic turn away from President Bush's policies. It also suggests the return of spirited policy debates to a White House that has been largely devoid of them for the last eight years.

Rather than simply hire a new brand of loyalists -- or replace one gut player with another -- Obama is making it clear that he wants his thinking challenged and wants to hear opposing views before he reaches his decisions. That would be a dramatic contrast to the intellectually incurious Bush, who so rarely ventured beyond his bubble of flatterers and yes-men.

Obama this morning introduced his national security team, which includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr. as national security advisor, and Robert M. Gates, the Bush appointee who has agreed to stay on as defense secretary.

"I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I believe that's how the best decisions are made," Obama said. "One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.

"But understand, I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I will expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made . . . The buck will stop with me."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to lead an administration where strong-willed senior officials are ready to argue forcefully for differing points of view.

"It appears that in two months, he'll get his wish, and then some.

"Obama's new national security team is led by three veteran officials who have differed with each other -- and with the president-elect -- on the full menu of security issues, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and Arab-Israel conflict."

Karen DeYoung wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that military leaders value Obama's "greater realism about U.S. military goals and capabilities, which many found lacking during the Bush years.

"'Open and serious debate versus ideological certitude will be a great relief to the military leaders,' said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations. Senior officers are aware that few in their ranks voiced misgivings over the Iraq war, but they counter that they were not encouraged to do so by the Bush White House or the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"'The joke was that when you leave a meeting, everybody is supposed to drink the Kool-Aid,' Nash said. 'In the Bush administration, you had to drink the Kool-Aid before you got to go to the meeting.'"

Last week, upon announcing a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board to be led by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, Obama directly addressed a president's need for people to keep him honest: "The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking -- and those who serve in Washington don't always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren't. This board will provide that perspective to me and my Administration, with an infusion of ideas from across the country and from all sectors of our economy -- input that will be informed by members' first-hand observations of how our efforts are impacting the daily lives of our families."

Noting Obama's choice of economic advisers, David Cho and Alec MacGillis wrote in The Post on Thursday that "a central leadership challenge the president-elect will face: how to manage a stable packed with big brains and bigger personalities -- and how to make decisions when those high-powered experts disagree."

The caution: "Obama's favored approach as a senator -- bringing as many smart people as possible into the room and letting them hash out issues -- could prove less workable when urgent executive decisions must be made."

But they quote James P. Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor and author of "The Strategic Presidency," saying Obama might manage such a team more skillfully than Bush would have because he is a better listener. "It's important for the president to have a broad range of alternative perspectives, but he has to be strong enough not to be threatened by people that he doesn't agree with," Pfiffner said.

And here's another way the Obama White House will be a far sight different than Bush's: There will be no Cheney figure, squelching opposing views. Here's Vice President Cheney watcher and New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer yesterday on CBS's Face the Nation: "You're seeing very strong players divvying up this national security portfolio. So that won't -- it takes a president like Bush to have a vice president like Cheney. Obama so far seems to be so much more involved in the details and in kind of wanting to command the policies all the way up and down. Really, so, I don't see it repeating."

Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column: "President Bush had one overriding criterion in choosing his inner circle: loyalty. The result was nobody would pull the plug on stupidity. Obama wants the kind of competence and brainpower that challenge him. The God-gut decision-making of The Decider got us in this mess. Getting out of it will require an Oval Office where smart dissent is prized."

Jacob Weisberg writes for Newsweek: "I doubt President Obama will have much trouble with disloyalty in his administration, from Clinton or anyone else, for the same reason it wasn't a problem in his campaign: he doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about it. . . .

"Those who fixate on personal allegiance, like Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush, tend to perform far worse in office than those, like FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan and Clinton, who can tolerate strong, independent actors on their teams. . . .

"Bush made personal loyalty a threshold test, and even came to regard private challenge as an indication of untrustworthiness.

"The price was a surfeit of reliable hacks like Alberto Gonzales and outright incompetents like Heckofajob Brownie. . . .

"Team Obama understands that political devotion can no longer be cultivated principally through threats and rewards. Instead, it depends on aides feeling that they're advancing a shared set of goals. To put it a different way, a modern president can't command loyalty. He has to earn it."

As for the new national security team, David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Clinton, Jones and Gates "have embraced a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena.

"The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states."

A senior adviser told Sanger that "the three have all embraced 'a rebalancing of America's national security portfolio' after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years."

Meanwhile, in Washington

Robert Pear writes for the New York Times: "With the economy tumbling and American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush has promised to cooperate with Mr. Obama to make the transition 'as smooth as possible.' But that has not stopped his administration from trying, in its final days, to cement in place a diverse array of new regulations."

For example, Pear writes, the Labor Department "is racing to complete a new rule, strenuously opposed by [Obama], that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job. . . .

"The Labor Department proposal is one of about 20 highly contentious rules the Bush administration is planning to issue in its final weeks. The rules deal with issues as diverse as abortion, auto safety and the environment. One rule would make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas. Another would reduce the role of federal wildlife scientists in deciding whether dams, highways and other projects pose a threat to endangered species. . . .

