White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answer your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, September 24 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Today's column, The Bush Who Cried Wolf, is about the problem President Bush's team is having making the sale on its proposed $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Yesterday, I wrote about how it's Fat Cats First with this crowd. And in Monday's column I wrote about how, although Bush's heart doesn't seem to be in it, the plan nevertheless has distinctive characteristics of major Bush initiatives past: It would be spectacularly expensive, it primarily would benefit the very rich, and it would grant the executive branch unlimited power with no transparency or accountability.

Word today is that Bush is considering making a prime-time address to increase pressure on Congress. So: Do you think that would help or hurt?


Washington: So, for years, and in recent months, we've been told "there is no bubble," "the economy is strong," "trust us, we know what we're doing," "this is just a slight bump in the road," and now this same bunch is telling us the sky is falling and yet we need to "trust" them. I'm sorry, but I can't. It sounds too much like inviting Michael Brown back to head FEMA right before the next hurricane hits.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, it's hard to trust again, isn't it?

Funny you should mention Michael Brown. Here's what Bush said about Henry Paulson the other day: "[W]ho, by the way, in my judgment, is doing a fabulous job; he's got a lot of credibility and he's working, and his team are working hard."


Bradenton, Fla.: I'm not sure how a prime-time address from Bush would help. ... As more evidence seems to be emerging that the administration knew there was going to be big trouble in the financial markets, what exactly does anyone think he can say that we'll actually believe? Trust me just doesn't work anymore...

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I have to wonder the same thing. What exactly could he do that would change anyone's mind?


Seattle: Is it me, or is Bush getting more of a "Deer in the Headlights" look when trying to talk about the bailout? I thought he had an MBA.

Dan Froomkin: Bush seems distinctly stumbling and vacant on this issue, even by his recent standards. My suspicion is that he's way over his head, and somewhat terrified.


Anonymous: Until a few months ago, the conventional wisdom was that one of Bush's legacies was the success of the economy. Now he won't even talk much about the details of the bailout. What is left for Bush to proclaim as an accomplishment?

Dan Froomkin: I thought Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer did a really great job last week of demonstrating how you can celebrate Bush's legacy in the near absence of supporting facts. See my column in response, The View From Bush's Dead End.


Chaska, Minn.: Sept. 11, the Iraq War, Katrina and now the Wall Street meltdown ... do you think the Bush administration has one more major disaster/failure in them before January, or is this it?

Dan Froomkin: It's hard to imagine they have anything at all left in them, at this point. See, for instance, Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today's New York Times: "'The bailout's all that's left,' said one Republican strategist who has consulted frequently with the administration."

Also note Jon Stewart, who last night suggested the economic debacle was the "turd icing on this administration's [expletive]-cake."

But then again, they've surprised us before.


Peaks Island, Maine: On Monday you quoted from Bush's statement on Saturday: "My first instinct was to let the market work until I realized, upon being briefed by the experts, of how significant this problem became." The inference here is that is was not until late in the game that the president realized "how significant the problem became." This seems to be an admission of not having kept on top of the nation's economy to the extent there is now a need for a huge bailout. What do you think of this for a question for the candidates' Friday debate: Do you believe the president's admission of a belated awareness of the dire condition of the nation's financial structure is a de facto admission of dereliction in fulfilling the responsibilities he took on via his oath of office?

Dan Froomkin: Well, as far as questions for Bush, I'd certainly want to know the answer to this one: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

I've seen all sorts of hints that Bush was warned explicitly about the dangers we're now facing ages ago, long before he changed his tune on how brilliantly the economy was going. See my column today. Paulson himself said he talked to Bush about the risks in July 2006. German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently strongly urged Bush to reign in the Wall Street firms at last year's G-8 summit. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said some administration policy staffers "have had months to think about what a program like this would be like and how it would work."

As for the candidates, I think the most appropriate question for them regarding Bush and economics would be: List three specific ways in which your economic policy differs from Bush's.


