Obama's First Test

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 5, 2009; 1:39 PM

For the past eight years, Congress has had a remarkably consistent record. When something was important to President Bush -- particularly if it was even vaguely related to national security -- Congress pretty much always caved. The combination of blindly loyal Republicans and cowering Democrats provided Bush with a winning margin time and again, even when the Democrats were ostensibly in charge, and even when Bush was demanding retroactive approval for laws he had brazenly violated.

The relationship between President Obama and Congress will inevitably take on an very different dynamic. But even though his fellow Democrats have solidified their control of both houses, it's not clear that Obama will be able to put together a coalition as effective as Bush's.

The president-elect's first test will be the economic stimulus and job-creation package he is championing. Much like Bush after 9/11, Obama faces an undeniable crisis and has public sentiment solidly behind him. Some sort of stimulus package will inevitably win Congressional support -- though not, as some Democrats had initially hoped, in time for Obama to sign it on the first day of his presidency.

But will an Obama victory only come at the cost of kowtowing to Republicans? Will soon-to-be White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel successfully wield the threat of an angry electorate against his former colleagues? Or will Obama really be able to find some sort of post-Bush, post-partisan consensus on a pragmatic, balanced approach to any number of important issues?

These are some of the questions that remain unanswered as Washington and the country prepare for a new political era.

The Coverage

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times: "On Monday, Mr. Obama has a full day of meetings with Congressional leaders of both parties to begin the process of enacting the two-year economic recovery plan that he wants to sign soon after taking office."

Peter Baker and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama plans to include about $300 billion in tax cuts for workers and businesses in his economic recovery program, advisers said Sunday, as his team seeks to win over Congressional skeptics worried that he was too focused on government spending.

"The legislation Mr. Obama is developing with Congressional Democrats will devote about 40 percent of the cost to tax cuts, including his centerpiece campaign promise to provide credits up to $500 for most workers, costing roughly $150 billion. The package will also include more than $100 billion in tax incentives for businesses to create jobs and invest in equipment or factories."

Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid write in the Wall Street Journal: "The size of the proposed tax cuts -- which would account for about 40% of a stimulus package that could reach $775 billion over two years -- is greater than many on both sides of the aisle in Congress had anticipated. It may make it easier to win over Republicans who have stressed that any initiative should rely more heavily on tax cuts rather than spending."

Meanwhile, Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Lowering expectations for quick passage of an economic stimulus bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid rejected setting 'some false deadline' for delivering legislation to President-elect Barack Obama in favor of a more deliberate approach that allows Congress to get the package right 'the first time.'

"Congressional leaders had hoped to hand Obama an economic assistance package immediately after he is sworn in Jan. 20, but that looks increasingly doubtful as the legislation grows in complexity and size. . . .

"In a radio address Saturday, Obama warned Congress that delay could bring perilous consequences: 'If we don't act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment,' he said."

Murray and Paul Kane wrote in Sunday's Post: "There are signs that the usual divisions that send so many ambitious bills down to defeat will confront President-elect Barack Obama in his first weeks on the job. Some Republicans are spoiling for an early policy fight that will test Obama's mettle. Conservative House Democrats want to include statutory deficit-reduction language in a economic stimulus package that could cost $1 trillion. And Senate centrists have warned that the incoming administration's ambitious global warming legislation might be a non-starter.

"Over the past 15 years, during which a large majority of current lawmakers were first elected to Congress, partisan feuding has reduced Congress's output to a bare minimum of must-pass measures. Party-line voting peaked during the Bush presidency, while productivity slumped. . . .

"With Republicans holding just enough seats to put the brakes on sweeping initiatives in the Senate, the fate of Obama's agenda may rest on his ability to deliver on another campaign pledge: to change the way Washington does business by adopting a more pragmatic and inclusive governing style. And as the nation's economic woes deepen, there are early indications that lawmakers may be willing to put aside precedent, as the incoming administration -- at least so far -- sends welcome signals to key constituencies. . . .

