White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, November 5, 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 answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. Welcome to another White House chat. Anything on your mind?

My column today, America Votes for a Restoration, is my take on the significance of Barack Obama's sweeping victory yesterday. Yesterday's column, The End of Rove's Dream was in anticipation.

So let's talk about the Bush era -- and the post-Bush era.


Rove's Dream: One thing I never quite have understood is why Rove and Co. didn't seem to realize that putting politics ahead of policy eventually would hurt their party politically. Or did he really believe you could run and win with wedge issues when the country was in an unpopular war, the economy was in ruins and a major U.S. city had been submerged?

I guess what I'm asking is, why didn't they realize that simply running the country well was the best political platform they ever could wish to have?

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question, certainly, in retrospect. At the time, I think Rove et al felt that carving constituencies away from the Democratic Party was the way to go. That alone wasn't a nutty idea, but sacrificing good governance in order to make it happen did indeed backfire pretty spectacularly, didn't it?


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: What are your thoughts about the victory celebration in front of the White House last night? That had to be demoralizing, even for Bush. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I suspect he was sound asleep. But that looked like quite a scene, huh?


washingtonpost.com: Revelers Swarm the Streets of Washington (Post, Nov. 5)

Dan Froomkin: Here's The Post story on the big party.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: So, Dan ... does White House Watch end after Jan. 20? Does it resume under another byline? There's a pool, you know.

Dan Froomkin: I get asked this a lot. The current plan is full-steam ahead -- of course!

The format may change and the themes obviously will be different, but every president deserves scrutiny. There inevitably will be much to analyze and explain and hold up to public inspection about an Obama administration. It will be interesting to see what his weaknesses turn out to be.

More challenging for me is how to deal with the interregnum. My instinct is to keep my focus on Bush all the way to the very end, but the transition is going to be so interesting.


New York: Hi Dan. Here's a prediction: Your column is going to be even more important in an Obama administration than it was during the Bush years. Here's why: The press will turn on Obama after a brief honeymoon, and "lavish" him with all the tough questions they didn't have the guts to ask Bush.

Another prediction: The gaggle of gabbling pundits (and their out-of-power conservative buddies) will focus their energies on hounding Obama about "bipartisanship" (by which they will mean "giving right-wingers veto power on every policy initiative"). Whether you agree with my predictions or not, an honest reporter sorely will be needed to sort it all out. Er, I hope you weren't planning on a multiyear sabbatical anytime soon!

Thanks for your work!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I certainly hope you readers will stick with me -- and bring your friends. As I indicated above, I'm not at all sure yet what the themes of the column will be in an Obama administration. Similarly, I didn't know where things would head when I launched the column in January 2004.

But I must admit I am fascinated by the already-congealed inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that Obama shouldn't govern too radically (I must have read two dozen variations on that this morning already). What, exactly, are my colleagues saying he shouldn't do? It seems to me that many of the things they consider "too radical" are things he promised in the campaign -- and things the public overwhelmingly supports.


Chicago: Dan, will there be an accountability moment with the Cheney (Bush) Administration under Obama? Do you think Obama will "throw back the curtain" (to the extent that the law allows him to do so) on the extra-Constitutional actions taken by Cheney, Addington, Rove and Co. (with Bush's acquiescence) during the past eight years? Or will we be forced to wait (in the name of bipartisanship) 10, 20 or 30 years to see what really occurred on Bush's watch?

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question. I wish someone had pressed Obama about this during the campaign. See, for instance, these questions. But it's not too late.


Anonymous: Is there any meaning to the fact that, by the end of Obama's first term, we will have had 20 years of presidents with serious daddy issues?

Dan Froomkin: Doesn't anyone who's anyone have daddy issues? Here's a pretty interesting Michael Hirsh column in Newsweek about Bush's and Obama's Oedipal dramas.


Winnipeg, Canada: How long do you think it will be before habeas corpus is reinstated? I love your country and would like to visit it again, but I don't want some blunder to send me to one of your detention facilities for an indefinite stay.

Dan Froomkin: Good question. Perhaps Day One? Here's an idea for the new column: Perhaps we can put together a list of Bush initiatives that Obama has said he opposes that he realistically could roll back with a phone call or a stroke of his pen. Then we'll keep track of how many days have passed.


Washington: I kind of feel sorry for you, because you're basically out of your I-hate-Bush job. I'm sure you'll try to produce some columns on Obama, but let's face it -- you'll be cheerleading for your chosen candidate. See you in 2012, I guess.

Dan Froomkin: Well, do check in once in a while to see how things are going, won't you?


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Why should anyone believe that Bush is sincere when he "pledges cooperation"? I seem to remember his father bequeathing Somalia to Clinton. Why should we expect anything less now?

