A Dignified Departure?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 30, 2008 12:59 PM

During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush famously promised to "restore honor and integrity" to the White House.

By most accounts, he failed miserably.

But there are some signs that he intends a dignified departure.

The transition of power from one administration to another is never without its complications. This one -- coming at a time of great financial crisis and war -- seems particularly dicey. But Bush and his aides appear committed to making everything go as smoothly as possible.

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "While Barack Obama and John McCain have been trading blows over who would be the best commander-in-chief, the White House has been working with both campaigns to ensure that the winner of Tuesday's election will be prepared for the first change in presidential power since the 2001 terror attacks on the US. . . .

"Experts on presidential transitions and participants in the process say the Bush administration effort has been unprecedented in modern American history.

"'I don't recall any other transition as detailed or as conscientious as this,' said one outside transition adviser.

"'Partly it is a damage limitation thing, but partly it is a noble thing. . . . They see it as part of their obligation to facilitate as smooth a transfer as possible.'"

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "On Oct. 9 the president issued an executive order creating a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council. . . .

"Blake Gottesman, the president's deputy chief of staff for operations, serves as the council's vice chairman. . . .

"Mr. Gottesman said that the transition effort is unique from past outgoing administrations because of 'the level of engagement and level of interaction . . . [and] how much earlier we started.' . . .

"Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a scholar of presidential transitions, was invited to attend the transition council's second meeting, which was held Tuesday at the White House."

Ornstein told Ward: "I give Bush credit. It sure seems to me that he's made a determination that making this work as well as possible is important for two reasons: This is a wartime transition and we really are in some danger here; and the second is that it becomes a part of his legacy."

Ornstein himself writes for Roll Call: "I wrote earlier about how pleased I was that Bush and his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, who is chairing the council, had signaled their commitment to make this work. After meeting with the full council, I am even more delighted at the administration's across-the board commitment."

The White House issued a statement on Tuesday: "With our Nation at war, our homeland targeted by terrorist adversaries, and our economy facing serious challenges, the Administration is committed to establishing and executing a transition plan that minimizes disruption, maintains continuity, and addresses the major changes in government since the 2000 transition, including the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, as well as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Homeland Security Council. . . .

"The President has directed his Cabinet and staff to be forward-leaning in all of their efforts to ensure a smooth and effective transition. It has never been more critical that a transition from one Administration to the next be as seamless as possible. This Administration has gone to great lengths to prepare the Federal government for the transition to a new Administration and to help the major-party candidates prepare for a Presidential transition. For example:

"* Federal agencies and White House offices are preparing briefings for the President-elect's team on significant pending policy issues as well as the structure of those agencies and offices.

"* Career executives within each agency who may assume added responsibilities before the arrival of new political appointees have been identified, briefed, and included in a wide range of preparatory activities. . . .

"All interactions with the candidates and their transition teams have been equitable. The cornerstone of the Administration's contact has been uniformity of access. Materials, meetings, and guidance given to one transition team are simultaneously offered to the other."

David Hirst writes in his opinion column for the Australian paper, The Age: "The world's economic future may well be determined by the attitude President Bush takes to the handover team. Barack Obama (let us for the sake of this discussion assume that he is victor next Tuesday) is keen to hit the ground running, as he knows economic policy is his first and greatest challenge. . . .

"Much will be dependent on close co-ordination and co-operation beginning immediately and definitely involving the president-elect in the G20 meetings. . . .

"If President Bush cares a hoot about his legacy he must invite the president-elect to that summit and give him all the help he can in building a store of knowledge of the true state of the US economy. He must instruct his top economic advisers, particularly Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, to treat the president-elect with the deference due his position. . . .

"History will be much kinder to him if in this lame-duck period he walks tall and stands beside the man who next will be king and orders his officials to serve their leader in waiting as they would himself."

Some Causes for Concern

Nevertheless, a recent Congressional Research Service report outlines some of the problems that may be ahead: "Interparty transitions in particular might be contentious. Using the various powers available, a sitting President might use the transition period to attempt to secure his legacy or effect policy changes. Some observers have suggested that, if the incumbent has lost the election, he might try to enact policies in the waning months of his presidency that would 'tie his successor's hands.' . . .

