Bush's End Days

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 9, 2009; 12:01 PM

The "sprint to the finish," such as it was, is definitely over. Each day of the Bush presidency -- and there are only 11 left -- brings a growing sense of closure.

Dave Cook writes for the Christian Science Monitor: "On Thursday, Mr. Bush flew to the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia to deliver what he said was 'my last policy speech as president of the United States.' It was a full-throated defense of the No Child Left Behind law that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Bush signed the law seven years ago Jan. 8, after marshaling bipartisan support for it. The measure 'has forever changed America's school systems,' he argued.

"The flight to Philly also had a poignant end-of-an-era feel -- or an almost-end feel -- to it. Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel told members of the media traveling with the president that the 23-minute trip would be the next-to-last scheduled flight Bush would take on Air Force One as president. While waiting for the president to get on and off the plane, Bush administration staffers posed for pictures in front of the sparkling blue 747."

Dan Eggen and Maria Glod write in The Washington Post: "With less than two weeks left in office, the address marked Bush's last formal attempt to burnish a political legacy tarnished by two intractable wars, Hurricane Katrina and the devastating financial collapse of recent months. In a series of recent speeches and selected broadcast interviews, Bush and his senior aides have sought to argue that his presidency was in fact successful on a wide range of fronts, from nuclear proliferation to trade to education.

"With No Child Left Behind, Bush clearly left his mark. Passed with bipartisan support and signed into law seven years ago yesterday, it marked an unprecedented federal foray into locally controlled public schools and transformed the education system for teachers, administrators and nearly 50 million public school children.

"The law, which requires states to rate schools based on annual testing, aims to boost the achievement of students from poor families. With the objective of having every child master grade-level reading and math by 2014, schools must meet steadily rising test-score goals or risk sanctions.

"The Bush administration says the improvements have been widespread, including narrowed achievement gaps between black and white students; record high math scores among African American and Hispanic students; and significant increases in reading and math proficiency among many students. . . .

"But many educators and lawmakers have soured on the law's details, complaining about the quality of tests, the 'pass-fail' system of judging schools, and a focus on reading and math that some say neglects history, the arts and music. Teachers unions and some school officials say the law is too rigid and punitive, and argue that schools need more federal dollars. Some Republicans say the federal role in schools is too intrusive.

"Efforts to overhaul No Child Left Behind fell apart last year as Congress awaited the new administration. Obama has said the law's goals were admirable, but he has vowed to 'fix the failures' and add funding. He has also pledged to improve testing and to create a more nuanced system for judging schools."

Bush yesterday also offered a fixed-up variation on one of his most famous Bushisms. Back on the campaign trail in 2000, Bush said: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" Yesterday, he had this to say: "Rarely was the question asked: Can you read? Or can you write? Or can you add and can you subtract?"

Technically, of course, that's more than one question.

Bush's Parting Gift

Howard Schneider writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. economy shed 524,000 jobs in December, pushing the unemployment rate to 7.2 percent and completing a year of declining employment that rivals the country's steepest recessions.

"Over the last year, U.S. employers have eliminated 2.6 million jobs, swelling the ranks of the unemployed to more than 11 million people. Nearly 2 million jobs have been eliminated in the last four months alone. . . .

"On a percentage basis, he said, the end of the year represented the most rapid rate of job loss since the start of 1975, when more than a million jobs were lost in what was then a smaller labor force."

Jonathan Weisman and Greg Hitt write in the Wall Street Journal: "President-elect Barack Obama, warning of 'a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime,' implored Congress Thursday to move swiftly on a massive economic recovery package.

"But the Democrat-led Congress is eager to assert some control and is beginning to chafe at the president-elect's demand for quick approval of a stimulus program pegged at $800 billion and likely to grow."

Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "After weeks of allowing President-elect Barack Obama to take the lead in outlining a massive economic stimulus package, congressional Democrats warned yesterday that the final shape of the legislation could look quite different when it returns to his desk for a signature.

"Top Obama advisers left a two-hour meeting of Senate Democrats acknowledging the difficulties they face in forging consensus on the enormous package and completing action by mid-February."

Peter Baker and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "Senate Democrats complained that major components of his plan were not bold enough and urged more focus on creating jobs and rebuilding the nation's energy infrastructure rather than cutting taxes. . . .