"A new president can unilaterally reverse executive orders issued by his predecessors, as Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton did in selected cases. But it is much more difficult for a new president to revoke or alter final regulations put in place by a predecessor."

R. Jeffrey Smith and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post that "the Bush White House in the past month has approved 61 new regulations on environmental, security, social and commercial matters that by its own estimate will have an economic impact exceeding $1.9 billion annually.

"Some of the rules benefit key industries that have long had the administration's ear, such as oil and gas companies, banks and farms. Others impose counterterrorism security requirements on importers and private aircraft owners. . . .

"In the environmental area, the latest rules indicate that the Bush administration wants to lend a final assist to industries that feel burdened by looming pollution controls or wilderness-protection laws. A rule approved by the White House three days after the presidential election, for example, would ease constraints on environmentally damaging oil shale development throughout the West, despite objections from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and a majority of the state's congressional delegation. . . .

"Once the new rules take the form of law, Democrats can undo them only by three complicated means: through a new regulatory rulemaking that would probably take years; through congressional amendments to underlying laws; or through special, fast-track resolutions of disapproval approved by the House and Senate within a few months after the start of the new congressional session on Jan. 6.

"Such a quick congressional rebuke has occurred only once before, in 2001, when a Republican-controlled Congress with President Bush's backing blocked a workplace safety regulation completed in the Clinton administration's final months. But recently, spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Democrats were prepared to use that regulatory reversal power in consultation with Obama."

Also see my November 20 column, Approaching the Midnight Hour.

More Landmines

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Two powerful employee organizations are pressing the Bush administration to prove that in its final weeks, political aides are not improperly winning career government jobs at the expense of more qualified workers.

"Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal workers, and the Senior Executives Association, the group representing federal executives, said they want the government to release lists of political appointees who have been hired for career jobs and show whether agencies sought competition for the positions."

Also see my November 18 column, The Burrowing of the Bushies.

And Post reporters are taking a good look at the challenges Obama will face in the federal agencies after eight years of Bush.

Rob Stein wrote on Wednesday: "The Obama administration will inherit a Food and Drug Administration widely seen as struggling to protect Americans from unsafe medication, contaminated food and a flood of questionable imports from China and other countries.

"Shaken by a series of alarming failures, the FDA desperately needs an infusion of strong leadership, money, technology and personnel -- and perhaps a major restructuring, say former officials, members of Congress, watchdog groups and various government reports."

Juliet Eilperin wrote on Friday: "Few federal agencies are expected to undergo as radical a transformation under President-elect Barack Obama as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, which have been at the epicenter of many of the Bush administration's most intense scientific and environmental controversies."

And Michael A. Fletcher writes today: "The next labor secretary will be taking charge of an agency widely criticized for walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety."

Fletcher quotes Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has written several reports critical of the agency's operation under the Bush administration: "I think you've got people embedded there who are philosophically hostile to the mission of the agency."

Pardon Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "We hope President Bush will not abuse the pardon power by putting his appointees, political supporters or friends above the law. . . .

"[H]is record of stonewalling inquiries into his administration's legally questionable behavior -- the torture policy that led to the Abu Ghraib nightmare; illegal wiretapping; the politically motivated firing of federal attorneys -- justify concern that he may be considering pardoning officials involved in those misdeeds.

"The framers envisioned that presidents would be discouraged from misusing the pardon power by the threat of impeachment. But it is a fairly empty threat when they issue pardons in their final days in office.

"The main check on misuse of 11th-hour pardons is the verdict of history. Mr. Bush will be leaving office with extraordinarily low approval ratings. If he wants to try to reclaim his reputation, he can start by not abusing the pardon power on his way out the door."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that "no country should be in the business of concealing its history. Shameful acts took place, and far from everything is known about them. To this day, the trail of decision making from top Pentagon officials to Abu Ghraib perpetrators remains obscured. A bipartisan committee, modeled after the Sept. 11 commission, might obtain definitive answers on how and why antiterrorism decisions were made and executed and by whom. Such an inquiry could answer critical questions about the past, identify anyone who should be held accountable and help future administrations find a better balance.

"The one sure thing is that a blanket pardon from Mr. Bush, even if he has the legal right to issue one, would be wrong. It could make legitimate inquiries more difficult, while inflaming partisan outrage and suspicion. President-elect Barack Obama soon will inherit the power of the pardon. If there are line officers who deserve such protection down the road, Mr. Obama will have time enough to make a fair and just decision."

By contrast, William Kristol writes in the Weekly Standard that, in his final days, "Bush should consider pardoning -- and should at least be vociferously praising -- everyone who served in good faith in the war on terror, but whose deeds may now be susceptible to demagogic or politically inspired prosecution by some seeking to score political points. The lawyers can work out if such general or specific preemptive pardons are possible; it may be that the best Bush can or should do is to warn publicly against any such harassment or prosecution. But the idea is this: The CIA agents who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the NSA officials who listened in on phone calls from Pakistan, should not have to worry about legal bills or public defamation. In fact, Bush might want to give some of these public servants the Medal of Freedom at the same time he bestows the honor on Generals Petraeus and Odierno. They deserve it."

