Self-Awareness Arrives at the White House

In light of all the damage he's done, there has been a surprising harmlessness to George W. Bush as he has made his recent round of muted valedictories. Suddenly, he seems uncomfortable with the weight of his unpopularity and eternally on the verge of apologizing. But that is not his style. Instead, we've been treated to a sizzle reel of the trademark George Bush petulance, defiant rationalizations and avid resistance to any real self-examination.

"I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right," he explained from the Oval Office on Thursday. "You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

No, because tough decisions would have meant changing his mind from time to time. Not his style.

But in light of the farewell tour, it becomes clear that deep down, Bush understands his failures, even if he is not willing to publicly admit exactly how or how much he screwed up. "Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake," he admitted.

He also mentioned Katrina, Abu Ghraib, and the "Mission Accomplished" sign. In one moment of clarity, Bush offered some political analysis that rang completely true, in part because you could still hear the pain in his voice.

"I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake," he said. "I should have argued for immigration reform. And the reason why is, is that sometimes legislatures have the tendency to ask, why should I take on a hard task when a crisis is not imminent? And the crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned."

It is hard now to remember how politically domineering Bush was in early 2005, when he declared his intention to "overhaul" Social Security. He had just won re-election, vindicating his popular-vote loss in 2000. He seemed unstoppable and he acted like it.

"You asked, do I feel free," he said in response to a reporter's question the day after the 2004 election. "Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style."

And back then his style had its own cachet: "I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is -- you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting, and winning the war on terror."

And it may have been in that moment -- rather than, as conventional wisdom has it, Hurricane Katrina eight months later -- that the Bush presidency began to unravel. Having started an ideological war abroad and gotten away with it, Bush mistook his election victory for a green light to step up his ideological crusades at home. And he was going to start with Social Security, by giving people a chance to reap the rewards of the capital markets.

In the following weeks when he unveiled the plan, the country began to turn on him, and more important, Democrats who had been cowed into silence or inaction by their losses suddenly found their voice.

Bush sent the plan to Congress soon after his inauguration, but within days, by the time of his State of the Union at the end of January, it was dead, and he never recovered. During the Martin Luther King Jr. Day recess of 2005, members of Congress went home to either sell the plan if they were Republicans, or attack it if they were Democrats.

I remember watching a crowd in Philadelphia savage Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in Philadelphia as he tried to explain the rationale for the overhaul. "We are going to have real cash-flow problems," Santorum declared. "The other side likes to talk about this as privatization because it conjures up Wall Street and someone making a lot of money off of this. This is not privatization; this is a personalization."

People making a lot of money on Wall Street -- what a quaint idea?

Despite Bush's re-election, there was already a growing sense that the war in Iraq had been oversold with a mix of baseless fear-mongering and outright lies; people were not about to go down that path again. In Scranton one night, I saw Democratic Congressman Paul Kanjorski dismiss Bush in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier. "I contend that the president using the word 'crisis' to describe Social Security is a gross overstatement," he said, "Whenever I hear the word 'crisis,' I put my hand in my pocket and hang on to my wallet." People had begun to distrust George Bush, and that summer, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the untrustworthy president showed himself to be inept as well, Americans signed off of what quickly became one of the most dismally regarded administrations in history.

The lesson in all this for Obama is that public popularity is a political space in which to function, not a political weapon to be used as a battering ram against the opposition. Bush sounds like a man who learned a few lessons, if a little late.

In his farewell address from the Oval Office last night, he said: "There are things I would do differently if given the chance."

No thanks.

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