"[T]he broad support he has enjoyed so far for the basic concept is now being tested as the specifics become clearer. While conservatives criticize the high spending, and moderate Democrats express concern about the swelling deficit, liberals are pushing for even more money devoted to social programs, alternative-energy development and road, bridge and school construction."

Paul Kane blogs for washingtonpost.com: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is urging the incoming Obama administration to stick to its campaign pledge and immediately increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a position that President-elect Barack Obama has wavered on since winning election."

But Ben Pershing cautions in his washingtonpost.com blog: [D]on't mistake the natural friction of the legislative process for some sort of calamitous intraparty break. There is not and never was any realistic way that a package this big and complicated was going to make everyone happy."

The Era of Big Government Is Back

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his 17-minute talk, Obama previewed what he wants his presidency to be. Rejecting decades of rhetoric casting government as an impediment, he vowed to do more than pull the nation out of its economic downturn. His aim, he said, was for people to drive cleaner cars, study in modernized classrooms and live in buildings powered by wind and sun. The agent for transformation on this sweeping scale, he said, is government.

"The president-elect told the audience at George Mason University that only government was capable of ending the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"Only government, he said, can restore the purchasing power needed to preserve jobs. . . .

"The idea is to lift the economy out of recession, but also to use the crisis to broaden the government's role in large swaths of American life. In Obama's language and in his early plans, presidential experts see a bookend to an anti-government era ushered in by Reagan.

"'Ronald Reagan in 1980 began the new conservative era in America. And 2008 is 1980 in reverse,' said Allan Lichtman, an expert on the presidency at American University in Washington."

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Some of the brightest minds who study the economy . . . think that even with a massive stimulus plan, there'd still be staggering job losses.

"Mark Zandi, chief economist at forecaster Moody's Economy.com, thinks the unemployment rate could top 10 percent in 2010 before the crisis ebbs. That's if an effective stimulus plan isn't passed. The highest unemployment rate in the postwar period was 10.8 percent in 1982.

"Laurence Meyer, a former Federal Reserve governor who's a respected forecaster, told the National Economics Club on Thursday that he expected the unemployment rate to hit 8 percent later this year and then stay high for an uncomfortably long period of time.

"'We are going to be in this very, very long period of uncomfortably low inflation and uncomfortably high unemployment,' Meyer said at the close of a luncheon address, adding the caution, 'That's the optimistic forecast.'"

Opinion Watch

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the most striking aspect of Obama's approach is how attuned he has been to his task as politician in chief. He has, so far, managed to maneuver around potential roadblocks rather than blast through them, even as he proposes a reorientation of our politics."

But Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column that Obama is right that "[t]his is the most dangerous economic crisis since the Great Depression, and it could all too easily turn into a prolonged slump.

"But Mr. Obama's prescription doesn't live up to his diagnosis. The economic plan he's offering isn't as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact, it falls well short of what's needed. . . .

"[W]ith both consumer spending and business investment plunging, a huge gap is opening up between what the American economy can produce and what it's able to sell. . . .

"To close a gap of more than $2 trillion -- possibly a lot more, if the budget office projections turn out to be too optimistic -- Mr. Obama offers a $775 billion plan. And that's not enough."

Bailout Watch

David Cho writes in The Washington Post: "Confronted with intense skepticism on Capitol Hill over the $700 billion financial rescue program, Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy F. Geithner and President-elect Barack Obama's economic team are urgently overhauling the embattled initiative and broadening its scope well beyond Wall Street, sources familiar with the discussions said.

"Geithner has been working night and day on the eighth floor of the transition team office in downtown Washington with Lawrence H. Summers and other senior economic advisers to hash out a new approach that would expand the program's aid to municipalities, small businesses, homeowners and other consumers. With lawmakers stewing over how Bush administration officials spent the first $350 billion, Geithner has little chance of winning congressional approval for the second half without retooling the program, the sources added.

"That challenge is underscored by a report from a congressional oversight panel scheduled to be released today that hammers the outgoing Treasury Department for its handling of the financial rescue, including 'what appear to be significant gaps in Treasury's monitoring of the use of taxpayer money.' The report, moreover, faults the Treasury for failing to properly measure the success of the program or establish an overall strategy and skewers the department for not using any of the funds on foreclosure relief as Congress had directed."