Lexington, Ky.: Dan, do you know if the White House has been asked how it plans to pay for the bailout? The president has given this problem a sense of urgency and importance, but would he be willing to raise taxes to fund the bailout?

Dan Froomkin: At this point, the way the White House plans to pay for the bailout is to borrow more money. He's asking to increase the debt limit from $10.6 trillion $11.3 trillion dollars. For comparison's sake, the national debt was $5.7 trillion and headed down when he took office.


Asheville, N.C.: Abramowitz and Lynch, in their piece setting up Bush's U.N. speech, made what has become a rare and difficult reference to achieve since it happened -- an acknowledgement that Bush went to war with Iraq without a Security Council resolution approving one. Instead, we're being treated off and on by the media to another implied version of that event, implicit in the administration's frequent rebuttal that everyone else had the same intelligence -- which is that, of course, governments everywhere somehow actually approved what we did. I've wondered at how often that message appears now, and that -- no matter how frequently it appears -- no one steps in to correct it. Is this some new "truth" we're being told? How has this happened?

washingtonpost.com: In U.N. Speech, Bush Focuses on Terrorism (Post, Sept. 24)

Dan Froomkin: I must be missing something, because I don't understand how anyone could make the argument that the U.N. approved of the invasion of Iraq. And, as you point out, in yesterday's story, Abramowitz and Lynch wrote that few at the U.N. "have been fans of what they see as his cowboy style of diplomacy, epitomized by the invasion of Iraq without a Security Council resolution in 2003."

So I was surprised at the wording in today's Post story, in which Abramowitz and Lynch now write: "Bush's administration has had a testy relationship with the United Nations, particularly because of the widespread belief here that he took the United States to war in Iraq without a proper international mandate."

Since when is this just a belief, rather than a fact?


Dan Froomkin: Hey, this just in! Jennifer Loven reports for the Associated Press: "President Bush plans to talk to Americans directly about the financial crisis in a prime-time, televised address Wednesday night.

"The White House says his speech at 9:01 p.m. EDT will be between 12 and 14 minutes long and will be delivered from the State Floor of the White House residence. Press secretary Dana Perino says Bush wants to tell the American people how the crisis affects them and help them understand the depth of the problem."


San Diego: A general question on the media, if I may: Do you think that, in general, the media's overall coverage of the president and the elections are improving in terms of critically looking at issues? I see hopeful signs here and there (the rise of reportorial blogs, more fact-checking, etc.), but I would appreciate your professional opinion.

Dan Froomkin: There are some improvements around the edges, but the coverage of the issues is, I think, more absent than ever -- certainly in comparison to the onslaught of horse-race coverage and the never-ending unmediated cable-TV food fights.

I also think my colleagues should be paying more attention to how desperately this country wants to put Bush behind them, and to how the two candidates would go about doing that.


Silver Spring, Md.: I have followed your updates on the various White House e-mail preservation cases with interest. In my work, I deal with electronic information preservation and discovery. Preservation of electronic information is not easy. I read in The Washington Post about a federal judge ordering Vice President Cheney to preserve everything. Based on my understanding, that seems like a vast obligation that the White House may not have the technological ability to implement. Has anyone looked at what Cheney actually will do?

washingtonpost.com: Cheney Is Told to Keep Official Records (Post, Sept. 21)

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question, and the answer of course is no. I expect this will be a major scandal down the road, but in the meantime, the White House impenetrability (and especially Cheney's) is serving them all very well.


Metz, France: Bonjour, Dan. I enjoyed (as usual) yesterday's column about the fat cats. Believe me when I say that we are, ahem ... quite puzzled here in France to see how the hot issues are dealt with in the U.S. lately. No patronizing at all, much as the situation here in France is so hilarious and often insane. But isn't it quite odd to see the Bush government -- a long-time free market, laisser-faire advocate -- behave suddenly soviet-style and nationalize some entities, then come with a sort of Politburo Gosplan (the Paulson Plan) to implement instantly; otherwise, it's hell and chaos far greater.

