White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, October 8, 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'll answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Oct. 8 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 to another White House chat. There's much to discuss relating our amazing shrinking president, his effect on the race to succeed him, his legacy, and his apparent inability to stop the ongoing financial hemorrhage.

Al Kamen's delicious item in today's Post about how the Bushies are collecting documentation to support their version of the Bush legacy -- three main themes: "Kept America Safe and Promoted Liberty Abroad," "Lowered Taxes and Reformed Government," and "Stood on Principle/Tackled Tough Issues/Showed the Way Ahead" -- reminds me that it's just about time to start the Bush retrospectives here. I intend to engage you, my readers, in that quest. So what do you think the main themes should be?


Sacramento, Calif.: Gee, Dan, things must really be slow on the White House beat! You're getting your daily blog postings out hours earlier than before! Is it really that slow? Then again, we now hear so little from the president.

Dan Froomkin: You've noticed, huh? Let's just say things are getting a little less complex.


Arlington, Va.: I am no GOPer or supporter of the administration, but you have become so shrill in the past several years you have begun to rival Olbermann. What is more, I generally agree with your message, but you make yourself to easily dismissed with your outright bias. Now, I am sure you feel some sort of vindication, moral or otherwise, for your stances, but I would caution that the messenger surely damages the message in this case.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for writing. Through the years, it became clear to me that serious issues of credibility, secrecy, competence and accountability needed to be addressed vigorously when it came to this White House. I decided to leave the stenography and the obsession with balance to others.

I do feel like a broken record every now and then, but it's my belief that repeating yourself is a lesser sin than saying something important once and hoping people remember it. If that leads you to find me shrill, so be it.


Arlington, Va.: If only 8 percent of Americans believe that the country is going in the right direction, wouldn't the naysayers include people who were fervently pro-Bush? Do these people believe that none of the horrors that have happened are his fault?

Dan Froomkin: That is a great question -- I would love to see the crosstabs. I suspect the answer is that a lot of them blame the Democratic Congress -- and corruption. You must admit that there's plenty of blame to go around.


Re: U.S. attorneys mess: I told you Congress waited too long. And I was right.

Dan Froomkin: Did I disagree with you? Congress dilly-dallied for months on this, and now -- guess what? -- they've run out of time. See "The Stone Wall Holds" section in yesterday's column.


Baltimore: Is there anything to watch? Seriously, with a 26 percent approval rating and only a few more months to go in office, does Bush have any relevance any longer? Paulson, yes, and certainly Bernanke, but Bush?

Dan Froomkin: Even in his irrelevance and notoriety -- maybe even because of his irrelevance and notoriety -- I still find watching Bush and his team absolutely fascinating. There's just not quite as much material to work with.


Anonymous: In 2000, there seemed to be some ill feelings on the part of President Clinton as Vice President Gore tried to, at times, distance himself from Clinton, mainly because of the incumbent's personal problems. This year Sen. McCain, it seems to me, has distanced himself even more from the policies of the incumbent, though usually in a general sense. President Bush has joked about it, but are there some ill feelings on his part, or does the reality of low poll numbers make the distancing so necessary that even Bush can't take it personally?

Dan Froomkin: Publicly, Bush says he doesn't take it personally. Privately, who knows? He surely has some powerful defense mechanisms at work. I'm even more interested in whether Cheney takes it personally.


Rockville, Md.: Now you are an economics expert. Congratulations. Well don't forget to blame the president for the colder weather and higher energy bills offer the next months. It is his revenge on the people of the U.S. I expect it will be cold until the next person is elected ... and then, with his wise guidance, it will get warm and we will have a spring. What an evil plot.

Dan Froomkin: I'm a generalist. And you really think he had nothing to do with this? C'mon.


San Diego: Has President Bush attended any Republican fundraisers lately? Is he still able to draw large donations from wealthy donors? Is he campaigning with any congressional Republicans who are up for re-election?

Dan Froomkin: The deeply, deeply unpopular Bush is laying incredibly low on the campaign trail -- last night's debate makes it abundantly clear why -- but he's still making plenty of time for stealth fundraisers, where he can woo the fat cats who still love him.

Last week, Jennifer Loven noted for the Associated Press that it took Bush "just 28 minutes to pivot from the nation's economic mess to making up for lost time on the political fundraising circuit."

On Friday, he'll be headlining closed-to-the-press fundraisers in Coral Gables, Fla., and Kiawah Island, S.C.

As Catherine Dodge and Holly Rosenkrantz
wrote last month for Bloomberg: "Bush remains popular with Republicans, who will write contribution checks for the chance to rub elbows with the president at party fundraisers. Bush so far has brought in more than $138 million for the 2008 elections, compared with $194 million two years ago, the Republican National Committee said.

"Only four of the 38 fundraisers Bush has attended this year were open to press coverage, however, compared with more than half of the 74 events in 2006, according to a tally kept by CBS News's Mark Knoller."