Dan Froomkin: I'm getting a mixed vibe from the White House. On the one hand, they're pushing all these hugely disruptive midnight regulations -- and Cheney is, after all, still on the job. On the other hand, they're taking what appears to be a genuinely proactive view toward the transition. (See my Thursday column.)

My sense is that, while they continue to scramble behind the scenes to make things as difficult as possible for the Obama administration to roll back their policies, outwardly they will be gracious about the transition.


New York: Dan, thanks for your wonderful column. I'm so proud that America finally woke up from the Bush nightmare. No doubt Obama will have a full plate when he takes office. How do you think he'll deal with the Bush legacy of torture, domestic spying, curtailment of civil liberties and other policies that have tarnished America's reputation so badly at home and abroad?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think he'll roll them back pretty darn fast -- and if he doesn't, then by golly you'll read about it here.


Menomonie, Wis.: Now what are you news reporters going to do? President-elect Obama will not do anything dumb or controversial to make news.

You reporters will be bored out of your minds. On second thought, maybe that's why Minnesota sent Michelle Bachmann back to Congress; to keep you reporters occupied...

Dan Froomkin: Hey, I started out as a policy wonk. I would love nothing better than a few quiet years of wonking out.

I mean, seriously, wouldn't it be great if my fellow journalists and I were able to spend more of our time discussing the plusses and minuses of different approaches to governance rather than chasing after the outrage of the week?

That said, I'm not at all sure that that is what is in store for us.


Elmwood Park, N.J. : I think you'll be fine. But The Nation Magazine and Keith Olberman? Looks like lean years. Abbott without Costello.

Dan Froomkin: Even if you stipulate that Obama will continue to be unflappable, serene and pensive... well, we'll always have Congress! (And maybe Rahm Emanuel.)


Crestwood, N.Y.: Would Kerry be a good choice as attorney general, in your opinion, to undertake the task of weeding out all of the Federalist Society creatures from the bureaucracy?

Dan Froomkin: I think that the attorney general pick will tell us a lot about how Obama will govern.


East Tennessee: That's a great idea, to launch a rollback-watch column to track the pace of Obama's reversals of the most egregiously unconstitutional Bush-Cheney policies. So much can be achieved through Executive Orders. And he clearly should rebuke the use of signing statements.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Now mind you, there are signing statements and there are signing statements. It's using them as Bush has -- to announce he intends to ignore the law -- that is the problem.


Kansas City, Mo.: Hi Dan! Love your work! What are you most looking forward to about covering a new administration? Do you think the readership of White House Watch will go up or down with the new administration? I'll still be reading!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm kind of looking forward to reporters' questions getting answered -- you know, with more than vaguely relevant talking points. We've sort of forgotten what that's like. Wouldn't it be interesting to write about what's really going on inside the White House? What's being considered and why? How decisions are made? There has been almost none of that in recent years.

One of the most striking things about the Bush White House is how opaque it is. More than with any other White House in history, the public has been unable to see in ¿- and the president and his top aides have been disinclined to look out. I hope that will change -- but to be honest, I'm not entirely counting on it. There is cause for concern that Obama simply will operate in a different brand of bubble.

Either way, however, I think interest in this next White House will be enormous -- and not just in this country, but around the world. This is a helluva story.


Columbus, Ohio: Now that the election's over and Republicans won't have to face the voters for another two years, do you think Bush will go nuts with pardons, to a possibly unprecedented degree?

Dan Froomkin: It's entirely possible. That's why I think the time for a national conversation about pardons is now -- rather than after they're granted.


Berryville, Va.: What do you think, Dan? Will you be inhibiting the new administration's First Amendment rights by asking tough questions, or has Sarah Palin given you fair warning that politicians won't stand for that sort of press activity any more?

Dan Froomkin: Oh gosh, now you're making me almost sad that Palin isn't going to be the vice president. She would have been such a blast to write about, dontcha think?

Her suggestion last week that her First Amendment rights were endangered by her not-entirely-adoring press coverage was indeed one of her best. As Glenn Greenwald wrote for Salon, that was so dumb it hurt.


Ellicott City, Md.: Hi Dan. Do you see any indication that after he leaves office, George W. Bush will join his dad and Bill Clinton on any of their bipartisan initiatives? It seems that Bush 41 and Bill have been together on several projects. Or do you think, perhaps, that W simply will avoid anything smacking of "public service?"

Dan Froomkin: That will be interesting to watch. Does he devote a lot of energy to Africa and AIDS, for instance, or does he just devote himself to attempts at legacy-boosting and bass fishing?