"Rahm Emanuel, who recently resigned his House seat and will serve as Obama's chief of staff, said that a shift in sentiment is palpable and that the new administration plans to take full advantage. Lawmakers sense that the need for action is urgent, Emanuel said, and they recognize that Congress's dismal approval ratings will make them easy scapegoats if the gamesmanship continues."

Manu Raju of Politico wastes no time setting up a no-win scenario for the president-elect: "If Obama seems unwilling to take lawmakers' ideas into account, he could risk whatever goodwill he's getting from the GOP and irk Democrats expecting to play a big role in a new Washington. But if Obama bends to the demands of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the public could perceive him as a weak president even before he takes the oath of office."

Paul Krugman blogs for the New York Times that "there's a reasonable economic case for including a significant amount of tax cuts in the package, mainly in year one.

"But the numbers being reported -- 40 percent of the whole, two-year plan -- sound high. And all the news reports say that the high tax-cut share is intended to assuage Republicans; what this presumably means is that this was the message the off-the-record Obamanauts were told to convey.

"And that's bad news.

"Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%."

The Bush Legacy

The White House is out with its own views on The Bush Record.

There's a 52-page booklet called Highlights of Accomplishments and Results. Number one is: "Kept America Safe and Promoted Liberty Abroad."

And there's a 41-page booklet called 100 Things Americans May Not Know about the Bush Administration Record. Number one, coincidentally, is: "For more than seven years after September 11, 2001, prevented another attack on our homeland."

Journalists are weighing in, as well. Their verdict: Not quite as positive.

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "As bold and brash as his father was cautious, W. rolled the dice at history. And history rolled them back. . . .

"[T]he nation's 43rd president risks joining the likes of Franklin Pierce, his own distant relative, as among the nation's worst presidents, harshly judged in their day and never bathed in the warm afterglow of hindsight.

"Bush leaves to his successor two unfinished wars, Osama bin Laden living in an unstable Pakistan, a U.S. reputation soiled by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and torture, a deep recession and what is sure to be the first $1 trillion-plus deficit. In short, a gigantic mess, all the bigger for the peace, prosperity and black ink he inherited. . . .

"Big, awful events such as Sept. 11 and Katrina dictated the path of Bush's presidency, but his personality dictated the administration's responses. Famously incurious, proudly anti-intellectual, decisive to the point of impulsive, an extrovert with uncommon energy, a sense of humor and personal charm, Bush was very different from his father, in whose shadow he spent most of his life."

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "the first chief executive with a master's in business administration -- from Harvard, no less, and the son of a president known for his foreign-policy expertise -- is leaving President-elect Barack Obama a nation that's arguably in the worst shape since Herbert Hoover left Franklin Roosevelt the Great Depression and a world in which fascism was on the march 76 years ago. . . .

"While scholars estimate that it takes at least a generation before a president's legacy can be analyzed objectively, many already are unflinching in their assessment of Bush.

"The 43rd president presided over a 'free-for-all in which powerful insiders . . . have played roles as policy entrepreneurs,' said Karen Hult, a presidential expert at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

"'We can certainly talk about his remarkably sloppy decision-making process. That did have consequences,' added George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's style and temperament are as much his legacy as his decisions. Policy shapes lives, but personality creates indelible memories -- positive and negative."

Blogger Digby summarizes Feller's story this way: Bush is "a self-centered, authoritarian jerk who requires everyone to bow and scrape before him, even though he's an idiot."

The Associated Press also offers up some of the president's more notable malapropisms and mangled statements.

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "You start to pity him until you remember how vast the wreckage is. It stretches from the Middle East to Wall Street to Main Street and even into the heavens, which have been a safe haven for toxins under his passive stewardship. The discrepancy between the grandeur of the failure and the stature of the man is a puzzlement. We are still trying to compute it. . . .

"Almost poignantly, he keeps trying to hawk his goods in these final days, like a salesman who hasn't been told by the home office that his product has been discontinued. Though no one is listening, he has given more exit interviews than either Clinton or Reagan did."

