The following was written in January of 2009, shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president.
Juxtaposed against the recent inauguration of President-elect Obama is the concluding presidency of George W. Bush. It is a stark contrast to be sure. While the new President has idealistically championed the audacity of hope, the former President seems to have been thoroughly defeated, both physically and mentally, by the brutal nature of reality. Bush left the White House as one of the most disapproved men to ever hold the nation’s highest office; Obama entered it on the heels of an electoral landslide. In Mr. Bush’s departure the American people see an incorrigible blemish finally being removed; in Mr. Obama’s arrival, they see the coming of a new era of both domestic and foreign politics.
One cannot blame the American people for their retrospective disdain for Bush and the now GOP minority. In early 2001 the United States as a whole was economically prosperous and had few pressing issues abroad (at least that the average voter was aware of). Eight years later we are involved in two major wars and mired in a severe recession. Seemingly all of Bush’s campaign promises, meanwhile, failed to come to fruition: universal health care was not achieved, Social Security was not fixed, and the nation became increasingly polarized despite his claims of being a “uniter, not a divider”. The hands off leadership Bush practiced in the White House prevented key cabinet members from making the right call on Iraq and fueled inter-branch conflict galore. Having no substantive foreign policy experience, these were people that Bush desperately needed to get along. Even as a loyal GOP partisan, Bush was somewhat of a failure. “43” violated conservative edicts by massively expanding the federal government, only to cling to outdated conservative social norms in banning stem cell research and fighting Roe v. Wade tooth and nail. “George W. Bush the pragmatist” is right up there with “Larry Hughes the team player”.
Nor can one blame the ebullient masses who have borderline-worshiped President Obama. To say he is eloquent or intelligent (which he is) misses the point. No single man can possibly master the number of complex issues presidential candidates are required to speak authoritatively on. Obama’s campaign may have been light on issue rhetoric (even the bulk of his search marketing efforts were based on buzzwords rather than issue keywords). Unlike Bush (and to a lesser extent, McCain), however, Obama’s BS was believable. The value of believable BS’ing in politics cannot be overstated, both in advancing one’s own political interests and, more importantly, reassuring the nation. There is a calm to Obama’s voice that soothes us, a confidence that puts us at ease. Like a young child with a scraped knee, America has been bloodied for the first time in a while, and we need our mother there telling us, rightly or wrongly, that everything will be okay.
Despite being an unapologetic McCain voter, I will ardently support and root for the Obama presidency. The straits our nation is now in are too dire, the consequences of failure too severe, to cling to partisan loyalties in lieu of patriotism. What I ask in return is that critics of Mr. Bush subject him to a trial by fact rather than a trial by fire.
As the aforementioned examples point out, some facts certainly give credence to the “Bush as a bad president” argument. Yet the American Left tends to ignore the former president’s notable achievements. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Mr. Bush built an anti-terror apparatus that kept America safe for the next seven years. (To claim, as many liberals of the Paul Krugman ilk have, that Bush’s actions had nothing to do with the subsequent lull in attacks is sinfully ignorant.) He funded massive anti-AIDS initiatives in Africa and women’s rights initiatives in the Middle East. He transformed Libya from a willing anti-American aggressor to a willing ally in the War on Terror. And despite what is almost certainly a false pretense for invading Iraq, the results of the war are undeniably positive. A nation formerly enslaved by one of history’s most brutal dictators is now a liberal democracy. America will soon have an independent and reliable ally in the Middle East aside from Israel. Not bad consolation prizes for a war that most Americans view as an utter failure.
Even for all of the issues that Mr. Bush was wrong about, his overriding philosophy… the real Bush Doctrine, if you will, was spot on. No, I am not referring to the so-called “Bush Doctrine” spoken of by substanceless know-it-alls like Katie Couric, because it doesn’t even really exist. I refer instead to Bush’s idea that presidents should do what they think is in the best interest of the nation, not simply act as the fickle masses want them to. Ever notice how the most democratic branch of our government (Congress) consistently gets the lowest approval ratings, and how the least democratic branch (the Supreme Court) gets the highest? This is not a coincidence. For democracy to work, it needs layers of insulation from public opinion. Thucydides described the horrible war crimes made possible by Athenian direct democracy. De Tocqueville told us of the “tyranny of the majority”. Kennan lectured us on how democracy was “poorly designed for the conduct of foreign policies”. Whether his decisions were right or wrong, Mr. Bush deserves praise for doing what he thought was right rather than what was politically expedient. (How ironic that Fareed Zakaria excoriated Bush for acting somewhat independently of public opinion after publishing a book in which he chides American democracy for being far too populist.)
Like every one of his predecessors, Mr. Bush was unsuccessful in many of his foreign and domestic machinations. It’s a tough job, and somebody’s gotta do it…unfortunately, no one has been able to do it particularly well yet. (I look to neither Bill Clinton nor Ronald Reagan as the demigods that many on the left and right do.) For a man who sacrificed the last eight years of his life to serve us, let’s put aside our ill-will and give thanks. And let us all wish nothing but the best for President Obama.