Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The mandate and the legacy

During his last news conference, President Bush uses the word "disappointment" to describe his eight-year tenure.

The mandate

Many of us will forever carry a bitter taste from the Years of Bush. We had long ago grown weary of the Republicans telling us that George W. Bush was capable of being president in the first place, but now some of them are absurdly lauding him as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

Back in January 2001, with Rove at his back, Bush strutted into Washington claiming to have a mandate for his entire political agenda, from a huge tax cut to a reduction of regulations on American business and financial institutions. He asked Congress to ratify his plans for education reform, partial privatization of Social Security, faith-based social services, and military pay hikes.

The media went into fits of delight over Bush’s aggressive and manly dominance, while the Democrats seemed to be in shock, paralyzed by his audacious nerve, allowing him to bulldoze over them. Meanwhile, those of us out here in the heartland who were aghast at the way Bush and the Republican party seized complete power, were snidely admonished by the right-leaning pundits to just "get over it."

The media repeated ad nauseum that the American people wanted a "regular guy" of average intelligence with whom they would feel comfortable having a beer, rather than some boring intelligent egghead for president. They said that Bush’s election meant the regular folks, the grown-ups, were once again in charge, even though he clearly showed the emotional maturity and judgment of a surly teenager.

Bush behaved as if he had won a landslide. This is from February 2001 Business Week Magazine, right after Bush took office:

“When President Bush was asked recently by a reporter about his judicial selection process, he responded that his election was a mandate for putting conservative judges on the bench. Stumping for his $1.6 trillion tax cut (funny how that is about the amount of the national debt), Bush declares that voters endorsed it when they chose him to be President. And why stop there? Bush has claimed a mandate for everything from changing the tone in Washington to building an antimissile shield in outer space.

Mandate? This from the first President in more than 100 years to win the office without garnering the most votes? Bush wasn't about to let the election results get in the way of a good mandate. True, he lost the popular vote to Al Gore -- and in the eyes of many Democrats lost the electoral vote, too.

... the new President is out to prove that a mandate is what you make it. "Essentially, [the] mandate is what you [Bush] can get away with," says Princeton University political scientist Fred Greenstein. "Bush is very good at claiming victory. He has a 'Marlboro Man' approach to communication. His idea of having a mandate is to say 'I have a mandate.’ ”

When 9/11 happened, the public went into shock, unable to discern fact from fiction. They listened to the pundits, believing what they said – that Bush was some kind of savant whose "gut" was so brilliant that brains were irrelevant.

Larry Wilkerson, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said that Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were a national security "dream team" to guide the foreign-policy amateur Bush. But now, former administration underlings, such as Wilkerson, are depicting President Bush as a "Sarah Palin-like" leader with a short attention span who deferred on big decisions. Wilkerson said that everybody believed that the foreign-policy inexperienced President was going to be protected by his national security elite team who had been “tested in the cauldrons of fire.”

It was obvious from the first time I heard George W. Bush speak that the man had no business being president. He sat slumped in his chair like a sullen teenager with a smirk on his face. When he spoke, many voters were aghast at his lack of intellect and ability. It was an insult to the country that the Republicans recruited him for the job. It was an even worse insult that the press destroyed Al Gore over his so-called egghead personality. The pundits loved Bush’s “regular guy” persona and fell all over themselves to help the Republicans pass Bush off as a leader.

Bush never had a mandate from the people of this country – losing the popular vote to Al Gore – and the electoral vote count forever questionable due to Florida. The “mandate” was only given by Bush himself to himself and by media disciples. The Presidency was handed to him by five Republicans on the Supreme Court the first time, and by Ohio “losing” the ballots of thousands of Democratic voters the second time.

Mandate? What mandate? It was a Republican coup.

The legacy

In his final news conference before leaving office, which was obviously held for legacy-polishing, President George W. Bush made many claims that are at odds with his record. He rattled off his prepared talking points and then got ... angry. Not angry at his administration's failures, but at the critics.

He claimed to have inherited a recession that in actuality began on his watch. There have been two recessions during Bush's time in office. The first was a relatively mild downturn that began in March 2001 and lasted eight months, ending in November 2001. Since the first one did not begin until after he took office in January 2001, it is not strictly accurate to say he "inherited" it. The second downturn began December 2007, which his administration refused to acknowledge for months. The economy is in its deepest crisis in 80 years which he himself admitted when he said, “And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.”

Ah-h-h, the “D” word. The economy may be so deep in the hole that Obama’s Economic Team, as experienced as they are, might not be able to stop the slide.

As to Bush’s claim of 52 months of uninterrupted job growth, that is true but misleading. Job growth after the 2001 recession did not resume on a sustained basis until September 2003, continuing until January 2007, a period of 52 months. However, jobs have declined in every month since then with a staggering 2.6 million jobs disappearing in 2008, the most since World War II, and unemployment has hit a 16-year high of 7.2 percent. Overall, during Bush's eight years in office, a net total of 3 million jobs were created – most of which were low paying service jobs. During President Clinton’s two terms 21 million jobs were generated.

On the Bush administration's response to Katrina, Bush arrogantly scolded, “Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed... That's a pretty quick response." But he is ignoring the facts: There were 9,000 Louisiana families still living in trailers as of last Sept. 1, and only 30,000 residents of all the Gulf states received disaster housing assistance. Five of 23 acute-care hospitals in the New Orleans area remain closed. The city's bus system carries less than a third of its pre-storm passengers. Many neighborhoods remain largely vacant. Out of the $121 billion in approved federal aid only $15 billion has been spent on rebuilding in the state. Of 125 public schools in New Orleans before Katrina, only about 85 remain. Many neighborhoods still lie in ruin.

On the situation with Israel, Bush said his administration "worked hard" to advance peace by defining a goal of two peaceful countries and working to strengthen Palestinian security forces. He didn't mention that he put peacemaking on the back burner for most of his tenure and only started negotiations in the last few months. Bush wrote off Arafat early on, saying the PLO chief was corrupt and probably incapable of delivering an agreeable deal to Israel. But one of his biggest mistakes was when Bush pushed Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to hold elections in early 2006. He never considered what could and did happen. These elections ended up legitimizing Hamas, which is now in control of the Gaza Strip and at war with Israel. Israel may succeed in wounding Hamas leadership and its ability to fire rockets into Israel, but it probably cannot defeat the well-organized group outright. In the meantime, civilian deaths in Gaza erode Palestinian support for peace negotiations. With Hamas in control, peace could be a hundred years away, if ever.

That is what happens when our government refuses to hold talks with our enemies.

Bush’s biggest legacy might be the “war on terror,” which took us into two wars (with the Iraq war launched on the basis of faulty intelligence), helped him to make bold assertions of executive-branch power and destroyed America's image abroad. Sure, two years after a surge of US troops into Iraq (which should have been done years earlier) the country has become more stable, but Osama bin Laden still remains at large. What happened to the idea of getting Osama bin Laden, dead or alive?

The remainder of Bush's news conference was typical. He portrayed his critics as not being anti-Bush but rather as attacking hard-working everyday heroes. Then he wonders why the tone of Washington became so poisonous during his tenure.

Bush’s mandate never was – and his record stands, as is, through videos and well-written articles stacked from one end of the U.S. to the other. It is a ruinous history, a legacy, that cannot be rewritten regardless of how hard he and his friends try to do so.