One President? Two Presidents? Or None?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 5, 2008; 9:35 AM

Looking for a little presidential leadership about now? Lotsa luck.

Some Democrats are hoping President-elect Barack Obama will start to throw his weight around sooner than later.

"At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, he says we only have one president at a time," House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said yesterday. "I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have. He's got to remedy that situation."

In some ways, Obama has been moving awfully fast. Peter Baker and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama is moving more quickly to fill his administration's top ranks than any newly elected president in modern times. He has named virtually the entire top echelon of his White House staff and nearly half of his cabinet. Just a month after his election, Mr. Obama has announced his selections for 13 of the 24 most important positions in a new administration.

"By comparison, Bill Clinton had filled only one of those jobs by this point in his transition, and Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan only two. Even the elder George Bush, who had the advantage of succeeding a fellow Republican, had picked just eight a month after his election. George W. Bush, stalled by the Florida recount, had named a chief of staff at this point in 2000 but was waiting to find out if he would even become president. . . .

"'You don't have time to waste,' said Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, who was named to his post two days after the election. 'This is the worst economic situation since the Great Depression and the largest commitment of troops overseas since Richard Nixon. That's the world we're inheriting, and the president-elect said we don't have a moment to waste putting things together.'"

As Jim Kuhnhenn notes for the Associated Press: "Obama has maintained one of the most public images of any president-elect. He has held half a dozen press conferences, where he has entertained question after question about the economy, the mortgage crisis, and the flailing auto industry. But he has meticulously avoided dictating policy or pressing members of Congress to embrace specific remedies."

David Espo writes for the AP: "Not surprisingly, neither the outgoing Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama nor the Democratic leaders of Congress wants to be blamed for the loss of a once-proud domestic auto industry and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of jobs. . . .

"[M]aneuvering in a sort of political twilight zone, two administrations and the Democratic leaders of Congress all give rhetorical support to the survival of the industry while trying to reassure recession-weary taxpayers there will be no blank check from the federal treasury."

Bush Says . . . Nothing of Interest

Here's what Bush had to say about Detroit yesterday, in an interview with NBC's John Yang: "No matter how important the autos are to our economy, we don't want to put good money after bad. In other words, we want to make sure that the plan they develop is one that ensures their long-term viability for the sake of the taxpayer."

From the auto industry, Yang moved on to another pressing topic: "I think when a lot of people look at the presidency, they think it is a job no one would want. The stresses, the demands, the pressures -- just -- they also think it would have a horrible effect on family life. But what struck me -- why I asked for this interview -- what struck me, in April you said in Tipp City: 'This may sound counterintuitive, but a good marriage is really good after serving together in Washington, D.C.' How is that?"

A quick reminder: Yang is White House correspondent for NBC, not Dr. Phil.

His probing elicited such fascinating quotes as:

Bush: "And no question, it's a pressure cooker here in the White House, but nevertheless, when you've got two people who love each other, the pressure tends to make you, you know, brings you together more than not."

Laura Bush: "It's like you're on the same team and on the same side, and so any differences that you might have with each other--and our differences are things like, he doesn't hang up his towels or something--are minimized."

Bush spoke about his toughest days: "To me, the most stressful period was making the decision to put our troops into combat, and Laura was very nurturing and very comforting, in a very subtle way. She knew I was struggling with the decision. And so therefore rather than provoke debate, was -- really expressed confidence in the ultimate decision I would make."

That might have been a good opportunity to ask when exactly he made up his mind about invading Iraq: 2001? 2002? 2003? But it wasn't that kind of interview.

"Let me ask you about the more mundane days," Yang went on.

"After our dinner, which is early, and after I've done my homework, we're in the sack, reading books. So our life is very normal," Bush said. Sometimes they have dinner at 7, and by 7:45, Bush is either in the Treaty Room -- working on that homework -- "or headed to the sack."

Laura corrected him, saying he doesn't go to bed quite that early. Rather, they watch TV and do jigsaw puzzles, she said.

About Those Regrets

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson marvels at Bush's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson earlier this week.

"Remember that long-ago news conference when George W. Bush couldn't think of any mistakes he had made? Unbelievably, he still can't. . . .