Why not in this case go all the way and do it the soviet way: Despoil the 1 percent of wealthiest obese-cats in the U.S. of all their assets -- bank accounts, golden parachutes, dozen country houses, yachts and Learjets (starting with Paulson, an ex-Goldman Sachs fat cat, and his $600 million)? In a matter of hours you have the trillion dollars sought, Congress will have been relieved of a burden, and the taxpayers will be satisfied to see the "masters of the universe" share some of the hardship. That would be coherent coming from a government that seems to have abandoned its "no to big government" mantra to go Marxist-Leninist.

Dan Froomkin: Bonjour to you too. But the whole point I was making in my most recent two columns is that one could argue that the only really consistent ideology Bush has had, from start to finish, is an unswerving devotion to precisely that one percent. He'll act like a neocon, a moderate (think immigration reform), or a Marxist -- as long as it's in the service of big business and the super-rich.


Laurel, Md.: Dan, I hear the bailout will cost each taxpayer $10,000. How can I demand that I get my shares of stock in these companies so I can cash in when and if they start to turn a profit again?

Dan Froomkin: I believe it's actually $2,300 for every man, woman and child. But yes, if I were you I would demand that it be put in a private account.


Singapore: Where are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank when the American needs them?

Dan Froomkin: Ha! Yes. What we need now is a really strict IMF relief plan.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: "Paulson said he warned Bush in a meeting around the time he became Treasury secretary in July 2006." So they were hoping to just let things fester while they milked the system and drained the Treasury of as much as they could before handing the mess off to the next administration? Am I seeing this correctly?

Dan Froomkin: I couldn't say. Here's a little more about that July 2006 warning, from Michael Kranish's story in the Boston Globe:

"When I got down here, after about several months on the job, I was shocked, absolutely shocked, to find it wasn't deregulation or too much regulation or too little regulation, it was a just flawed regulatory structure," said Paulson, the former head of Goldman Sachs, one of Wall Street's most powerful investment firms. "It was built for a different model, for a different financial system. The financial system changed. The regulatory system didn't change. And so that clearly has to be corrected."


Anonymous: Finally W has united us: The center, center right, center left, far right and far left are all mad as hell about this bailout

Dan Froomkin: And yet there are signs it will pass. What do you make of that?


Speech, speech!: You're the President's speechwriter. What on earth do you say about the current economic crisis that will show any sort of credibility or understanding? Can't be linked to Osama or Sept. 11. All the details can't be covered in 10 minutes (allowing for obligatory God Bless America verbiage). Will this just be a plea to tell your representatives to hold their noses and vote for the bailout?

Dan Froomkin: I'm grasping at straws here, but based on Perino's statement -- "the president believes it is important for the American people to fully understand the depths of the crisis affecting our country, how that affects them" -- I think he will try a combination of fear and "message: I care" stuff, leaving the details for others.


Rockville, Md.: The politicians in Washington may huff and puff, but my feeling is that the $700 billion bailout plan will pass. Obama already has suggested that this hefty price tag will prompt him to rethink his spending priorities, should he get elected. We do not hear from the McCain campaign whether the bailout will cause him to roll back some of the Bush tax cuts. How will this bailout affect the war in Iraq? Or even defense spending?

Dan Froomkin: You may well be right. This is not a courageous bunch, Congress. See, for instance, my Dec. 13 column, Congress Goes Belly Up and my June 24 column, explaining that starve-the-beast-ers aren't secretly chortling.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: The center and far right are angry about the bailout only because they need something to run on for the next six weeks. And Hoyer is dead right that nothing should be passed if the president can't bring his side of the aisle with it.

Dan Froomkin: I cannot fathom Congress. But my sense is that at this point, the Democrats are more likely to be scared by Bush into supporting this than the Republican are likely to be inspired into following him.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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