bush to obama
There will be a great deal of festivity surrounding the transfer of power in the next few days, likely enhanced by the fortuitous intervention of the Martin Luther King Holiday. We can expect to hear a great deal of celebration, much of it justified, about how far the country has come in the last three months, not to mention the last forty years. How much of this celebration will be temporary, and how much reflects lasting change?
One must begin here with the legacy of the outgoing president, George W. Bush. There is an inevitable tendency to downgrade the departing leader in order to make the new one seem better by comparison, a tendency which Bush's nearly universal unpopularity has only augmented. In medieval Rome, mobs would drag the body of the dead pope through the streets, something they would not have dared do while he was alive. Bush will presumably escape this fate, but a sort of Glorious Revolution narrative, emphasizing his evil and incompetence and its replacement by the Good King Obama, has begun to take root. Paul Krugman suggested in the N.Y. Times that mere replacement is not enough, the evils of the old regime requiring formal investigation to prevent their possible recurrence.
I think a bit of perspective is in order here. Lately I have been reading "Dead Certain," a book on the Bush Presidency by the journalist Robert Draper. Draper spares none of the limitations of the Bush era, including the emphasis on loyalty over competence and the rather cynical exploitation of 9-11 for political purposes, which began to catch up with Bush even before his reelection in 2004. (Remember the Bush-Kerry debates, even more one-sided that the Obama-McCain editions.) A related theme is the difficulty of the Austin-Washington transfer: Bush's highly personal style, which emphasized good relationships with key Texas players and an emphasis on a few well-defined reform programs (education, tort reform, etc.), traveled poorly to Washington, where the issues were more complex and the atmosphere less forgiving. The change in political spectrulm was also important here. Like Lyndon Johnson years before him, Bush's style and substance appeared mainstream in Texas politics: in Washington he appeared both exotic and extreme.
Yet Draper's book by no means makes Bush appear stupid, incompetent, or evil. We are taken back to the days after 9-11, and reminded of the nearly universal support his initiatives, including at first Iraq, received from actors across the political spectrum. His quiet persistence and dignity, in particular his concern for dead or wounded soldiers and their families, comes across quite effectively.
One hopes that some of this sense of proportion--of the fate of good intentions and the difference between campaigning and governing--will also be applied to Bush's replacement. The Obama transition has been a model of dignity, purpose, and balance. Yet many of his supporters, like Bush's before him, have exaggerated the nature of his mandate, calling for a huge expansion of Government power in ways that have little or anything to do with the current economic crisis. Others have carried the inevitable hagiography--the celebration of his wife and children, the ties to the civil rights movement, the alleged brilliance of his oratory--to absurd extremes. Obama himself, with his religious inclination, appears thankfully immune to these excesses. But a harsh dose of realism--of unexpected issues and unlikely alliances--faces both his supporters and his country. Here's hoping that humility will triumph over excessive pride, and the celebration will give way quickly to the hard, morally ambiguous work of remaking a strong but dispirited country.