Josh Bolten, on the Record
J oshua B. Bolten may be one of the most discreet White House chiefs of staff ever, seldom talking on the record to the press or appearing before outside audiences. But he made an exception Thursday, taking two hours out of a fairly intense endeavor -- saving the U.S. economy from a meltdown -- to appear on a panel hosted by his alma mater, the St. Albans School, in honor of the D.C. private boys school's 100th birthday.
At the Washington National Cathedral, Bolten and five other prominent figures in the nation's capital -- Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.); former congressman Harold E. Ford Jr.; and former Clinton domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed-- talked about some of the issues facing the next president. Bolten did not deviate much from White House talking points but did show flashes of the dry humor to which his West Wing colleagues have become accustomed.
Bolten spoke of what a privilege it is to work in the White House, not only on good days but on the "tough days" as well. "The last few days, I have been especially privileged," he joked in reference to the talks over a financial rescue plan.
When asked about the crisis, the chief of staff offered a familiar analysis, tracing the troubles to an overheated housing market. "We had a lot of people buying homes, which was a good thing," he said. "We had a lot of people buying homes on cheap credit. Which is normally a good thing -- but it turns out we had too many people buying homes on too-cheap credit."
Bolten said it was essential that the government act quickly to "prevent the seizure in our credit markets" that is going on. "We've lost orderly functioning markets," he said. He also predicted the ultimate bailout cost to the government might be much less than the $700 billion price tag mentioned by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., noting that the government might eventually "get a pretty good deal" on many of the troubled assets Paulson is proposing the government buy.
"That's not $700 billion out the door," Bolten said.
Bolten also addressed the difficulties in getting Iran to abandon its apparent drive for a nuclear weapon, which he labeled as one of biggest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. He said that although he thought that there might be "opportunities to engage" with the Iranian people through cultural exchanges, it would not be a good idea to hold direct talks with the current leadership.
"It would be an enormous mistake for the next president to sit down with" President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad"without any preconditions," Bolten said. "We have limited leverage" with the Iranians, he said. "That is a chip which should only be granted in exchange for some modification of behavior."
Taking Ownership in the White House
Bolten's comments about the housing market were in keeping with the message from his boss. In his prime-time speech on the economy, President Bush argued Wednesday that excessive optimism in the housing market played a central role in the financial meltdown. The analysis was striking from a president who has frequently bragged about the government's role in increasing homeownership rates and in decreasing government regulation of the housing market, according to some research from my colleagues Dan Eggen and Madonna Lebling.
In 2004, for example, Bush told a group of carpenters in Phoenix that "the housing industry is booming, which means more people own their home. And that's positive."
"We want more people owning their own home. There's nothing like saying this home is my home," Bush said, adding: "I've called on private-sector mortgage banks and banks to be more aggressive about lending money to first-time home buyers. And the response has been really good."
During an October 2004 speech to the National Association of Home Builders, Bush talked about his administration's record on encouraging homeownership -- including a proposal to allow first-time buyers to make no down payment. He cast the effort as part of an "ownership society" that would also include health-care and retirement accounts, and he added that "we must remove the regulatory barriers on our home builders." The remarks garnered loud applause.