Holding Obama Accountable

Chicago Sun Times reporter Lynn Sweet pulled no punches in her blog last week, giving Obama's transition team a failing grade "when it comes to revealing transition meetings with groups. Contrary to its own 'seat at the table transparency policy,' meetings are not posted on a Web site."

She explained that "on Dec. 5, John Podesta, a transition co-chair, issued an Obama transparency policy. When it comes to meetings, 'the date and organizations represented at official meetings in the Transition headquarters or agency offices' would be 'posted on our Web site,' at http://www.change.gov."

The Web site did start posting written materials submitted by interest groups -- an extraordinary act of openness. But there was still no list of meetings -- not to mention who attended them. In fact, groups that didn't submit written material weren't listed at all.

By the transition team's own definition, that was hardly a seat at the table. As director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs Michael Strautmanis said in a change.gov video: "If you think about a real table and a real meeting, . . . you're there, you see what's happening, you see who's coming in, you see who they're meeting with. . . .

"Transparency is the process that leads to real change. And transparency is the process by which people have confidence that things are really going to be different."

Yesterday, Sweet raised the grade to a "D": "Right after my column ran, the transition started to list some meetings with groups that did not bring any documents to post." Representatives of some groups are now listed, but not the transition officials with whom they met.

Indeed, to properly assess the significance of the meetings, we need to see a full and consistent list showing who attended -- from both sides.

Sweet reports that transition spokesman Nick Shapiro had this response: "We are constantly refining the cataloging and publishing process to offer the most current information possible. We started with documents received from external groups during meetings and have now begun updating the site to also include meetings that did not produce documents. No transition has ever attempted to implement such disclosure requirements, and we will continue to evaluate the policy and the process."

It's important to compare all of this with the pervasive secrecy surrounding Bush White House contacts with interest groups, best exemplified by Vice President Cheney's 2001 energy task force. Cheney refused to tell the Government Accountability Office who he met with -- and then took a related lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won.

And yet, when the public finally learned a bit about the task force, thanks to a document leaked to The Washington Post, what was most telling was the names of the attendees, not just their organizations. For instance, one of the first visitors was James J. Rouse, then vice president of Exxon Mobil and a major donor to the Bush inauguration; a week later, longtime Bush supporter Kenneth L. Lay, then head of Enron Corp., came by for the first of two meetings.

The current list of position papers on Change.gov is a remarkable step forward in transparency, but it's also oddly not terribly useful. What we really need, to fully understand what's going on, to assess which special interest groups are getting what kind of access, and to really have a seat at the table, is a full list of the meetings -- including who was there on both sides.

Conflict of Interest Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Barack Obama has picked John O. Brennan as his top adviser on counterterrorism, a role that will give the CIA veteran a powerful voice on the government's use of security contractors and on other sensitive issues in which he recently has played a private-sector role. . . .

"The firm Brennan heads, the Analysis Corp., and its corporate parent have earned millions of dollars over the past decade assisting several federal agencies and private firms on counterterrorism. Those oil and telecommunications firms have worked in countries beset by violence, including Mozambique, Liberia, Colombia and Pakistan -- all of which have been topics of intense policy debate in Washington.

"The parent corporation, London-based Global Strategies, has been a target of critical news accounts about harsh actions by its hired soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has criticized the actions of similar firms, such as Blackwater Worldwide, and co-sponsored legislation to ensure that such firms are subject to U.S. laws even when operating overseas.

"Brennan also has attracted personal criticism from human rights experts for defending the CIA's long-standing practice of forced renditions, or transfers, of terrorism suspects for interrogations, a position that forced the withdrawal in late November of his candidacy to head the CIA."

Matthew Cella writes in the Washington Times: "A nonprofit federal government watchdog group is expressing concern with President-elect Barack Obama's pick to become national intelligence director.

"The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on Thursday questioned Mr. Obama's choice of Adm. Dennis C. Blair for the top intelligence post, citing a 2006 Defense Department inspector general's report and its own investigation, which concluded that Adm. Blair violated financial conflict of interest policies while serving as the head of a defense research institute.

