Bush’s Team Digs In

Burst of Action Drives White House Staff

Posted September 25, 2008 at 6:54pm

President Bush and his administration have suddenly assumed center stage in the political theater, with Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson steering an effort to save the U.S. economy while the presidential candidates are left to snipe and offer suggestions.

Bush, mired in low poll ratings, has little political capital either with the public or Congress. He is a lame duck, and a particularly lame one at that. But he remains the president, and while his plan for rescuing U.S. financial markets is being altered by Congress, it is still the template on which final legislation will be based.

Further, Bush has scored a few less- noticed victories as Congress hurries out of town to campaign. The White House has insisted for weeks that renewal of the offshore drilling moratorium stay off the continuing resolution, allowing exploration to go forward. This week, Democrats announced they were caving on the issue. A nuclear energy deal with India, which was recently on life support, was at press time racing toward completion, and a presidential signature.

Paulson in particular appears the picture of adult supervision. With his knowledge of the markets perhaps unrivaled in political Washington, the central thrust of his initiative — that the government will assume Wall Street’s bad mortgages — has so far been the only game in town.

“To be fair to the candidates and to Congress, we have a lot of expertise and resources that they don’t,” said one of the many harried White House officials struggling to meet the demands of the past two weeks. “A campaign staff may have four or five economic advisers trying to deal with every issue under the sun. We have hundreds if not thousands of economists, lawyers and staff looking at the economy.”

This source noted that he had been hearing the key concepts in the Paulson plan discussed within the administration for months.

While Paulson and Bush deal with substantive issues, the country is left to speculate on whether the maneuverings of the presidential candidates — Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — are gestures intended to help the country or antics designed to help themselves.

McCain and Obama on Thursday attended a White House meeting with Bush and the Congressional leadership. But their presence was clearly of symbolic importance only. The details are chiefly being hashed out by the administration and Congress, and many of the candidates’ “demands” merely echo changes already sought by lawmakers.

The challenges of the past two weeks, as well as the usual exigencies of the race to adjournment, have legislative, policy and communications offices in the White House and the agencies humming.

Treasury officials under Paulson are taking the lead on the bailout, fanning out to the offices of Congressional leaders and members of the banking and financial services panels to iron out the details of legislation. Top White House brass led by Vice President Cheney have been called in to lend weight to the persuasion campaign.

The Department of Energy has been most heavily involved with energy talks, while the State Department has led lobbying for the India agreement.

Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle is the White House point man on the continuing resolution. The White House legislative affairs office, which has its fingers in all issues, is steering the effort to beat back a “Stimulus II” initiative sought by Democrats.

White House officials routinely complain they never have a dull moment, but the late-night and weekend meetings of recent days present an unusually torrid pace for aides quietly readying their résumés as Bush prepares to move out.

“There’s always something,” grumbled one White House aide. “I don’t know what it will be two weeks from now, but it will be something.”