Rich pays particular attention to the White House highlights booklet.

"This document is the literary correlative to 'Mission Accomplished.' Bush kept America safe (provided his presidency began Sept. 12, 2001). He gave America record economic growth (provided his presidency ended December 2007). He vanquished all the leading Qaeda terrorists (if you don't count the leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahri). He gave Afghanistan a thriving 'market economy' (if you count its skyrocketing opium trade) and a 'democratically elected president' (presiding over one of the world's most corrupt governments). He supported elections in Pakistan (after propping up Pervez Musharraf past the point of no return). He 'led the world in providing food aid and natural disaster relief' (if you leave out Brownie and Katrina).

"If this is the best case that even Bush and his handlers can make for his achievements, you wonder why they bothered. Desperate for padding, they devote four risible pages to portraying our dear leader as a zealous environmentalist."

As for all those exit interviews, Rich writes: "The man who emerges is a narcissist with no self-awareness whatsoever. It's that arrogance that allowed him to tune out even the most calamitous of realities, freeing him to compound them without missing a step. The president who famously couldn't name a single mistake of his presidency at a press conference in 2004 still can't.

"He can, however, blame everyone else."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "A recent White House memo cited several upbeat talking points, including that Bush 'kept the American people safe' from further terrorist attack after Sept. 11, revived the post-2001 economy with his tax cuts, and preserved 'the honor and dignity of his office.' . . .

"Only after 2,975 were killed on his watch in the worst-ever terrorist attack did Bush respond with stepped up antiterror measures. The Iraq insurgency - a veritable demonstration project for terrorists - never would have happened had U.S. forces not gone after Saddam Hussein on the basis of faulty claims that the brutal dictator had weapons of mass destruction.

"The Bush military intervention in the Gulf, coupled with Abu Ghraib abuses, could make Americans less safe, to the extent that they fuel Islamic fanatics' anger. That's an especially grim future for the already suffering families of the more than 4,800 troops killed and thousands more wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan fighting.

"As for priming the economy with hefty tax cuts that benefited the wealthiest, that maneuver heralded the end of balanced budgeting while shifting to the states the burden for many domestic needs. Then there's the current economic crisis: Bush leaves office with nearly two million more Americans looking for jobs as a result of the recession, two million-plus facing mortgage foreclosures, and untold numbers looking at smaller retirement nest eggs.

"As for preserving the honor and dignity of the office, that has to be about more than just avoiding the sex scandal that marred Bill Clinton's presidency."

Meanwhile, Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard: "The president was in a relaxed mood last Friday when he talked about books, Lincoln, and a host of other subjects with me and my Weekly Standard and Fox News colleague William Kristol. The occasion was a lunch in the president's private dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. Bush, by the way, ate a grilled cheese sandwich.

"Bush's critics -- and especially the left-wing haters -- are going to be disappointed when they see his demeanor as he leaves his eight-year presidency. In our conversation, he wasn't bitter or downcast or pessimistic, nor was he boastful or disdainful. He appears comfortable with what he expects his legacy will be, including a battle against Islamist terrorists that endure under President Obama. . . .

"Bush is mentally ready to leave Washington, a town he never really liked. He says he has a lot of packing to do. But my guess is he won't look back with regret at what he might have done if he had more time in office. He's proud of what he achieved. And proud he should be."

Bush By the Numbers

From Harper's, ThinkProgress.org, and the Associated Press.

Gaza Watch

In an interview on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, Vice President Cheney said that Israel did not seek U.S. approval before invading Gaza, in the bloodiest Mideast clash in years.

As Scott Shane writes for the New York Times: "For nine days, as European and United Nations officials have called urgently for a cease-fire in Gaza, the Bush administration has squarely blamed the rocket attacks of the Palestinian militant group Hamas for Israel's assault, maintaining to the end its eight-year record of stalwart support for Israel. . . .