"The disposition of government records (including presidential records and vice presidential records) and the practice of 'burrowing in' (which involves the conversion of political appointees to career status in the civil service) are two activities associated largely with the outgoing President's Administration." (I wrote about "burrowing in" for NiemanWatchdog.org in June.)

The issue of record-keeping is particularly problematic. Warns the CRS report: "Changes of presidential administrations prompt concerns that some government records might be destroyed or removed during the transition. Responsibility for the life cycle management of government records rests with the Archivist of the United States, who is the head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). To address concerns about, and prevent the possible loss of, records, NARA issued a bulletin in each of the past five presidential election years, as well as in 2008, reminding agency heads of the regulations regarding proper records management. As stated in the first line of the 2008 bulletin. . . its purpose 'is to remind heads of Federal agencies that official records must remain in the custody of the agency.' . . .

"Of particular concern for the 2008 transition are electronic records."

The report quotes at some length from a Robert Pear story in the New York Times last month. Pear wrote: "Countless federal records are being lost to posterity because federal employees, grappling with a staggering growth in electronic records, do not regularly preserve the documents they create on government computers, send by e-mail and post on the Web. . . .

"Many federal officials admit to a haphazard approach to preserving e-mail and other electronic records of their work. Indeed, many say they are unsure what materials they are supposed to preserve.

"This confusion is causing alarm among historians, archivists, librarians, Congressional investigators and watchdog groups that want to trace the decision-making process and hold federal officials accountable. With the imminent change in administrations, the concern about lost records has become more acute."

The CRS concludes: "A special session of Congress might be considered soon after the election to ascertain what the outgoing and incoming Administrations will do with respect to transition-related activities. . . . Congress may choose to hold additional hearings to assess the Administration's progress on stated national security transition-related activities. Congressional concerns during this phase might include the status of incoming and outgoing Administrations' collaboration efforts, how resources are being expended and toward what purpose, and to ascertain the incoming Administration's national security foreign and domestic policy goals."

Getting Ready

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "As Clay Johnson, who launched George W. Bush's transition planning in spring 2000, wrote in a recent article for Public Administration Review, 'It is irresponsible for anybody who could be president not to prepare to govern effectively from day one.' . . .

"'Mr. Johnson and other transition experts believe the new president should announce his chief of staff within a few days of the election and, by Thanksgiving, name his key White House, economic, national security and foreign policy officials.'"

Obama's transition planning is by all accounts far more advanced than McCain's.

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "Washington's best-kept secret is that Barack Obama has the largest and most disciplined presidential transition team anyone can recall. Headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House, it started work well before the financial meltdown hit in September but has been swamped by its implications ever since. . . .

"'President-elect Obama could be faced with a situation on New Year's Eve where US troops are not permitted to leave their barracks because there is no legal basis for their presence in Iraq,' says Bill Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, who was involved in Mr Clinton's transition effort. 'To game out all these scenarios -- the financial crisis, Iraq, the fiscal stimulus, etc -- will require an unprecedented degree of planning for a transition effort.'"

Charles Babbington writes for the Associated Press: "In a 10th-floor office a few blocks from the White House is a self-described government in waiting, ready to push detailed proposals for the economy, Iraq and scores of other issues if Barack Obama becomes president.

"The Center for American Progress, formed five years ago by top aides to former President Clinton, could become Washington's most influential think tank overnight."

Keith Koffler writes for Roll Call that Obama "is being advised by a long roster of former aides to President Bill Clinton, a sign that the putative outsider would be ready for inside-Washington hardball, in a way that few newly elected presidents have been, should he win on Nov. 4."

Peter Baker and Jackie Calmes wrote last week in the New York Times: "Obama's plans appear more extensive than in the past and more advanced than those of Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent. Mr. McCain has also assigned confidants to prepare for a transition but instructed them to limit their activities as he tries to rescue his foundering campaign, Republicans said."

Dan Eggen blogs for The Washington Post: "President Bush suggested today that one of the candidates -- he didn't say which one -- was sizing up the White House for new drapes.

"Following a press availability in the Oval Office, most correspondents had filed out when Associated Press radio reporter Mark Smith had a brief conversation with Bush, according to a White House pool report.