"He might regret not paying more attention to the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing memo, which was titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' and reported 'patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.' He might wish he hadn't put the nation's emergency response capability in the hands of Michael Brown, a former executive of the International Arabian Horse Association, and then watched from afar as New Orleans drowned. . . .

"But no. Instead, he told Gibson that his 'biggest regret' was a mistake made by others: intelligence analysts who got it wrong about Iraq. . . .

"Bush spoke of having liberated Iraqis from the savage rule of a tyrant -- which is true, but that wasn't the reason we were originally told we had to go to war. The president spoke of having created a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, one that would shoot out tendrils of freedom to take root throughout the region -- which is a hard story to sell when the war's greatest geopolitical impact has been to strengthen theocratic Iran to the point that it dares to dream of ancient Persian glory.

"Bush pats himself on the back for keeping his eye on the ball -- the 'war against ideological thugs.' But those ideological thugs are ensconced somewhere, probably in the lawless frontier territories of Pakistan, rebuilding their murderous networks and plotting new attacks. I'm betting that they don't regret Bush's decision to invade Iraq, either."

Jay Ackroyd blogs with this suggested "exit interview" question: "By pretty much any measure, from polls to surveys of historians to editorial page opinion to measurable economic performance, your presidency has been the least successful in the postwar period, and perhaps since Reconstruction. How did this happen?"

Legacy Watch

Here's an exchange between White House Press Secretary Dana Perino and Hearst columnist Helen Thomas at yesterday's briefing:

Q. "In these recent interviews, has the President ever expressed regret over attacking Iraq? And also, is Karl Rove in charge of promoting legacy?"

Perino: "No, I am. (Laughter.) I have a team of people who is helping talk about the President's decisions that he's made over the past eight years. I think there's no doubt that it has been a consequential eight years where huge things have happened, from the biggest terrorist attack, the biggest natural disasters, and the biggest financial crisis in a century.

"So while Karl and others who have worked for the President -- Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, Ari Fleischer, and others -- are all participating in responding to requests, a lot of them are requests from the media to understand this presidency, and to talk about it as we are in our last 46 days.

"And your first question was about Iraq. I think that you might be talking about the Charlie Gibson interview. I think it's important that people go back and look at that interview in context. Some people have pulled out one half of a sound bite and made a judgment on what the President was saying. What the President talked about was that one of his -- one of the disappointments of the administration is that the intelligence community had it wrong when it came to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And it wasn't just the President of the United States who thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein's own generals thought that he had weapons of mass destructions, and so did other leaders from all around the world. And so that's what he was talking about, was the specific on the intelligence failure.

"What we did from there is the President revamped the intelligence community. And we have a Director of National Intelligence now, and we have other measures in place to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

Q. "What about the chief of British intelligence saying you were going to fix the facts around the policy?"

Perino: "I think that that's been debunked, and -- "

Q. "It's never been debunked."

Perino: "Well, it's been debunked by me. (Laughter.)"

Q. "Good for you."

Perino: "Yes, good for me. (Laughter.)"

Q. "And is the White House sponsoring these interviews with -- on legacy?"

Perino: "Well, I'm helping to arrange them, as the President's press secretary, yes."

Loyalists Look Ahead

In his Washington Post opinion column, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson delivers a mixed verdict on his former boss's war on terror.

"Most of the methods employed in this effort have been effective, congressionally approved and broadly noncontroversial -- fighting money laundering, intercepting terrorist communications, tightening up the border," he writes.

"Yet some methods designed for exceptional cases, such as waterboarding, were ethically disturbing and eventually counterproductive -- causing self-inflicted ideological wounds in a largely ideological struggle. And there is little doubt that some administration claims of executive power invited a judicial backlash and undermined the power of future presidents. . . .

"There is a lesson here for Barack Obama's administration: Sometimes power must be lightly held to be effectively employed.

"But this lesson should not be overlearned. To assume the presidency is also to assume a responsibility for the safety of Americans that Congress and interest groups will never feel as directly."

And someone else Bush frequently turned to for advice, Henry A. Kissinger, writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "President-elect Barack Obama has appointed an extraordinary team for national security policy."

Last Minute Watch

Felicity Barringer writes in the New York Times: "In another regulatory action in the waning days of the Bush administration, the Interior Department on Thursday unveiled a new rule that challenges Congress's authority to prevent mining planned on public lands."

Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "The Bureau of Land Management, which manages 258 million acres of federal property, stripped from its regulations Thursday a provision that gives two Congressional committees the power to compel the Interior Secretary to temporarily place public land off limits to mining and oil and gas development."

Stephen Power writes in the Wall Street Journal that the move "marks the second instance this week in which the Bush administration has delivered a policy victory to mining interests. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a proposed rule that would allow mining companies to dump waste near streams, despite objections from environmentalists and the governors of Kentucky and Tennessee about the proposal's potential impact on waterways."

Iraq Watch

Ed Johnson writes for Bloomberg: "The U.S. welcomed Iraq's approval of a security accord that gives American forces three years to leave the country, saying it puts relations between the two countries on a 'strong footing.'

"The agreement calls for U.S. troops to pull back from Iraq's towns and cities by the middle of next year and to leave the country by the end of 2011. It also curbs U.S. powers to detain Iraqi citizens and conduct military operations.

"'Today is a remarkable achievement for both of our countries,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said after Iraq's presidency council approved the agreement yesterday. The pact will 'help solidify Iraq's democratic gains' and 'affirm Iraq's sovereignty.'"

Charles Krauthammer writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "For the United States, this represents the single most important geopolitical advance in the region since Henry Kissinger turned Egypt from a Soviet client into an American ally. If we don't blow it with too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq, we will have turned a chronically destabilizing enemy state at the epicenter of the Arab Middle East into an ally. . . .

"A self-sustaining, democratic and pro-American Iraq is within our reach."

Meanwhile, Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times: "In his compelling new book the scholar and former diplomat Peter W. Galbraith not only reminds us that the Iraq war has been a costly, bungled operation, but he also argues that the war has had the opposite effect of virtually everything that President Bush and his administration promised the American public it would have. . . .

"The root of the problem, he says, was 'the absence of presidential decision making': 'The self-styled decider never decided the most critical questions about the future of Iraq' -- like how to provide security in Baghdad when American forces took it over or how a post-Hussein Iraq would be governed -- 'and worse, never knew there were critical matters that needed deciding.' . . .

"When it comes to assessing Iraq's future, Mr. Galbraith is deeply pessimistic, discounting what others have seen as more hopeful signs. He argues that President Bush 'has already surrendered Iraq to Iran and to the same undemocratic forces that we invaded Iraq to remove': 'Iran's allies dominate Iraq's central government. Iraq is divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states and there are civil wars being fought between Sunnis and Shiites in the Arab parts. The United States has no chance of achieving what President Bush has defined as victory: a self-sustaining, democratic and unified Iraq.' . . .

"He suggests that the surge has enabled President Bush to 'run out the clock on his term in office so as to avoid having to admit defeat' and that running out the clock serves the interests of the Republican Party, setting up a G.O.P. story line for 2009: 'When George W. Bush left office, America was winning the Iraq War. His successor -- abetted by the Democratic Congress and the faithless American people -- squandered the victory and is responsible for the consequences.'"

Justice Watch

Terry Frieden writes for CNN: "Two key House Democrats demanded in a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Thursday that he explain his recent comments about U.S. counterterrorism officials' controversial policies on detainee interrogations and terrorist surveillance."

Mukasey told reporters on Tuesday: "What I have said is that there is absolutely no evidence that anybody who rendered a legal opinion, either with respect to surveillance or with respect to interrogation policies, did so for any reason other than to protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful. In those circumstances, there is no occasion to consider prosecution and there is no occasion to consider pardon."

From the letter from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers and Civil Liberties Subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler: "We are troubled by the breadth of your statement and the blanket conclusion that everyone involved in approving these policies believed they were acting within the law,' the congressmen wrote. They noted the much publicized internal administration debates over the policies.

"Our greatest concern, however, is that your statement appears to be prejudging numerous ongoing investigations,' they said.

"The Justice Department Inspector General is currently investigating the legal policy and advice on the Terrorist Surveillance Program. A special counsel is investigating aspects of the harsh interrogations of some detainees."

