Summit may give Bush chance to stay relevant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - What’s a lame-duck U.S. president to do between Election Day and his successor’s inauguration 77 days later?

U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands with supporters after arriving at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana, October 20, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

If you are George W. Bush, with the global financial system in its worst crisis since the Great Depression and allies clamouring for action, you host a summit of world leaders.

He may not have the clout to achieve much at the gathering on November 15, 11 days after the election, and the new president-elect -- be it fellow Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama -- will certainly have plans of his own.

But the meeting could give Bush, his opinion poll numbers at home near historic lows and his popularity overseas even lower, one of his last chances to stay relevant in his final weeks in office.

It will be no easy task. Leaders sitting at the table with Bush will also be looking beyond him, wondering how the next occupant of the White House will deal with the turmoil shaking global markets and deepening fears of a worldwide recession.

“This conference is Bush’s way of saying ‘hey, I’m still here, I’m still in charge,’” said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “But the big question on foreign leaders’ minds will be what, if any, buy-in there will be from the next occupant of the Oval Office.”

The Europeans have ambitious hopes that the summit, the first of what is planned as a series of such meetings, will eventually lead to reshaping the global financial order.

Bush, who had long made the push for free markets the centrepiece of his global economic policy, has agreed that market reforms are needed but has been more sceptical of the need for such a far-reaching overhaul.

He has backed coordinated government action to unlock frozen credit markets and agreed under intense pressure from European leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convene a meeting of economic powers to address the crisis.


Sarkozy, urging a revamp of the international financial architecture forged at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, had suggested the meeting be in New York. That would have made Wall Street a ready target for criticism of capitalism’s excesses.

By opting for the Washington area as the venue, Bush may be better able to control the focus of the talks. Asked whether Bush backs a wholesale rewrite of financial market rules as some allies want, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: “I think that everybody will come with their ideas ... but not every country is going to have the same solution.”

She also cautioned against expecting the summit to yield decisions on new policies or regulations.

The time between election and inauguration has traditionally been quiet for departing presidents. Bill Clinton was an exception, using the transition to Bush’s first term to try, to little avail, to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The financial meltdown is the last thing Bush needed for a legacy tarnished by the unpopular war in Iraq, and he has already gone along with massive federal intervention that runs counter to his conservative, deregulatory instincts.

It will be left to his successor to sort things out.

Perino said “input” would be sought from the winner of the November 4 election but it was unclear whether the president-elect would have any role at the summit.

“It’s too early to say. We don’t know what that president will want or not want to do, and so we’ll just leave that open for now,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by David Wiessler