"'I caught Bush's eye,' Smith recounts in the report. 'He said, "Hey, how ya doin'?" And I said, "Anybody measuring the drapes, sir?"'

"At that point Bush laughed, paused a beat and replied: 'Sounds like it.'

"Bush did not identify the drape-measurer by name. But Republican nominee John McCain has repeatedly argued in recent days that Democratic candidate Barack Obama is already 'measuring the drapes' for the White House, in part because of widespread polling that shows Obama in the lead and because Obama's transition operation is more expansive than McCain's."

Not Attending the Summit?

Jeremy Pelofsky reports for Reuters: "The Bush administration said on Wednesday it does not expect the winner of the November 4 U.S. presidential election, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, to attend the summit on the financial crisis on November 15.

"'I know that (White House Chief of Staff) Josh Bolten, the other day . . . said that he had heard from the campaigns that they don't plan to participate in person, but that they would be providing input,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. . . .

"She defended the meeting despite the likely lack of attendance by the incoming president.

"'I think that the president-elect would not want us to hold off on having a meeting of this importance to wait until January, or even later, because there are some serious issues that we need to start dealing with now so that we can avoid this happening again,' she said."

Bush and the FBI

In a speech to FBI Academy graduates this morning, Bush once again tried to make the case that his administration deserves credit for preventing further terrorist attacks after 9/11. But he doesn't offer any evidence to back it up.

Previewing the speech, which was e-mailed to reporters last night, John D. McKinnon blogged for the Wall Street Journal that Bush "isn't doing any out-and-out campaigning for Republicans this week. But he's still hoping to score a few points with voters on the national-security front."

In the speech, McKinnon wrote, "Bush plans to highlight his administration's success in preventing another terrorist attack in the U.S., making perhaps his strongest claim for credit yet."

Said Bush: "More than seven years have passed without another attack on our soil. And this is not an accident. Since 9/11, we have gone on the offense against the terrorists abroad -- so we do not have to face them here at home. (Applause.) We stand with young democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond as they seek to replace the hateful ideology of the extremists with a hopeful alternative of liberty. . . .

"Here at home, we've transformed our national security institutions and have given our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the tools and the resources they need to do their job, and that is to protect the American people. . . .

"Since 9/11, the Bureau has worked with our partners around the world to disrupt planned terrorist attacks. Most Americans will never know the full stories of how these attacks were stopped and how many lives were saved."

But why shouldn't we know, if any such attacks really were stopped?

As I wrote in my September 11 column, Bush the Great Protector, leaving aside the issue of whether he could have prevented the first attack, Bush has yet to provide one bit of evidence that any of the actions he ordered -- not to mention the most controversial ones, such as torturing terror suspects and eavesdropping on Americans without a warrant -- prevented another.

Economy Watch

Peter Whoriskey, David Cho and Zachary A. Goldfarb write in The Washington Post: "Negotiators for the Treasury and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are nearing agreement on a plan to have the government guarantee the mortgages of millions of distressed homeowners in what would be a significant departure for the federal rescue program, which has so far directed relief exclusively to banks and other financial institutions."

So what's the holdup?

"Several sources said the mortgage program still faces resistance from the White House. A spokesman for President Bush said last night that the administration was analyzing various proposals."

Iraq Watch

Dan Eggen and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "A senior Iraqi political leader said yesterday he is 'doubtful' that a bilateral agreement authorizing U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the end of the year would be approved by the Iraqi cabinet and parliament.

"Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said most political factions in Iraq want the accord to go through. But he said the country is 'in a situation of intellectual terrorism, where people are not able to state their real positions' for fear of appearing too close to the United States and of undercutting their standing in provincial elections scheduled for January. . . .

"The assessment came amid growing signs of trouble in negotiations over a status-of-forces agreement, or SOFA, that would govern the U.S. military presence in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires Dec. 31. The process stalled again this week when the Iraqi cabinet decided to reopen negotiations and propose a series of amendments to the pact.

"President Bush, who met with Barzani yesterday in the Oval Office, said he was 'analyzing' the proposals and is optimistic that an agreement can be reached. 'We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles,' Bush said. 'And I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed.'

"But the mild encouragement from Bush came as other administration officials strongly suggested that a compromise is unlikely, increasing the possibility that the issue will become one of the first major challenges facing the next U.S. president."

