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White House Strikes Back

Crisis Blame Game Heats Up

Having left much of the shouting and finger-pointing about the economy to the campaign trail, the White House waded into the debate more forcefully on Wednesday, seeking to defend President Bush against Democratic charges that the administration has been asleep at the switch.

With Bush mired in low approval ratings and regarded by some as a political third rail, Republican candidates from the presidential level on down have done little to defend him against Democratic attacks.

White House aides heatedly reject suggestions by Democrats that Bush has not sought to regulate the financial sector, eagerly pointing to a list of initiatives they say Bush pressed for and Democrats resisted.

“It’s absurd to make the claim that somehow we failed to put in strong regulations,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said.

Bush aides highlight what they say are long-running efforts by the president to extract from Congress legislation reforming the Federal Housing Administration and changing the way Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are regulated, accusing Congress of acting only when faced with a lending crisis.

“For critics who are … trying to affix blame to the administration, I would ask them to go back and do a little bit of self-examination before they start addressing us,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

White House officials sought to portray the administration as above the fray, even as they slung some mud back in the direction of Democrats.

“I’m not going to get into the blame game,” Perino declared. “We are in the ‘act, lead and govern’ game.”

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is increasingly pounding away at the theme that Bush has done nothing to regulate the financial sector and that Obama’s opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), will offer more of the same.

On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday amplified on the theme in unusually blunt terms.

“They are such devout followers of a top-down, big-business-first approach to the economy that they see any oversight as a threat to their greed,” Reid said of Bush and Vice President Cheney. “They refused to exercise their regulatory authority over the mortgage industry, allowing massive fraud and widespread predatory lending to pave the way for the largest mortgage crisis in American history — which they continued to ignore long after the plundering and pillaging of the mortgage market became a crisis,” Reid added.

White House aides also reject suggestions that Bush has held his tongue while the financial crisis accelerated, pointing to a statement made just Tuesday to try to reassure markets.

“In the long run, I’m confident that our capital markets are flexible and resilient, and can deal with these adjustments,” Bush said during a Rose Garden appearance with the president of Ghana.

But Bush had been kept almost completely away from reporters’ questions as major companies and institutions began tumbling. His most recent news conference was July 15, and the last time he took substantive questions from the White House press corps was on Aug. 6.

“We’re being held to some bizarre standard, to have the president comment just to fill a news cycle,” said one White House official. “The last thing markets want is public commentary.”

White House aides have made vague hints that Bush may soon be produced for cross-examining.

Perino said Bush has stayed away from the press because he does not want to be drawn into the presidential campaign.

But another part of the trouble he might run into was on display at the daily White House briefing Wednesday, when Perino repeatedly refused to confirm the statement — routinely offered by the White House through thick and thin — that the “fundamentals of the economy are sound.”

McCain came under fierce criticism from Democrats earlier this week for making just such a statement.

Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke met with key lawmakers Tuesday night, including Reid, to lay out their plan for a federal takeover of ailing insurance giant AIG. Perino said the session was also part of an effort “to continue to work with Congress in a bipartisan way to try to figure out a way to address the [the credit crisis] so that we can deal with it, so that we can prevent it from happening again.”

But a Congressional source familiar with the meeting said there was no discussion of further steps that can be taken in the immediate future to right financial markets.

In comments Wednesday, Reid suggested little can be done in the brief time Congress will be in session before the elections.

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