"Many Middle East experts say Israel timed its move against Hamas, which began with airstrikes on Dec. 27, 24 days before Mr. Bush leaves office, with the expectation of such backing in Washington. Israeli officials could not be certain that President-elect Barack Obama, despite past statements of sympathy for Israel's right of self-defense, would match the Bush administration's unconditional endorsement."

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press: "With time running out on the Bush presidency, the administration seemed increasingly ready Friday to let the crisis in Gaza fall to President-elect Barack Obama. Although aides to President George W. Bush insisted they are still working hard to secure a 'durable and sustainable' cease-fire -- even as their influence wanes with less than three weeks on office -- they all but ruled out a more direct approach."

And Stephen Castle and Katrin Bennhold write in the New York Times that "Europe, seeking to fill a diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East left by the departing Bush administration, is sending two missions to try to broker a cease-fire in Gaza and offering more humanitarian aid."

Exit Interview Watch

Bush and Cheney continued to give "exit interviews" while I was off these past two weeks.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "after eight years of a tight partnership that gave Mr. Cheney powerful influence inside the White House, the two are sounding strikingly different notes as they leave office, especially on one of the most fundamental issues of their tenure: their aggressive response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Indeed, Bush is at least sometimes giving the vague appearance of being repentant -- without actually expressing regret for anything he himself did. Cheney won't even go that far.

In yesterday's Face the Nation interview, Cheney insisted that his prewar claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was partially correct. He blamed the Iraqis for the botched occupation: "I think the thing that we underestimated, at least I underestimated, was the damage that had been done to the Iraqi population by all those years of Saddam's rule, so that there weren't any Iraqis early on who were willing to stand up and take responsibility for their own affairs." And he concluded that the U.S. is now "close to achieving most of our objectives" in Iraq.

As for torture and warrantless surveillance, Cheney didn't just defend them -- he urged Obama to continue on. "I'd say, look, before you go out and start to make policy based on the campaign rhetoric we heard last year, what you need to do is to sit down and find out what we've done, find out how we did it, what the justification was for it, what kind of results were produced, and then make an informed judgment about whether or not you want to keep these things. But I would hope he would avoid doing what others have done in the past, which is letting the campaign rhetoric guide his judgment on this absolutely crucial area. . . .

"We were very careful, we did everything by the book, and in fact, we produced very significant results. And I would hope that for the sake of the nation, that this administration and future administrations will continue those policies."

One can certainly hope that Obama will find out what we've done, how we did it, what the justification was, and what kind of results were produced -- and will then tell the public.

Meanwhile, Harry Shearer writes for Huffingtonpost.com that Cheney's interlocutor exemplified "a return to the respectful or intimidated cringe that typified Washington media during the run-up to the Iraq War.

"Bob Schieffer had the usual stack of papers in front of him as he questioned Vice President Cheney. But, as Cheney trotted out old and new boilerplate -- the intelligence was wrong, all our surveillance and interrogation procedures were done 'by the book' -- Schieffer sat as mute as a chastised third-grader.

"This is not 2003. At least two well-reviewed and meticulously sourced books--'The Dark Side' by Jane Mayer and 'Angler' by Barton Gellman--could supply a week's worth of material with which to challenge and contradict Cheney's bland and ballsy assertions."

And don't miss Cheney's Dec. 19 interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, which among other things features another classic Cheney "So?". I don't have time today to do it justice.

Next Sunday, Cheney will be on CNN.

Exit Interviews, Continued

The Washington Post turned over a goodly chunk of its front page on Friday to national security adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, for a largely unrebutted attempt to clear up a bunch of "misconceptions" about their boss.

First up was the idea that Bush was clueless during the descent into chaos in Iraq during 2005 and 2006. The Post's Michael Abramowitz relates: "'This notion that somehow the president didn't know what was going on, information was withheld from him in some way, he didn't have a picture of what was going on: He got that picture' -- Hadley smacked his palms together for emphasis -- 'at 7 o'clock every morning.'"

Really. So how to explain Bush's public statements depicting Iraq as increasingly peaceful during this period? Either he didn't know the truth, or he did -- and lied about it. See, for instance, my Sept. 21, 2006, column, Bush vs. Reality, in which Bush is quoted as insisting that press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted. Or my Mar. 21, 2006, column, Incredibly Optimistic.