Seattle: You've written frequently that it will be hard to undo the damage Bush is doing via executive order. Given that executive orders are the prerogative of the president, I still don't understand why President Obama simply can't sign new orders rescinding the worst of Bush's, right after being sworn in. I get that there is precedent not to tread lightly on what your predecessors have done, but we're talking about a predecessor with record-low approval ratings and 90 percent of the population thinking the country has been headed in the wrong direction.

Dan Froomkin: Executive orders, in contrast to agency rules, actually are pretty easy to undo. They still need to be drafted meticulously, but otherwise it's just a stroke of the presidential pen.


Falls Church, Va.: In all the hubbub, I have forgotten to ask: All these last minute environmental deregulations the White House is pushing through -- why is it so easy to make them happen, but the reports all say that it will be tough for the next president to undo the undoing? (I hope that makes some sense.)

Dan Froomkin: They're not so easy to push through. They take a long time to formulate, there needs to be a comment period, and then there are yet more hoops before they get put on the books. And that's the whole point. These rules certainly can be undone, but it takes time and distracts from other priorities. There's some more explanation here.


Richmond, Va.: I realize the market is down but it may be a good time to invest in shredder companies. I'm guessing there is going to be a lot of shredding going on in the White House in the next few months. Are there any rules about what a transitioning administration can and can't destroy?

Dan Froomkin: There are lots of rules -- the question is, will they be followed? And when it comes to e-mail, you don't even need a shredder. See the "Some Causes for Concern" section in Thursday's column.

Also, keep in mind that while presidential records won't be available to the public for years, other executive branch records -- if they're not destroyed -- could be released by the Obama administration.


Not that he'll listen to me but: I think President Obama should pick Sen. Arlen Specter as attorney general. "My Justice Department is going to be so nonpartisan that I want a member of the opposition party to run it." How breathtaking would that be?

Dan Froomkin: I actually was thinking of someone with a backbone.


Chicago: Dan, I'd love for Obama to pick Patrick Fitzgerald -- public corruption fighter extraordinaire here in Chicago, and guilty-plea squeezer from Scooter Libby -- as attorney general (but only if he appoints a non-Chicago-based replacement to continue the zealous work that Fitzgerald has started here in the Windy City).

Dan Froomkin: Interesting idea.


San Francisco: Garrison Keillor raised a really interesting idea today: On the torture issue, Obama could draft an executive order for Jan. 20 stating that the United States no longer will torture and -- get this -- issue a blanket pardon for Bush, Cheney, Addington, et al.

Think about it: This will prevent them from denying their guilt, and will send a clear message to the world that a new sheriff is in town. I think it would pack much more punch than pursuing convictions that never will happen anyway. Plus, it really would tick Bush and Cheney off.


Dan Froomkin: Interesting -- although I think it's more likely Bush will be the one issuing the blanket pardons. And what about accountability?


Anonymous: Give us the over/under on the number of Bush pardons between now and his last day in office.

Dan Froomkin: It's those pesky blanket pardons that complicate things. I could only guess it will be less than infinity.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I was struck by the sense of celebration last night. That didn't happen in 2000 or 2004, or even 1992 or 1996, did it? Here's my take ... the pundits were saying it was because of Obama's race and his inclusive style (3 million donors!?), but I think there was a lot of celebration because the election put a big fat period on the Bush Era. I think there would have been smaller but similar outburst of joy if McCain had won. Thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I think you may be on to something. Certainly the street party outside the White House had a bye-bye-Bush quality to it.


Boston: Of all the revelry in the streets last night, how much was because of a step forward towards MLK's dream, and how much was "ding, dong the witch is dead" related? I'm guessing 75-25.

Dan Froomkin: I'd guess closer to 60-40.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Dan, while Bush has pledged full cooperation during the transition, I have to wonder what sort of cooperation Dick Cheney will provide, given his penchant for secrecy and arm-twisting. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I share your wonder.


Tuckahoe, N.Y.: In his book about his father, Obama had kind words for the way he was greeted by Bush at the White House. What are the chances that he involves Bush in something, perhaps dealing with education, before his first term is done?

Dan Froomkin: That would be pretty classy -- and maybe that's part of why Bush is so keen on a gracious transition, to keep things from getting too personal.


Speaking of Rove: I remember that a couple of days before the 2006 midterm election, when all the polls indicated the Democrats would pick up seats in both the Senate and House, that Karl Rove went out and said that the internal polls he was looking at gave him confidence the Republicans would do well.

McCain and his campaign staff made the claim this year that internal polling showed it was too close to call. My question is, what mythical planet do these polls exist in? Were they trying to delude the American people, or themselves?

Dan Froomkin: Yes -- see my Nov. 13, 2006, column, The Unbelievable Karl Rove.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone. What a day. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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