Tuckahoe, N.Y.: You seem to be the only person left who writes about the incredible shrinking president. Do you ever get the feeling that you're like one of those professors who are authorities on exotic dead languages? No one is talking about Bush anymore, and what a last act for a man who arguably managed to accumulate more executive power than any other president in our history -- at his height running roughshod over the press and the Congress, ignoring subpoenas etc. He seems to be shrinking into his desk when he gives these speeches, and you can hear channels switching as he speaks. I just can't wait for the State of the Union. Maybe he should just send it in and let the clerk read it, like Jefferson did. Or maybe they should just have the clerk read "Ozymandias."

washingtonpost.com: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. (And thanks, Chris, for the link!) I still think he may have a few tricks up his sleeve, and, like I said above, I find even his irrelevance fascinating.

That said, wow, I hadn't thought about that final State of the Union speech. But he does have to give one. Won't that be something. Talk about a dead letter -- no matter who wins.

Out of curiosity, I just went to look at Clinton's final State of the Union speech. Doesn't look like Bush will be able to crib from it much. Said Clinton: "We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. (Applause.) Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity -- and, therefore, such a profound obligation -- to build the more perfect union of our founders' dreams.

"We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years; the lowest poverty rates in 20 years; the lowest African American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record; the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years. And next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history."

Dan Froomkin: Post-discussion correction! A reader just pointed out my (obvious) mistake about Bush (and Clinton's) final State of the Union addresses. Clinton's final address was in 2000, not 2001. Bush already gave his last one in January 2008. It's the new guy who gets to give big speeches in January.


Baltimore: Hi Dan. You know, I don't think Bush is shrinking -- he seems just the same to me now as he did during his first campaign. I think it's just that people have become less likely to use him as a Rorschach blot and are seeing him a bit more as he really is. So, how's Dick Cheney doing? Given that President Bush has spent most of his Presidency delegating authority like a good C-student MBA, it follows that Cheney has been the real power (as widely is assumed), and he still should be able to wield that power effectively in the shadows. Do you see any evidence for or against that?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting theory. Bush actually has asserted himself against Cheney recently on a few key foreign policy issues. (Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that on some issues, Cheney is no longer the last person to whisper in Bush's ear.) But you know what? On the stuff that's just under the radar, I simply have to believe that Cheney and his network of loyalists lodged in key positions throughout the government are up to all sorts of tricks -- and booby traps. As usual, it's (almost) all happening under the cover of darkness. But I think reporters should be digging around more.


Woodbury, Minn.: Dan, do you happen to know if George W. Bush has made any attempt to understand the history of the financial markets in general, or the Depression era in particular? I know that he sometimes reads weighty tomes on the history of war, but has his reading list expanded, to your knowledge? Or does he leave this heavy-lifting to Mr. Bernanke?

Dan Froomkin: Not only is there no evidence that Bush has made any attempt to understand the history of the markets, there's no evidence that he has made any attempt to understand the alternatives facing him in the here and now. He appears to have outsourced it totally.

And I was quite intrigued by Dean Baker's suggestion, on Huffingtonpost.com, that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson may have badly misled Bush on what options were available.


Montreal: Bush's legacy should be focused on his major and successful battles. He's either defeated or severely reduced government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers (especially between Congress and the executive), the Geneva conventions and American opposition to torture, the wealth of the nation, and America's public standing as a place whose leaders in politics and in business are fundamentally trustworthy. The overriding theme might be "if it ain't broke, break it."

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's no denying it's been a consequential presidency. Some might even say very successful -- on its terms.


Madison, Wis.: Have Cheney and McCain ever been close? By the way, where is Cheney? Is he out raising money and if so for whom?

Dan Froomkin: No. And yes, Cheney's been doing a fair amount of fundraising himself.


Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Good afternoon, Dan. I haven't heard this asked yet, but what do you think the presidential candidates' ideas on signing statements are? Has this been prevalent for past presidents when bills are signed into law? I shudder when I read Bush's signing statements, because he's just saying he will or won't follow the law he just signed as he sees fit.

Dan Froomkin: Bush's signing statements are indeed shocking in their expression of an overt refusal to heed the law -- although the jury's still out on just how much practical significance they really have had.

In either case, McCain and Obama both made clear to Charlie Savage, back in December when he was still at the Boston Globe, that neither would issue signing statements like Bush's. McCain said he wouldn't issue them at all; Obama said he wouldn't invoke the same sort of "dubious" legal theories Bush has.


Dallas: How concerned should Americans be at the potential for "misbehavior" on the part of the outgoing administration, including phone-bugging, office-bugging, further file disappearances, etc.?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think the next White House will find bugs in their offices, but there's every reason to believe this administration -- or at least certain offices, the vice president's in particular -- will push the envelope of illegality when it comes to keeping their secrets. See, for instance, the "Stop the Shredders" section of my Sept. 22 column, and my five-part series on NiemanWatchdog.org, "Do we really expect the Bushies to go quietly?" That's not to mention all those missing White House e-mails.


Silver Spring, Md.: If the current financial meltdown is a result of investors starting to panic, why would the current administration play up the drama to the extent it's doing now? Wouldn't it be better to portray it as just a little bump in the road, nothing to get all worked up about? The pooh-pooh approach has worked so well for the administration before (global warming, Guantanamo Bay, etc.)...