New Order Watch

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "Under the best of circumstances, overseeing the Department of Health and Human Services is an enormous undertaking. With 65,000 employees and a budget of $707.7 billion, it accounts for nearly one-quarter of all federal spending, second only to the Defense Department.

"But in the Obama administration the job is taking on a second, perhaps more daunting, responsibility: shepherding health-care reform legislation through Congress.

"Unlike his predecessors, Thomas A. Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for HHS secretary, will be given an expanded role, leading administration efforts to overhaul the U.S. health system.

"'This really creates a new type of secretary,' said Charles N. 'Chip' Kahn III, president of the Federation of American Hospitals. In the past, 'HHS was more or less a service organization to the White House,' while White House advisers drove policy initiatives."

Library Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "While attention has focused on Bill Clinton's belated agreement to release the names of donors to his presidential library, the sitting president, unnoticed, has been raising money for his own. President Bush's secret fundraising is lawful, but it is no more acceptable than Mr. Clinton's was.

"Mr. Bush's activities have included private sessions with potential donors around the country and, according to press secretary Dana Perino, about a dozen dinners at the White House residence. At these sessions, Mr. Bush does not ask for money but rather outlines his 'vision' for the library. How much has been raised? We don't know because the library foundation isn't saying. . . .

"Ms. Perino has said that the president has asked not to be told who is giving or how much is given, which only underscores the unseemliness of a president raising secret cash."

The Bushes' New House

Dan Eggen blogs for The Washington Post: "President Bush and the first lady have purchased a house in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, which is where they will live after leaving the White House on Jan. 20, officials said today.

"Despite the attempt to keep the home an undisclosed location, the likely address has already been reported by the Dallas media. A real-estate blog run by D Magazine reported on Wednesday that Robert A. McCleskey, the Bushes' longtime friend and accountant from Midland, Tex., bought an 8,501-square-foot house at 10141 Daria Place in Preston Hollow on Oct. 1 as a trustee. The property is valued at nearly $2.1 million in county records, and includes servants' quarters, a cabana, a detached garage and a storage building. (Alas, no pool.) The one-story house was built in 1959 and has been extensively refurbished, according to records.

"Then last week, a smaller house next door at 10151 Daria Place went under contract to an unknown buyer, with a scheduled closing date of Dec. 10, the magazine reported. The second house was listed at $1.6 million, and could be intended for use as accommodations for Secret Service agents. The magazine describes Daria Place as 'a leafy cul-de-sac' near an elementary school."

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger write in The Post that the new home "backs up on two enormous estates owned by prominent Republicans. One, a 14-acre spread, belongs to Gene Phillips, a real estate developer and GOP fundraiser, and his wife, Roxanne; the other is owned by Tom and Cindy Hicks, who bought the Texas Rangers from Bush and his partners and have contributed more than $600,000 to the president and other Republican candidates since 2000."

Last Christmas

Christine Simmons writes for the Associated Press: "For the final time as president, George W. Bush led the countdown Thursday night to lighting the nearly 42-foot Christmas tree that overlooks the White House. . . .

"Bush also talked on stage with a man dressed as Santa Claus and brought up life after the White House.

"'You may have heard that Laura and I are going to have plenty of time next year,' he told Santa. 'The problem is we're going to be short on an airplane' after leaving the White House. 'Have you got an extra sleigh?'"

Here's a White House photo of Bush getting the traditional Christmas fist-bump from Santa.

Worst President Watch

NPR's Linton Weeks has highlights from Tuesday's debate: "Bush 43 Is the Worst President of the Past 50 Years."

Slate's Jacob Weisberg, for the motion: "Bush was never up to the job of being president, and it's not a matter of lacking in intelligence; it's a matter of lacking character. Bush wasn't interested enough in policy; he couldn't tolerate challenge or dissent or disagreement; he couldn't open his mind long enough to consider alternatives or admit the possibility that he might sometimes be wrong. He let his righteousness and his arrogance and his anger get the better of him. And in the end, I think what's so damning about Bush and what does make him the worst president of the last 50 years is that these were things within his control."

Karl Rove, against the motion: "I will defend the president, and I will defend the record of the last eight years. Not always successful, but enormously successful over the long term and the long sweep of history."

Here's the full transcript.

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Bush, embubbled to the end, and Ken Catalino on Cheney's list.

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