"'The basic obligations of public service are undermined when an official has a financial interest in the projects his organization is overseeing,' said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian.

"Over the course of an investigation of multiyear procurement for the F-22 in 2006, POGO found that Admiral Blair--then-President of the Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which was evaluating whether or not the F-22 met the legal requirements for multiyear procurement--was also a stockholder and board member for the EDO Corporation and Tyco International Limited, both subcontractors for the F-22. At the time this conflict was revealed, Admiral Blair told the Washington Post he did not recuse himself 'because his link to EDO was not of sufficient 'scale' to require it.' Following the news, however, Blair resigned from EDO and from the IDA."

And Katie Couric reported on the CBS Evening News last night: "[D]uring the campaign, candidate Obama said if he were elected the days of corporate lobbyists setting the agenda in Washington would be over. But today he named a former lobbyist for Raytheon, William Lynn, to be number two at the Pentagon. An Obama spokesman acknowledged the contradiction, but said Lynn had come so highly recommended the president-elect felt he needed to appoint him."

Rita Beamish writes for the Associated Press: "Until July, Lynn was registered to lobby on behalf of Raytheon before Congress and the administration, representing the defense giant on a range of military and intelligence and budget matters.

"'We are aware that Mr. Lynn lobbied for Raytheon and are working with Mr. Lynn to craft a role for him that is consistent with the president-elect's high standards while balancing the need to fill this critical national security position,' said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, who volunteered the information on Lynn's lobbying background.

"Lynn was 'highly recommended from experts across the political spectrum,' to be the top civilian under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he said."

Cheney Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Thursday that he sees no reason for President George W. Bush to pre-emptively pardon anyone at the CIA involved in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists. 'I don't have any reason to believe that anybody in the agency did anything illegal,' he said. In an interview with The Associated Press, Cheney also said that Bush has no need to apologize for not foreseeing the economic crisis.

"'I don't think he needs to apologize. I think what he needed to do is take bold, aggressive action and he has,' Cheney said. 'I don't think anybody saw it coming.' . . .

"During a wide-ranging interview in his West Wing office, Cheney also said Iran remains at the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that President-elect Barack Obama will face. He said an 'irresponsible withdrawal' from Iraq now would be ill-advised. . . .

"Cheney said the administration rightly used programs to intercept communications of suspected terrorists and use tough methods to interrogate high-value detainees. He also said he did not have any qualms about the reliability of intelligence obtained through waterboarding -- an interrogation technique simulating drowning used on three top al-Qaida operatives in 2002 and 2003.

"'It's been used with great discrimination by people who know what they're doing and has produced a lot of valuable information and intelligence,' he said."

It's worth noting that if you read the transcript carefully, you'll see Cheney doesn't actually rule out the granting of pre-emptive pardons. "I can't speak for everybody in the administration," he says, "but my view would be that the people who carried out that program -- intelligence surveillance program, the enhanced interrogation program, with respect to al Qaeda captives -- in fact were authorized to do what they did, and we had the legal opinions that -- and in effect said what was appropriate and what wasn't. And I believe they followed those legal opinions and I don't have any reason to believe that they did anything wrong or inappropriate."

And here's the oddest line in the transcript: "A fly. We've got a fly swatter over here. I've been trying to kill him before you came in."

Bush Legacy Watch

Rick Klein writes for ABC News: "George W. Bush never governed like a president who harbored uncertainties or self-doubt about his capacity to lead. He never lost the brash style that won him early successes and united the nation after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

"He would fall back on his resolve in his administration's final days, as he turned his attention to his legacy.

"But President Bush leaves office a diminished figure, shunned by his own weakened party while the nation faces unprecedented challenges at home and abroad.

"In an ironic twist, the partisan vitriol he endeavored to end finally shows signs of abating -- under the leadership of a successor who ran as an antidote to the Bush years."

Peter Bergen writes for CNN: "Nine days after 9/11, Bush addressed Congress in a speech watched live by tens of millions of Americans in which he said that al Qaeda followed in the footsteps 'of the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. . . . They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism,' implying that the fight against al Qaeda would be similar to World War II or the Cold War.