There were no big names in Bush's list of pardons issued last Monday. Carrie Johnson wrote in The Washington Post that Bush "granted pardons to 14 people and shortened the prison terms of two others. . . .

"Over seven years in office, Bush has been reluctant to use his near-absolute authority under the U.S. Constitution, awarding only 157 pardons and six commutations before yesterday.

"But that pattern could ease during the waning days of his term. People close to the process say that lawyers with political connections increasingly have approached the White House directly to seek relief for their high-profile clients, including former junk-bond king Michael Milken, former congressman Randy 'Duke' Cunningham (R-Calif.) and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards."

Amir Efrati wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Friday: "On the surface, the list of the 14 people pardoned by the president this week shows few common denominators in terms of time served, geographic location or even type of crime, except that the felonies were non-violent. But a closer look at some of the newly pardoned shows many of them are church-going, blue-collar workers from rural areas (and ardent Bush supporters) who had little trouble finding jobs after their convictions. There is another common thread: the important role firearms once played in their lives. . . .

"Coincidentally or not, at least seven of the 14 pardoned on Monday are former hunters or shooting enthusiasts. In interviews, five of them said they wrote in their petitions to the government that a desire to win back the right to bear arms was a chief reason for wanting a pardon."

The Endless Transition

Eugene Robinson wrote in his Washington Post opinion column last week: "Having two presidents is starting to feel like having no president, and that's the situation we'll face until Inauguration Day. Heaven help us. . . .

"Even if he wanted to make a real run at righting the economy, at this point Bush has neither the energy nor the credibility to make it happen. Frankly, he comes off as less a lame duck than a cooked goose.

"That leaves the other president, who has plenty of energy and credibility -- but no authority."

New York Times opinion columnist Gail Collins last week called on Bush to resign.

Joe Klein writes for Time: "At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks." Klein declaims a presidency "that has wobbled between . . . two poles -- overweening arrogance and paralytic incompetence

"The latter has held sway these past few months as the economy has crumbled. It is too early to rate the performance of Bush's economic team, but we have more than enough evidence to say, definitively, that at a moment when there was a vast national need for reassurance, the President himself was a cipher. Yes, he's a lame duck with an Antarctic approval rating -- but can you imagine Bill Clinton going so gently into the night? . . .

"In the end, though, it will not be the creative paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. Bush never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and regulation that was necessary to make markets work. He never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and equity that was necessary to maintain the strong middle class required for both prosperity and democracy. He never considered the complexities of the cultures he was invading. He never understood that faith, unaccompanied by rigorous skepticism, is a recipe for myopia and foolishness. He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one."

Karl Rove Watch

Tim Arango writes in the New York Times: "Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, a delegation of high-level media executives, including the heads of every major studio, met several times with White House officials, including at least once with President Bush's former top strategist, Karl Rove, to discuss ways that the entertainment industry could play a part in improving the image of the United States overseas.

"One of the central ideas was using 'soft power' by spreading American television and movies to foreign audiences, especially in the Muslim world, to help sway public opinion. . . .

"Hilary Rosen, the former chairwoman of the Recording Industry Association of America, who was also present at the post-9/11 meetings, said that Mr. Rove and other White House officials were looking for the kind of support Hollywood gave the United States during World War II.

"'They wanted the music industry, the movie industry, the TV industry to produce propaganda,' she said. 'Rove was putting a lot of pressure on us.'"

In His Own Words

Here's Bush in a conversation with his sister, Doro Bush Koch, for StoryCorps: "I would like to be a person remembered as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process. I came to Washington with a set of values, and I'm leaving with the same set of values. And I darn sure wasn't going to sacrifice those values; that I was a President that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them. I surrounded myself with good people. I carefully considered the advice of smart, capable people and made tough decisions.

"I'd like to be a President (known) as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace; that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor; that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get prescription drugs and Medicare as a part of the basic package; that came to Washington, D.C., with a set of political statements and worked as hard as I possibly could to do what I told the American people I would do."

First Lady Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Laura Bush soon will no longer live in the country's most famous mansion or be able to get away to the coveted Camp David presidential retreat. But beyond the perks, she says what she will miss most about being first lady are the staff and friends who surround her.

"'I'll miss all the people that are around us all the time, from the ushers and butlers who are there for every president . . . to our own staff, of course, that we love to laugh with and talk with and solve problems with,' she said in a televised interview broadcast Sunday. 'So I'll miss the people the most.'. . .

"She jokingly referred to the start of her post-White House years as 'the afterlife.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on what Bush forgot, Bruce Beattie on the Bush legacy, Pat Oliphant on the perfect pardon solution, Clay Bennett on Bush's big shoes, Mike Lane on Bush's memoirs, Signe Wilkinson on the Bush cleaners, Mike Keefe on the Bush library, Mike Luckovich on Captain Bush, and Jim Morin, John Sherffius, Ben Sargent, David Horsey, Roy Peterson, Hap Pitkin and Morin again on the transition.

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