President Puts His Powers of Persuasion to the Test

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

With his $700 billion financial recovery plan teetering on Capitol Hill, President Bush finally decided that it was time to start selling the proposal directly to the American people.

After ceding the lead role in responding to the crisis to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Bush last night grabbed the largest megaphone available -- a prime-time White House address to the nation -- to make the case that the economy could collapse without extraordinary government intervention in the workings of the financial markets.

"More banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account," he warned. "The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. And if you own a business or a farm, you would find it harder and more expensive to get credit. More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs."

Making such a rare address, only the sixth of his second term, was not necessarily an obvious call. With the president's approval ratings as low as ever -- 26 percent in a new Fox News poll -- his credibility among Democrats virtually nonexistent and his influence minimal among Republicans in Congress, it is not at all clear that the president's exhortations will move the emerging legislative package over the finish line in the face of opposition from vocal factions in both parties.

But Bush and his aides concluded that they needed to at least try to explain to the American people the consequence of inaction -- and the reality, in their view, that the well-being of Main Street is inextricably linked to the recovery of Wall Street.

One senior administration official, not authorized to speak on the record, noted that many members of Congress are "getting a lot of negative feedback" about the Bush plan. "A lot of members have said, 'We need some help convincing the American people that there is a crisis and we need this extraordinary action,' " this official said. "If not the president, who's going to do it?"

Candida P. Wolff, Bush's former top lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said: "There really hasn't been a sales job. It's been Treasury making the case to members of Congress, but there's been real pressure to get the message out more broadly."

To Democrats, Bush has been strangely absent in the ongoing crisis, delegating much authority to Paulson and staying on the sidelines. Even before Bush spoke last night, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused him of being "absent from what may well be the most important debate on economic policy in a generation."

"It appears that the whole approach was that Paulson was his Petraeus," Patrick Griffin, who served as legislative director for President Bill Clinton, said in a reference to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. "That worked for the 'surge,' but it clearly hasn't had the same effect in this case."

Administration officials say that perception is at odds with the reality that Bush has been closely engaged with Paulson at every step of the way in fashioning a response to the crisis. They say Bush has been weighing in regularly with public statements about the situation while considering whether a more forceful public intervention would be useful. They also say he has yet to begin meeting with lawmakers individually because there is no final agreement yet to sell.

"It made the most sense to get the proposal up there, let the discussions begin, and then go before the American people and talk directly to them," said another senior administration official.

White House press secretary Dana Perino dismissed the suggestion that Bush has been publicly absent on the crisis. She said that the reason for scheduling the address last night was so the White House could ask networks for time only once, and that it is important now because Congress is "getting closer to a legislative solution"

"We are going to take the time tonight to try to get this over the goal line," she said.

Rep. Tom Davis (R), the retiring Virginia lawmaker who has occasionally been at odds with the White House, said the administration has to throw everything it can into the legislative fight because the bill would fail if brought to the floor in its current state. "From the president's perspective, if he really thinks this is Armageddon if this doesn't happen, he has to lay his marker down," Davis said.

Democrats will now be put on notice, he added, that if they don't go along with the president's plan and the economy tanks, they will be blamed.

Whether the president maintains any sway with congressional Republicans is another question. Bush sent Vice President Cheney and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten to try to calm down restive House Republicans but, by several accounts, they did not have much success. Administration officials remain nervous that even if they can meet congressional objections on certain provisions, that may not be enough to move House Republicans, who remain frustrated with the White House on a range of issues and angry about what they perceive as a perversion of free-market principles.

Still, many longtime Washington figures said Bush has to try to break the logjam. "This is a speech by the president of the United States and that's why it makes a difference. He is the only president we have until January 20 at high noon," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, the onetime chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan.

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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