"For the Bush administration, painting the conflict in such existential terms had the benefit of casting the president as the heroic reincarnation of Winston Churchill and anyone who had the temerity to question him as the reincarnation of Hitler's arch-appeaser, Neville Chamberlain.

"But this portrayal of the war on terror was massively overwrought. The Nazis occupied and subjugated most of Europe and instigated a global conflict that killed tens of millions. And when the United States fought the Nazis, the country spent 40 percent of its gross domestic product to do so and fielded millions of soldiers.

"In his inaugural address, Obama should say that the United States is indeed at 'war against al Qaeda and its allies,' but that as Roosevelt said in his inaugural address in 1933, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. If Americans are not terrorized by terrorists, then the U.S. has won against them. . . .

"Obama should also make it clear that instead of the Bush formulation of 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,' the Obama administration doctrine will be, 'Anyone who is against the terrorists is with us.'"

Another Bush Exit Interview

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News -- soon to be Bush's hometown paper -- about his 75-minute interview with the president yesterday: "Bush expressed few regrets over policy fights misplayed or opportunities lost. He displayed an ease some might find remarkable for a president who has recorded some of the highest and lowest approval ratings in history and who leaves office with the economy teetering and two wars unresolved.

"For him, the days ahead will bring bike rides on trails he hasn't yet ridden. An office at Preston Center. A memoir. Maybe some baseball games, though he's not sure if he'll get season tickets to his beloved Texas Rangers.

"There will be lots of time raising money for his presidential library, and encouraging debate there on 'big ideas.' . . .

"'This is not going to be a "George Bush is a Wonderful Person Center," or the "Center for Republican Party Campaign Tactics," ' Bush said. 'It's going to be a place of debate, thought, writing, lecturing.'"

Dallas Morning News colleague Lori Stahl writes: "Undeterred by a battered public image and a recession that might dampen fundraising for his library, President George W. Bush said Thursday that he hasn't considered scaling back the multimillion-dollar project at SMU.

"'I don't think popularity ratings have anything to do with whether people want to support a good idea,' he said.

"Bush also repeated his opposition to identifying all donors to his library. He said he was aware the U.S. House approved a measure Wednesday requiring presidential foundations to disclose the names of such supporters. That bill would apply only to Barack Obama and future presidents.

"'A lot of donors give to organizations, whether it be this library or anything else, and don't want their names out,' he said. 'They feel comfortable being anonymous in their giving. . . . I want to honor the desires of the donors.'

"Bush declined to say directly whether he would accept foreign donations, though all other recent presidents have taken such money for their libraries.

"'Once you're an ex-president, I can't imagine what kind of policies you would influence that would pay somebody off for a gift,' he said."

Gillman also notes: "Bush said Thursday that he wished his brother Jeb hadn't rejected a Senate run in Florida -- a decision that apparently caught him off guard. . . .

"Does the president hope to see his brother run for the White House some day?

"'I actually wanted him to run for senator, but you know . . . . We all have different family issues you've got to deal with,' he said."

TV Watch

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "Barack Obama is about to take George W. Bush's place in the White House, but Dick Cheney isn't leaving. The soon-to-be-former vice president is staying on in spirit on the new season of '24.'

"Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is a proxy in the war on torture, a fictional spokesman for those who, like Mr. Cheney, are under attack because they insist that torture is a necessary tool to combat terror. Jack, who has resorted to some rather extreme methods of interrogation, is now the victim of a liberal inquisition. At the start of the two-hour premiere on Fox this Sunday, pantywaist politicians who don't understand what it takes to protect the nation from its enemies are persecuting the very man who saved the country from disaster. . . .

"Fortunately, and predictably, the Senate sanctimony is interrupted by an urgent threat to national security that only Jack Bauer can handle."

Late Night Humor

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino perkily tells Jon Stewart: "We're pretty proud of what we accomplished."

Stewart replies: "Why? . . . The country's in a very tough place, and it's very hard -- the economy, foreign relations-- he's walking out with very few areas that are looking shinier than when he walked in."

Perino: "I disagree on foreign policy. . . . I would say to people, 'As compared to what, when he got there?'"

Stewart: "The lack of wars."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on an era of profound irresponsibility, Daniel Wasserman and Walt Handelsman on what's ready for the shovel, and Jim Morin on Obama and Congress.

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