Abramowitz writes that Hadley and Bolten "voiced frustration over their inability to improve Bush's popularity and to counter the administration's image of arrogance." They "also rebutted what they consider common misconceptions of the George W. Bush era, such as . . . the view that Vice President Cheney wielded unbridled behind-the-scenes power."

Bush's After-life

Maria Recio writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President George W. Bush's 'after-life,' as Laura Bush calls the post-presidency, is shaping up to be pretty comfortable, with a Dallas office, staffers, Secret Service protection, a travel budget, medical coverage and a $196,700 annual pension, all at taxpayers' expense.

"The Bushes will move to their new $2 million, 8,500-square-foot Dallas home -- not paid for by taxpayers -- on Jan. 20, and there Bush will be close to his future presidential library at Southern Methodist University."

Before He Leaves

Bruce Fein and Ralph Nader write in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed: "Before Inauguration Day, the 111th Congress should pass a forward-looking resolution censuring President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for executive aggrandizements or abuses that have reduced Congress to vassalage and shredded the rule of law."

Another One?

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Another President Bush?

"Perhaps so, says former President George H.W. Bush, who has already seen one son, George W., serve in the Oval Office. The nation's 41st president said Sunday that he would like to see a second son, Jeb, be president one day. . . .

"Asked in a broadcast interview about Jeb Bush's consideration of the Senate seat, Bush 41 said: 'I'd like to see him run. I'd like to see him be president someday.'

"When asked if he was serious, he said: 'Or maybe senator. Whatever. Yes, I would. I mean, right now is probably a bad time, because we've had enough Bushes in there. But no, I would. And I think he's as qualified and able as anyone I know on the political scene. Now, you've got to discount that. He's my son."

Join the Conversation

Last week, although the column was dark, I invited members of my White House Watchers discussion group to help me with one of the issues I'm wrestling with as I prepare to make the transition from Bush to Obama.

I asked (and continue to ask): "After eight years, we've gotten used to having a president whose credibility is shot, whose policy apparatus is utterly politicized, and whose decision-making process is completely opaque. So what do we do with President Obama? Do we treat him with the same skepticism with which we learned to approach Bush? If not, how do we hold him accountable?"

Some right-wing bloggers responded by accusing me of saying the media shouldn't be skeptical of Obama at all. Far from it. As I've written before, it's imperative for the press corps to hold the president accountable. The White House should always be subject to the most intense journalistic scrutiny imaginable -- and it should be able to easily withstand that scrutiny.

But Obama has done nothing so far to deserve anything approaching the level of cynicism and disbelief which Bush is now due. Furthermore, he takes office at a signal moment, with the country in a major financial crisis -- not to mention two wars -- and the hopes of the nation solidly behind him.

The sort of blind faith we gave Bush in the wake of 9/11 is certainly not the answer. We (re)learned that lesson the hard way. We need to question Obama about what he's doing, why he's doing it, and how he's doing it. We should insist on answers to our questions. And we should aggressively examine any assertion that strikes us as questionable.

But given that Obama is a very different president -- for instance, he has repeatedly indicated that his administration will be devoted to transparency -- some sort of change in approach is justified. For one thing, our expectations should be much higher.

RIP Willie the Cat

From the White House this morning: "The President, Mrs. Bush, Barbara, and Jenna are deeply saddened by the passing of their cat India ("Willie"). The 18 year-old female black American Shorthair died Sunday, January 4, 2009 at home at the White House."

They have my sympathy.

Cartoon Watch

Joel Pett and Drew Sheneman on packing up, Tom Toles on riding off into the sunset, Jim Morin on the judgment of history, Rob Rogers and John Sherffius on the legacy, Tony Auth and Steve Sack on a Cheney Christmas, Walt Handelsman, Ann Telnaes and Mike Lane on the new year, and Mike Luckovich on the need for speed.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive