Bush II and Obama--
And the Exciting Conclusion to This Course!

The final study question asks you to react to the generalization that, no matter what one thinks of Bill Clinton as a statesman, he is certainly a skilled politician and a good example of the generalization that nations get the leaders they deserve.  The same might be said of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Initially, at least, George Bush didn’t face the same kind of obstacles Clinton did: he was nowhere near the same kind of longshot candidate.  He came from a wealthy and powerful family with plenty of political connections.  Unlike Hillary Clinton, Bush’s wife Laura was a more traditional political wife.  She had a career of her own (first as a 2nd grade teacher, then, after getting her MA, as a librarian), but she focused on more traditional “first lady” issues when her husband became Texas governor (education, literacy, health issues.)  Bush earned his undergraduate degree at Yale and an MBA at Harvard.  He worked in the oil business and, for a time, co-owned the Texas Rangers.  He was an unsuccessful candidate for congress, but, in 1994, became governor of Texas.

Now obviously it’s never easy to win the presidency, but Bush had a big head start—with one glaring weakness.  Bush was a terrible political speaker.  It was painful to listen to him in the 2000 Republican debates.  Nevertheless, Bush won out over a fairly impressive field of rivals, largely because the Republicans needed (as so often) a compromise candidate, a man acceptable both to the conservative Republicans and to the establishment big-business Republicans.

The Democrats likewise had something of a compromise candidate: Al Gore.  Gore likewise from an old established political family.  Initially, he was one of those moderate-appearing southern Democrats that Ron Brown believed key to Democratic success at the national level.  Gore was initially a pro-lifer—and his wife ultimately led a campaign to try to tame-down some of the offensive stuff in the entertainment industry. Gore had, of course, the problem that he was Clinton’s VP.  Yet, fortunately for him, the “it’s all about sex” mantra meant that the scandals of the Clinton administration weren’t quite the weight for him they might have been.

The 2000 election was exceptionally close, with Gore seeming to win the popular vote total (once again, voter fraud was an enormous problem).  As to the electoral college vote—well, that was a problem.  Early on election night—while the polls were still open in fact—the network news shows called Florida for Gore.  But, as the vote totals came in, they had to take back the call, and, when the dust had cleared in the morning, it looked like Bush had won a narrow victory in FL and the presidency.

The close vote triggered an automatic recount.  Bush still came out ahead, but be an even narrower margin.  And so we were in for more recounts—and, for days and days, it wasn’t clear who the president was going to be.  Not until December 9—more than a month later—did the Supreme Court finally end the battle.

The Democrats were angry—and afraid.   The Republicans controlled both houses of congress and the presidency—by slim margins, to be sure.  The senate was 50-50 with VP Dick Cheney the tie-breaker vote.  But it was a scary situation for the democrats and liberals in general—and we had a situation very much like the Hayes/Tilden aftermath.  There was going to be no honeymoon for this president! Angry Clinton staffers even removed the “W’s” from keyboards in the Whitehouse before they left!

Bush responded very graciously.  Here’s his inaugural address:


Note what could have happened.  Bush and the Republicans now had the ability to investigate all the scandals of the Clinton years—but they didn’t.  Why not?  Statesmanship?  Other priorities?  Who knows?

In any case, the situation soon became considerably less scary for the Democrats.  On May 24, one Republican senator, Jim Jeffords, decided to jump ship—and the Republicans were in the minority once again.  Dems and Republicans would have to work together.  A good thing?  Not necessarily.

Bush worked with Jeffords, Ted Kennedy and others to draft the No Child Left Behind Act.  Sometimes, the only thing I like less that the disputes between are political parties is the times when they are on the same page!

But then: the game-changer.  September 11, 2001—a terrorist attack directly on the United States.  Here was the big challenge of the Bush presidency: how would he respond?

Well, the best defense if a good offensive—and Bush went on the offensive, but in an unusual way. 

October 7, 2001—Operation Enduring Freedom.  We sent troops to Afghanistan—and, in an amazingly short time, we had the Taliban on the run.

Opinions of Bush changed drastically.  His speeches during this period were extraordinarily well received, and presiding over a military victory—well, it’s not hard to see why Bush, all-of-a-sudden went from the approval gutter to the stratosphere.  And this led to something very unusual.  In midterm elections, a president’s party almost always loses seats.  This time, the Republicans gained 2 senate seats and 8 house seats—control of the senate again!

Naturally enough, Bush followed up a sort-of electoral mandate with more of the same..

November 25, 2002—Homeland Security.  We established a new government agencies to coordinate all efforts to identify potential terrorists and protect the Home front.

March 19, 2003—Operation Iraqi Freedom.  We invaded Iraq and, in short order, Saddam Hussein’s government fell.

Looking good for Bush, and, in 2004 he won re-election over his Dem opponent John Kerry—while the republicans gained 3 more senate seats and 4 house seats.

But the left still controlled one branch of government—the press.  And, just as with Nixon, the media began hammering away, throwing everything they could at Bush—enough negatives that, in 2006, the Republicans lost 31 seats in the House—making Nancy Pelosi the speaker—and the senate as well, with the Dems getting s slim 51-49 margin.

And the press continued to hammer away at Bush.

[Lecture sometimes includes material from on old “Thoughts on Bush” sheet that details the may complaints the press had about Bush and labeled scandals.  Most of these were policy differences rather than charges of corruption or other wrong-doing. ]

Many of the attacks on Bush were unfair, the Valerie Plame "scandal" for instance.  Day after day of press coverage--and, in the end, it turns out that there was no wrong-doing at all.

More legitimate were the complaints that Bush and his Republican allies in congress were abandoning the conservative economic principles that had got them elected.  I once spoke at a political gathering where I complained about congressional Republicans spending like drunked sailors.  Afterward, a military vet told me I had been unfair--to drunken sailors.  A sailor might was an entire paycheck on a drinking spree, but, when the money was gone, that was it.  Couldn't just keep drinking and pile up debts on someone else's tab!  Those Republicans that later morphed into the Tea Party were especially disgusted by Republican pork-barrel spending, and, when you alienate a core constitutiency, that's going to creat problems.

But, when all is said and done, I think the problem for Bush, in part, is the closing number.  In theater, the keys to a memorable performance are a great first number that gets the audience hooked, and a great closing number that sends them home with smiles on their faces and a song in their hearts.  2008 turned out to be a not-so-good final song. 

The problem, this time, really was the economy.  Collapsing housing prices and unpaid mortgage liabilities led to a potential disaster in the banking industry that was already sending ripples across the entire economy.  Bush’s first response to the initial economic slowdown was to push through Congress a stimulus package that sent $500 to taxpayers directly.  Didn’t do any good.  And then we ended up with a real crisis—and Bush and the Democrats in Congress responded with TARP—the toxic assets relief program--$750 billion to bailout the banks, etc.  Now the majority of Dems voted for TARP, the majority of Republicans against it.  But the Republicans got the blame because the president was a Republican—and Bush set the stage for some real difficulties for his party in 2008.

At first, it seemed the Democrats were going to go back to the Clintons for leadership, and Hillary became the front-runner for the nomination.  Enter Barack Obama.

In evaluating a politician’s skills, one might first of all consider exactly how difficult it might be to defeat one’s opponents.  And certainly defeating Hillary for the 2008 nomination meant overcoming some difficulties. Hillary had far greater name-recognition, huge amounts of money in her campaign coffers, connections all over the place—and the core of hard-core supporters who really wanted to see a woman president and who especially identified with Hillary as a symbol of the struggles women faced as they tried to advance into leadership positions.

But was Hillary really that hard to beat?  How much elective experience had Hillary had?  Military experience?  Executive experience?  Now if the only qualification for the presidency is that she happened to share a bed with a previous president—well, Jennifer Flowers was just as qualified. 

 And another question: could Hillary win?  What would happen if she were the Democratic nominee? Whitewater, Cattlegate, Travelgate, Filegate, Foster suicide—at all would come back—and, this time, the “it’s all about sex” mantra wouldn’t work.  Now, of course, Obama had all this as ammunition himself to use against Hillary—but he didn’t.  Why not?

It took some real skill to defeat Hillary without throwing away the general election.  Remember how the Democratic primary ended.  South Dakota looked like it might be the decisive factor!  Obama was here, Bill was here, Hillary was here—and Hillary won!  At this point, Hillary had more elected delegates than Obama.  So what happened?  Long before the polls in SD closed, the press announced that Obama had locked up the nomination.  How?  Official vote?  No!  The press canvassed delegates (including the super delegates) and, by their count, Obama had won. 

Talk about a stolen election!  Hillary certainly could have insisted that the issue go to the convention floor, the delegates had to actually cast their ballots, that she certainly should have had a chance to try to win over some of the super-delegates. 

Somehow, Hillary gave in—and, eventually, her angry hard-core supporters came home to the Dems and voted for Obama.  Making that happen took some skill!

But then, Obama had to get past John McCain—who, for years, had been a press darling.  It’s true that McCain was old and had relatively tepid support from the conservative side of the Republican party—but he had lots of experience, and he was quite clearly the non-Bush.  A thorn in the side to Bush for years, McCain couldn’t be associated with any of the Bush-era negatives.

So—how does Obama win?

“Hope and Change.”  Tired old slogans—but Obama made them work.  How?  Whereas Clinton found out what people wanted to hear and told them that, Obama had an even more impressive ability—an ability to get people to project on to him their own ideas.  Critics of Obama pointed to the fact that he had no executive experience, no business experience, no legislative record: but that’s just the point!  Obama was something of a blank slate, and you could read into Obama whatever you liked.  Obama was careful not to let anything destroy this ability.  Past associates included radicals like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.  Obama even took his book title from a Wright message: The Audacity of Hope.  But when Wright became controversial because of things like his “God damn America” semon, Obama quickly disowned any connection to Wright.  Whey critics brought up Ayers past (his tie to the radical Weatherman organization and to terrorist activities), Obama claimed Ayers was only a guy he happened to know.