Foreign Policy Watch

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press that "Bush appears destined to step down without achieving many of his global objectives. . . .

"[H]is goals of democratizing the Middle East and winning worldwide respect for the United States are at best works in progress.

"Political chaos in Israel this year snuffed out any lingering hopes he could produce a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. . . .

"Iran is clinging to a right to enrich uranium while fending off economic and political offers designed to sidetrack any attempt to build nuclear weapons. North Korea, meanwhile, zigzags on how much access to give outside inspectors to its nuclear weapons program while wobbling on a pledge to disable a nuclear reactor.

"Iraq has become less volatile, but it is still not the democratic jewel Bush had hoped to inspire after an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein and despite huge investments in American troops and capital.

"In Afghanistan, the Taliban, the hard-line Muslim group forced from power with a 2001 U.S. invasion, has mustered renewed strength. U.S. casualties are mounting and there is talk of the pro-U.S. government reconciling with the militants.

"Pakistan has turned out to be an uncertain ally despite massive U.S. economic assistance. And Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders are thought to be hiding in the country's frontier region.

"The list of disappointments is long. In the face of them, Bush has made few strategic adjustments."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column that she worries about "the national security booby traps the Bush administration is leaving behind."

For instance, in Iraq, "the administration appears to be doing its best to make Obama's planned troop drawdown difficult."

And "after years of Bush administration malfeasance, increasing U.S. troop levels without an accompanying dramatic shift in regional strategy risks turning Afghanistan into another Iraq.

"Or worse, because the Afghan booby trap is wired tightly to the Pakistan booby trap. Pakistan is the proud but horrifyingly unstable possessor of a nuclear arsenal. If the escalating conflicts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions spin out of control, we could end up in another Iraq-like situation -- only with weapons of mass destruction in the mix for real this time. . . .

"Like it or not, Obama will inherit a situation in which U.S. credibility and popularity in Pakistan are close to zero and the Pakistani government is only barely in control.

"It's a situation that's virtually designed to blow up in his face."

Endorsement Watch

Ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama writes for the American Conservative: "I'm voting for Barack Obama this November for a very simple reason. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don't work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale."

Pre-Emption Watch

Bush apparently has not one, but two doctrines of pre-emption. The second is domestic.

Justin Blum and Greg Stohr write for Bloomberg: "Political appointees at the Food and Drug Administration adopted rules that help shield drugmakers from patients' lawsuits over opposition from the agency's staff, a House report says

"Appointees of President George W. Bush supported the changes in 2006 and this year, according to a report today by Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The panel is headed by Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, who opposed the rule changes."

Kevin Freking writes for the Associated Press: "At issue is language in a drug-labeling rule from 2006 that effectively limits when people can sue in state court over injury claims involving medications. The FDA contends federal regulations prevail when there is a conflict with state law. This concept is called pre-emption."

Alicia Mundy writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The administration began adding language to more than 50 regulatory rulings that pre-empt state standards and lawsuits at several agencies in 2005.

"The first such ruling at the FDA appeared in January 2006, surprising outside observers because the language hadn't appeared in earlier public drafts."

Super Busy

Jeremy Pelofsky writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush, who said in March he would find ample time to campaign for Republican White House contender John McCain, is going to spend the last weekend of the 2008 race at, well, Camp David.

"Bush has record low job approval ratings due to the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sour economy. He will leave Friday for the U.S. presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland and will remain secluded until Sunday, according to his public schedule released late Tuesday evening."

Here's Perino at yesterday's press briefing: "The President is pretty focused on the activities that we have here, especially getting this economy back in order. As we've said for a while, the President was going to be focusing on this. We cancelled a lot of our fundraisers, and he's going to focus on being with Mrs. Bush and others this weekend at Camp David.

Even Cheney Is More Welcome

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to participate in a Republican rally on Saturday in Laramie."

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien: "Very strange story out of Washington. . . . The Secret Service, they arrested a man who climbed over the White House fence. True story. Yeah. The Secret Service told the man: 'Get back here, Mr. President, you have two more months.'"

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on Bush's service, Jimmy Margulies on the MBA president, Riber Hansson on the end of the roller coaster ride, and Alan Moir on Bush's exit.

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