By Jo Becker, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Stephen Labaton
Published: Sunday, December 21, 2008
WASHINGTON — "We can put light where there's darkness, and hope where there's despondency in this country. And part of it is working together as a nation to encourage folks to own their own home."
- President George W. Bush, Oct. 15, 2002
... Eight years after arriving in Washington vowing to spread the dream of home ownership, Bush is leaving office, as he himself said recently, "faced with the prospect of a global meltdown" with roots in the housing sector he so ardently championed.
There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.
But the story of how the United States got here is partly one of Bush's own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.
From his earliest days in office, Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own homes with his conviction that markets do best when left alone. Bush pushed hard to expand home ownership, especially among minority groups, an initiative that dovetailed with both his ambition to expand Republican appeal and the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.
Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Bush chose to oversee them - an old school buddy - pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.
As early as 2006, top advisers to Bush dismissed warnings from people inside and outside the White House that housing prices were inflated and that a foreclosure crisis was looming. ...
And both Paulson and his predecessor, John Snow, say the housing push went too far.
"The Bush administration took a lot of pride that home ownership had reached historic highs," Snow said during an interview. "But what we forgot in the process was that it has to be done in the context of people being able to afford their house. We now realize there was a high cost."
For much of the Bush presidency, the White House was preoccupied by terrorism and war; on the economic front, its pressing concerns were cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security, a government retirement and disability benefits program. The housing market was a bright spot: Ever-rising home values kept the economy humming, as owners drew down on their equity to buy consumer goods and pack their children off to college.
Lawrence Lindsay, Bush's first chief economic adviser, said there was little impetus to raise alarms about the proliferation of easy credit that was helping Bush meet housing goals.
"No one wanted to stop that bubble," Lindsay said. "It would have conflicted with the president's own policies."
Today, millions of Americans are facing foreclosure, home ownership rates are virtually no higher than when Bush took office, Fannie and Freddie are in a government conservatorship, and the bailout cost to taxpayers could run in the trillions of dollars.
As the economy has shed jobs - 533,000 last month alone - and his party has been punished by irate voters, the weakened president has granted his Treasury secretary extraordinary leeway in managing the crisis.
... Darrin West could not believe it. The president of the United States was standing in his living room. It was June 17, 2002, a day West recalls as "the highlight of my life." Bush, in Atlanta to introduce a plan to increase the number of minority homeowners by 5.5 million, was touring Park Place South, a development of starter homes in a neighborhood once marked by blight and crime.
West had patrolled there as a police officer, and now he was the proud owner of a $130,000 town house, bought with an adjustable-rate mortgage and a $20,000 government loan as his down payment - just the sort of creative public-private financing Bush was promoting.
"Part of economic security," Bush declared that day, "is owning your own home."
A lot has changed since then. West, beset by personal problems, has left Atlanta. Unable to sell his home for what he owed, he said, he gave it back to the bank last year. Like other communities across the United States, Park Place South has been hit with a foreclosure crisis affecting at least 10 percent of its 232 homes, according to Masharn Wilson, a developer who led Bush's tour. "I just don't think what he envisioned was actually carried out," she said.
Park Place South is, in microcosm, the story of a well-intentioned policy gone awry. Advocating home ownership is hardly novel; Bill Clinton's administration did it, too. For Bush, it was part of his vision of an "ownership society," in which Americans would rely less on the government for health care, retirement and shelter. It was also good politics, a way to court black and Hispanic voters.
But for much of Bush's tenure, government statistics show, incomes for most families remained relatively stagnant while housing prices skyrocketed. That put home ownership increasingly out of reach for first-time buyers like West.
So Bush had to, in his words, "use the mighty muscle of the federal government" to meet his goal. He proposed affordable housing tax incentives.
He insisted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac meet ambitious new goals for low-income lending.
Concerned that down payments were a barrier, Bush persuaded Congress to spend as much as $200 million a year to help first-time buyers with down payments and closing costs.
This bill, which Congress passed in 2004, was largely symbolic, but symbolism is important.
And he pushed to allow first-time buyers to qualify for government insured mortgages with no money down. Republican congressional leaders and some housing advocates balked, arguing that homeowners with no stake in their investments would be more prone to walk away, as West did. Many economic experts, including some in the White House, now share that view.
The president also leaned on mortgage brokers and lenders to devise their own innovations. "Corporate America," he said, "has a responsibility to work to make America a compassionate place."
And corporate America, eyeing a lucrative market, delivered in ways Bush might not have expected, with a proliferation of too-good-to-be-true teaser rates and interest-only loans that were sold to investors in a loosely regulated environment. But Bush populated the financial system's alphabet soup of oversight agencies with people who, like him, wanted fewer rules, not more.
The president's first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission promised a "kinder, gentler" agency. The second was pushed out amid industry complaints that he was too aggressive. Under its current leader, the agency failed to police the catastrophic decisions that toppled the investment bank Bear Stearns and contributed to the current crisis, according to a recent inspector general's report.
As for Bush's banking regulators, they once brandished a chain saw over a 9,000-page pile of regulations as they promised to ease burdens on the industry.
When states tried to use consumer protection laws to crack down on predatory lending, the comptroller of the currency blocked the effort, asserting that states had no authority over national banks.
The administration won that fight at the Supreme Court. But Roy Cooper, North Carolina's attorney general, said, "They took 50 sheriffs off the beat at a time when lending was becoming the Wild West."
State laws regarding lending, which tend to be older and less fashionable than federal laws, were generally better. They could make a difference, as the sharp distinction between Pennsylvania (strict regulations, fewer foreclosures) and Ohio (loose regulations, more foreclosures) showed.
The president did push rules aimed at requiring lenders to explain loan terms more clearly. But the White House shelved them in 2004, after industry-friendly members of Congress threatened to block confirmation of his new housing secretary.
In the 2004 election cycle, mortgage bankers and brokers poured nearly $847,000 into Bush's re-election campaign, more than triple their contributions in 2000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The administration did not complete the new rules until last month.
Today, administration officials say it is fair to ask whether Bush's ownership push backfired. Paulson said the administration, like others before it, "over-incented housing."