Now this is a tricky thing to be able to do!  You may alienate your core constituency by dissing people they like and admire.  But Obama succeeded—perhaps by conveying the idea that, well, I am still with you, but lie low until we win the election, and then you’ll get everything you want.

In any case, Obama won the election—and, for a time, enjoyed tremendously high approval ratings.

Of course, once the campaign was over, vague promises of hope and change had to give way to action—and Obama had no excuse not to act.  He had helped increase the Democratic majorities in the house and senate.  And, with control of the 4th branch of government as well (the press), Obama was sure to get things done.  And, in a way, he did.  He got Health Care Reform (Obamacare).  A long-time democratic goal was finally achieved.  He got two more liberal “legislate from the bench” type justices appointed to the Supreme Court, and, although he had in his campaign affirmed his support ot traditional marriage, it was clear that, with the appointment of these judges, gay marriage would almost certainly become the law-of-the-land by Supreme Court decree.  He pushed through Congress a trillion-dollar “stimulus” package that included major rewards for all the Green-type industries that liberals love.

But, for most Americans, this wasn’t the hope and change they had expected.  The economy got worse rather than better. Obama had told us unemployment would go to 9% if we didn’t adopt his stimulus passage—and we ended up with 9% “official” unemployment anyway—and *real* unemployment may be as high as 40%, depending on how your reckon it.  More than 40% of Americans 18-65 are out of the workforce.  That includes full-time moms, students, those who have retired early, etc., but it’s clear that the official government figures vastly understate the unemployment problem.

Obama blamed (and continues to blame) Bush for the sour economy—rather unfairly ignoring the fact that he himself was elected to the senate in 2004 and his Democrats controlled both houses of congress from 2007 on—just when the economy went sour.

In any case, Obama suffered a sharp rebuke in the 2010 midterm elections.  Obamacare and other issues led to the rise of the Tea Party movement, a grassroots movement determined to roll back federal growth.  With Tea Party help, the Republicans took back control of the House, and made gains in the Senate.  They might have gained more had they not been feuding among themselves.  The  corporate Republicans aren't very happy with Tea Party insistance that the government gravy train has to  come to and end!

Obama, naturally enough, had lost a good deal of his cross-over popularity: his 62% approval rating took a pretty quick hit during the first two years as Republicans and independents who had had a generally positive impression changed their minds about Obama.  But Obama's core constituencies weren't all that happy either.  This has to do in part with foreign policy.  The one really plain stand Obama took during the campaign had to do with Bush’s foreign intervention: bring out boys home.  Obama stayed in Afghanistan, and, American casualties rose and rose.  A couple of years ago, we crossed the two thousand mark. Maybe you can’t blame Obama: it’s hard to escape military commitments even if you don’t think they should have been made in the first place.  But why were we all of a sudden in Libya?  Why do we seem to be abetting the rise of Muslim extremism everywhere? 

What’s the problem?  Well, Obama became prominent in the first place because of a speech.  What an incredible speaker, the media told us again and again.  Now I happen to disagree: I don’t think a single one of Obama’s speeches will stand the test of time well enough to make it into the canon of great political speeches.

But Obama certainly seems to believe in his own speaking ability.  Over and over again, what does he do when confronted with problems?  He makes a speech.  We had no budget for over 3 years.  But Obama makes speeches about the economy.  America is doing a phenomenally poor job in aiding the cause of freedom and justice in the Muslim world.  But Obama makes speeches about the wonderful future of Islamic countries.

Where does he get this idea that making a speech is the way to solve things?  Well, from us right here in the universities.  We are always playing with words, writing noble-sounding papers, promising pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by if only our wonderful pointy-headed intellectual ideas triumph over the ignorant prejudices of ordinary Americans. 

Obama is certainly the president we in the academic world deserve, and certainly the president the press deserves—the reflection of all our fundamental belief that words are the way to solve things.

Now ideas are important.  Words are important.  What we do here at the university is important.  But it seems to be our thinking has gone badly off track, and it’s easy enough to see where. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

At the beginning of this class, I noted that Lincoln called America, the "last, best hope of earth."  If that we're so, the world would be in a sorry state.  But fortunately, the true "last, best hope of earth" is something else entirely.  And it is to that something else, the true, last, best hope of the world that Americans have always turned in time of crisis.  It is that great hope that got us through the Revolution, through the Civil War, through the Depression and through World War II.  And if we as individuals and as a nation will look to something beyond America, if we will look once again to that one great hope, the true last, great hope of the earth , then our country will once again be what our founders hoped it would be, a city on a hill, and a light to the world.