Dan Froomkin: On the one hand, yes, Bush's attempt to scare the heck out of people a couple weeks back may turn out to be a spectacular misstep. (See this other Dean Baker piece.)

But on the other hand, if he had continued to blow sunshine, he would have been criticized heavily for being utterly out of touch.

It was a no-win situation for him, which is what makes it so important that we examine how he got there in the first place.


Inside the Beltway: Any indication of how Bush feels about "W" the movie being released soon? Resignation, dread, anger? Does the release of a major nondocumentary motion picture about a sitting president celebrate the American values of being able to openly criticize the government, or does it speak to the damage Bush has done to the respect for the office of the president?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding it that the movie is much more balanced than one would have expected, coming from Oliver Stone. So, given Bush's astonishing defense mechanisms, he may find some way to take it as an homage. I suspect, however, that most of the people who see it will consider it even more license to mock.

I guess I'll have to go see it, huh?


Counter-narrative: You mentioned at the start of the chat that Bush is attempting to create a legacy for himself. My first response is "WMD, anyone"? But I suppose Nixon and his surrogates conducted the same type of campaign through the years, and it seems to have paid some dividends. Other than Oliver Stone, do you know if anyone is going to put the facts on the record for posterity? Remember that those who own history own the future.

Dan Froomkin: No one should be surprised that the Bushies are doing a lot of stuff to burnish Bush's legacy. I just felt this was particularly bald. As I indicated above, I don't think the Oliver Stone movie is going to move the needle too much.

I think there will be plenty of looking back after Bush. (Like I said, it was undeniably a consequential presidency.) And I think there will indeed be a battle over who gets to define Bush's legacy. But I suspect it's already been largely won (or lost, depending on how you look at it.)

Unless Iraq somehow emerges as a vibrant pro-Western democracy (and there are almost no signs that such a thing is likely), then Bush's legacy will start with a failed war on false pretenses, and just go downhill from that point.


Milwaukee: In your column today, you refer to an investigation by the military that has concluded that American airstrikes on Aug. 22 in a village in western Afghanistan killed far more civilians than American commanders there have acknowledged. Just out of curiosity, was this the case where the confirmation of the original numbers came from the "independent journalist" Oliver North?

Dan Froomkin: One and the same. Go figure.


New York: Dan, your column has kept me -- and many others I'm sure -- sane through the past eight disastrous years. What will you do once Joe Six-Pack -- er, George W. Bush -- is replaced by Obama or McCain? Will you cover the next president, or continue to cover the Bushies? If you move on to the next president, will you take a (well-deserved) sabbatical during his "honeymoon" period?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much, but given that the column only launched in January of 2004, I only can take credit for about five years of your sanity.

My editors and I intend for White House Watch to continue into the next administration. And I plan to put the next White House under equally close scrutiny. Inevitably, the issues and themes will be different. But there inevitably will be much to analyze and explain and hold up to public inspection.

As for a sabbatical, no. I plan to keep watching Bush through the end -- although I may be doing some "Transition Watch" after the election. Thanks for asking.


Charlottesville, Va.: Dan, part of Bush's defense mechanism is that he sees himself being vindicated by history. Do you think his active pursuit of that vindication will consume his time after his presidency? In other words, do you see him spending more time fishing or spinning?

Dan Froomkin: Good observation. And yes, of course I see him pursuing vindication after his presidency. But to paraphrase him, that's gonna be "hard work."

He'll almost inevitably speak only to friendly audiences, which is -- as we have seen these past several years -- a hard way to make converts.

And after a while, yes, I suspect you'll see him spending more time fishing. That seems to be his real love.


Hanover, Va.: It's been a while since I was in school discussing Constitutional theory, but isn't the entire "checks and balances" concept grounded on the theory that each branch (legislative, executive, judicial) would try to get as much power as they can, and that the mutual power-grabbing (for lack of a better term) would maintain the balance?

I'm not defending what Bush has done with executive power, but I'm not surprised by it (and it's hardly the first time it's happened). In fact, I think it's what the Founders expected would happen. I think the real travesty of the past eight years is that Congress (regardless of which party has been in power) and the courts (which include judges appointed by Republicans and Democrats) have decided not to assert their Constitutionally granted powers. It's hard for me to blame everything on the White House when the other branches haven't done much to try to stop it.

Dan Froomkin: A legitimate interpretation. And I certainly don't blame everything on the White House, either. See, for instance, this, this and this.


Concerned America: Hi Dan, regarding the earlier comment regarding possible bias in White House Watch, since when is it biased to hold power accountable? To those on the right, everything else appears with a leftward bias, even the center. This is how the right has shifted the frame of reference. Keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Seattle: I heard President Bush's statement yesterday to the effect of "I am concerned about the economy more than the public can know ... we are trying to keep the economy from failing." Given that at the heart (and mind of it) we are in a crisis of confidence, wouldn't it be a lot better to have someone else make public pronouncements? I am not a speechwriter, but it just seems crazy for Bush's handlers to allow him to make matters worse.

Dan Froomkin: Budget expert Stan Collender makes just such a suggestion, writing: "The Bush administration needs to rent someone else's credibility for three months by naming an economic crisis czar."


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the homepage!


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