Bush II, Obama, and Trump

[Abbreviated Final Lecture Summer 2017]

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 George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

Initially, at least, George Bush didn’t face the same kind of obstacles Clinton did.  He had far more going for him in terms of wealth, political connections, name recognition, and experience both in the business world and as governor of Texas. 

But on taking office, Bush had considerably more trouble.  He faced an angry opposition who considered his presidency illegitimate.  The Republicans had control of both houses of congress, but only barely: the senate was 50/50.  And, soon, Bush didn’t have that.  On May 24, Jim Jeffords jumped ship.  The Democrats had a majority in the senate, and could use that majority to stop any major Bush changes if they wanted to. 

To get anything done at all, Bush had to get at least some Democratic support.  He 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.

[To “thoughts on bush” sheet]

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 a stimulus 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 Clinton’s for leadership, and Hillary became the front-runner for the nomination.  Enter Barak 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, that the delegates had to actually cast their ballots. 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 did 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 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” sermon, 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.  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 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 2008 midterm elections.  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.

Obama, naturally enough, has lost a good deal of his cross-over popularity.  But his approval ratings dipped for another reason.  His own core constituencies were not very happy.  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.  Well, we’re still committed to a presence in Afghanistan, and, under Obama, American casualties rose, crossing 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 intervene in Syria? Why do we seem to be abetting the rise of Muslim extremism everywhere? Can we be proud of interventions that led to humanitarian crises, including 5 million refugees from Syria alone?

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

Where did 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 in our current crises we as individuals and as a nation would have looked to something beyond America, if we had looked once again to that one great hope, the true last, great hope of the earth, then our country would perhaps once again have been closer to what our founders hoped it would be, a city on a hill, and a light to the world.

But instead we turned to Donald Trump…


In a way, Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is even more amazing that than of Bill Clinton.  He had to overcome negatives galore just to win the Republican nomination.  Twice divorced with one marriage breaking up over a well-publicized affair, business shenanigans that left him rich while costing others everything they had—all sorts of other problems.  He did have lots of name recognition, and plenty of people who admired his success in business and wanted to emulate it (e.g., buying copies of Art of the Deal).   But, at first, he seemed a joke candidate.  He was a golfing buddy of Bill Clinton, and called Clinton just before he announced his run for the presidency.  Did he run to disrupt the Republicans so Hillary could gain the White House?  Did he have a bet with Clinton: I know how you pulled off your political tricks—I can do it too?  Who knows?

Initially, the Republican field was filled with solid candidates.  But much of the party watched in dismay as, one by one, these candidates dropped out: circular firing squad time again.  Jeb Bush spent millions to defeat Marco Rubio, and Rubio and Cruz bloodied each other up a lot.

But Trumps great advantage was the media.  He knew how to give them a show, and that’s what they wanted.  He said outrageous things, or said solid things in an outrageous way.  And the press couldn’t help themselves.  All Trump, all the time.  In the Republican debates, the moderators let Trump hog the microphone—because it got them ratings.  The more thoughtful candidates were just too boring.

But then Trump had to get by Hillary.  Did it take a great politician to defeat her?  Well, maybe not.  About as flawed a candidate as the Democrats could have put up, the only things really going for her, a ton of money and a strong desire of many to see a woman president, flawed or not.  Hillary made a lot of unforced errors, e.g., her “basket of deplorables” comment.  And that especially played into Trumps hands.  Here, I think, is the secret of Trump’s success.  Just as Bill Clinton helped create a situation where women identified with Hillary, Trump created a situation where millions of people identified with him, and perceived attacks on him as attacks on them.  Millions of working class Americans were tired of being labeled racists because of their opposition to immigration policies that were hurting them badly.  When Trump was attacked as a racist, they shrugged: it’s not true of us, it’s not true of him.  Similar with some of Trump’s other “outrages.”  Trump is particularly effective in manipulating the media.  All negative, all the time: but it’s the right kind of negative for Trump: negative coverage that actually strengthens his core support.  Not quite sure whether Trump just instinctively knows exactly how to provoke the right kind of antagonism, or whether he’s got it planned out.  We still can’t really address this question with Andrew Jackson: a very similar personality type.  But it works.

Trump is walking a tightrope here: pushing the envelope all the time. And maybe he’ll fall: the media was talking impeachment before Trump even took office.  But, in attacking Trump in the way they do, Trump’s opponents are ruining their own credibility: 65% of voters think there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media.  Bad as Trump’s approval rating is, the media is liked even less.

So is Trump the president we deserve?  Well, I think he’s at least the president the media deserves.  We’ve got a president who tells us about “alternative facts.”  This seems absurd: facts are facts aren’t they?  Well, not any more:

There’s a joke you may have heard:

There once was a business owner who was interviewing people for a division manager position. He decided to select the individual that could answer the question "how much is 2+2?"

The engineer pulled out his slide rule and shuffled it back and forth, and finally announced, "It lies between 3.98 and 4.02".
The mathematician said, "In two hours I can demonstrate it equals 4 with the following short proof."
The physicist declared, "It's in the magnitude of 1x101."
The logician paused for a long while and then said, "This problem is solvable."
The social worker said, "I don't know the answer, but I a glad that we discussed this important question.
The attorney stated, "In the case of Svenson vs. the State, 2+2 was declared to be 4."
The trader asked, "Are you buying or selling?"
The accountant looked at the business owner, then got out of his chair, went to see if anyone was listening at the door and pulled the drapes. Then he returned to the business owner, leaned across the desk and said in a low voice, "What would you like it to be?"

On all sorts of issues, this is where our country seems to have gone.  Facts are whatever we want them to be.  Truth is whatever we want it to be.

When I make a bad joke, Lauri will tell me, “That’s not funny.”  I respond: it’s funny because I think it is.  With humor, that’s just fine. It’s a matter of taste.  But with political and economic questions, thinking so doesn’t make it so.   There’s a wonderful graph in the Babylon Bee.


Always a struggle to adapt to information that doesn’t feed our need for confirmation bias.   Does the study of history help?  Has this class helped?  Well, I hope so.