Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Friday, May 21, 2004
The Mind Behind Harken Energy As noted below, the business reporters who met with the President don't appear to have been much more effective than their mainstream colleagues in pointing out the inconsistencies that constantly appear between his assessment of the facts and the policies he chooses to pursue. At the least, there were missed opportunities to push Bush to clarify his muddled thinking.

Although I have not been able to find a full transcript of the meeting, here are a few quotes that have been reported elsewhere (mostly by CNN's Kathleen Hays), followed by my take on what should have been said. Most of these relate to Bush's refusal to consider using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilize the nation's high oil prices.

Example 1: Bush says high oil prices are partly due to a "risk premium" reflecting uncertainty over whether violence in the Middle East could disrupt our oil supplies.

That Begs the Question: Is the risk premium warranted? If so, what disaster are you expecting? What should be preparing for, and what are you doing to try and stop it? If not, if the markets are wrong, and conditions in the Middle East are actually better than they think, then wouldn't it be appropriate to put your money where your mouth is by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, sending a powerful signal to the markets that they've overreacted?

Example 2: Bush is asked what would prompt him to release oil from the SPR. He says: "If somebody were to attack a refinery, if someone were to blow up a something," he said. "It's a time for an emergency, a major disruption caused by... an unfriendly nation."

That Begs the Question: If the country experienced a gasoline shortage (or a shortage of any other refined product) due to an attack on a refinery, what exactly would be gained by releasing more crude oil from the SPR? What would you do with that oil while we waited for the refinery to be rebuilt?

It Begs Another Question, too: Mr. President, why are you clinging to this outmoded idea that the only threats to our security are posed by "unfriendly nations?" Haven't we learned that diffuse terrorist organizations like al Qaeda are more hazardous?

Example 3: Bush says he won't consider slowing the rate at which the nation is filling the SPR. But he adds that he might buy oil in the futures market, to take advantage of the lower price for oil that is due to be delivered a year from now.

That Begs the Question: If we're currently buying oil in the spot market and immediately putting it into the SPR, and you're thinking about buying it for delivery a year from now instead, how is that not "slowing the rate at which we are filling the SPR?"

Example 4: This is a cheap one, more of a Bushism than anything else, but it's outrageous enough to be worthy of note: "You can't consume your way to less dependence, you have to be more productive," Bush said.

That Begs the Question: Mr. President, I don't think anyone is advocating increasing consumption in response to the current market conditions. Presumably you meant to say "conserve." And tell me again why conservation isn't even a part of your plans for dealing with these prices, especially given the massive, long-run success of the Carter-era efficiency standards in reducing U.S. oil consumption. Is it just because you have a lot of friends in the oil patch, and they're benefitting as much as the Saudis, so you're not inclined to take a step that's in the best interest of the nation as a whole?

To Be Fair: Oil prices are only one issue facing the nation right now, and there are a lot of factors affecting them (i.e., demand from China) that Bush or any president has little to no control over. But that's no excuse for why he cannot have a halfway intelligent conversation about these question -- for God's sake, he's supposed to be an oilman!

I guess we know why the President's old oil company, Harken Energy, was such a great investment...

BizHeads Go Ga-Ga For Bush! The President's legendary charm was on full display this week, when he hosted a group of seven television business reporters at the White House for an on-the-record chat about economic issues.

Fox News' Neil Cavuto lived up to every stereotype ever thought about "journalists" at his august "news organization," turning in a piece in which the cloying approval of everything Bush said was leavened with equal parts denail of the true, strained state of the economy and fawning, self-reverence. Here's a "highlight:"

Why, after all, gather some business geeks like me for a presidential pow-wow? I'll tell you why. Because business geeks like me report on business, on the economy, on how we're doing.

Behind our pocket protectors and thick glasses lie influential hunks of burning profit power able to relegate cool economic models to mud by a single whim on the air or a biting comment in print...

I just wish my old pals in high school could see me now: Neil the nerd, now Neil-the-invited-to-the-White-House nerd standing on the same hallowed ground as Fox super cool guys Wendell Goler, Jim Angle and James Rosen.

Take that football team captain. Take that all you cheerleaders who dismissed me as some freak of nature. Still a freak, but now a force of nature freak.

Munifacts News Wire veteran Kathleen Hays was only slightly more restrained on CNN:
It's not often that financial journalists, or journalists of any kind for that matter, get invited to private briefings with the president of the United States. So imagine my surprise and delight when I got an invite to join a handful of my peers for a half-hour chat with President Bush Thursday afternoon. [emphasis added]

So much for the old rule about "no cheering in the press box," although, to be fair, I'm not sure its writers ever anticipated that the press-box cheering would be for the reporters themselves, rather than the participants on the field.

All of this would be mildly annoying if the reporters had lived up to their goal of taking the opportunity to, as Hays put it, "to ask tough questions." Instead, they dutifully repeated the President's pat, generally illogical responses to questions about economic conditions -- most notably on the prospects for using the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stabilize gas prices and the state of the economy when he took office. Gotta get back to work, but I'll expand on those points later...