November 13, 2008 2:00 am

Smiles begin to slip amid signs of transfer tensions

It was all smiles between George W. Bush and Barack Obama when the president posed for photographs with the president-elect outside the White House on Monday.

Both sides claimed the friendly mood continued during the one-on-one meeting that followed inside the Oval Office.

Yet, it took less than 24 hours for the bonhomie to be replaced by signs of tension between the outgoing president and his successor.

White House officials made clear their irritation that details of the meeting had been leaked to the press and disputed reports that Mr Bush had set conditions for his approval of emergency economic measures being considered by Congress. Mr Obama's transition team then agreed that the president's words had been mischaracterised.

"The peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy," Mr Bush said last week. "And ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my administration."

But this week's flare-up reflected the potential for conflict between the two sides over the next two months as the Democratic-controlled Congress works on measures to revive the economy and save the ailing car industry from collapse.

Until he hands over the White House keys to Mr Obama on January 20, Mr Bush remains the boss. Dana Perino, White House press secretary, yesterday said the president was "open" to considering ideas put forward by Congress but stressed that he remained a "free market guy" whose "natural instinct" was against government intervention.

With no political future ahead of him, White House officials say Mr Bush has stopped worrying about his approval rating and is now focused solely on what is best for the country.

But even Mr Bush must have winced at fresh opinion poll numbers this week showing that 76 per cent of people disapprove of how he is handling his job, making him the most unpopular president since approval ratings were first measured more than 60 years ago.

By comparison, Richard Nixon had a 66 per cent disapproval rating when he resigned as president during the Watergate scandal.

A former Bush administration official argues that Mr Bush's low rating is part of his legacy. "A president's legacy is not just judged by historians," he says. "It's judged by voters - and on that score, Bush really suffers badly. He leaves his party and his ideology at its weakest position in 44 years."

In particular, the White House has voiced scepticism about the economic stimulus proposals, putting Mr Bush on a collision course with the president-elect, who supports them.

"He thinks the economic recovery programme should be passed sooner rather than later," said John Podesta, co-chairman of the Obama transition team. "If not, it will be the first item of business after the inauguration."

Mr Bush has made his own demands for the so-called lame-duck legislative session that starts next week, calling for Congress to approve the pending US free trade agreement with Colombia. But Democrats, emboldened by their landslide election victory, are in no mood to drop their opposition to the Colombia deal, closing the door to a possible grand bargain with the Bush administration.

In the absence of compromise, it looks likely Mr Bush will face a choice of either caving in to Democratic demands or vetoing them.

Neither is an attractive option. Further costly stimulus measures and support for the car industry would infuriate many conservatives who are seething about the $700bn financial sector bail- out. But a veto would sour the transition and expose Mr Bush to accusations of obstructing efforts to revive the economy and save jobs.

Given that Mr Obama has made clear that he would approve the measures, the decision for Mr Bush is whether to bow to the president-elect's will in the interests of a graceful handover or to delay the inevitable as a matter of principle. One person who recently had dinner with Mr Bush said he blamed his unpopularity, in part, on "nativist" elements in the Republican party that had alienated moderate and Hispanic voters.

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