W’s Return

Yesterday former President George W. Bush returned, briefly, to the national stage.  He was campaigning for his brother, Jeb Bush, who is hanging on for dear life and hoping to make a good showing in the South Carolina Republican primary.

According to press reports, the former President gave a short speech that endorsed his brother and described some of the qualities, like integrity and judgment and character, that he believes are needed in a good President — implicitly drawing a contrast with the blustery bombast of Donald Trump, without mentioning Trump or any other Republican candidate by name.   “W” also recounted some memories from his former campaigns in South Carolina and added some of his trademark self-deprecating humor.

Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush Campaigns With Brother George W. BushIt was a bit jarring to see news reports of George W. Bush at the podium.  I hadn’t seen him for a while, and of course he looked older, and thinner.  Since he left office seven years ago, former President Bush has consciously avoided the public eye and maintained a pretty consistent non-partisan, apolitical tone.  His speech yesterday sounds like more of what we’ve come to expect from him in his post-presidential years.  He was there to support and help his brother, but he did it without attacking other candidates by name or, for that matter, mentioning President Obama or criticizing the Obama administration.

George W. Bush remains a figure to be mocked and reviled among some on the left side of the political spectrum; seven years later, he’s still blamed by many, inside the Obama administration and out, for virtually all of our current problems.  Now Donald Trump has joined in, by repeating the debunked conspiratorial theories that the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to maneuver us into an unnecessary war and ignored clear intelligence that America would be attacked on 9/11.

Through it all, former President Bush has publicly remained above the fray, no doubt believing that, having served in the nation’s highest office, former Presidents shouldn’t engage in rancorous partisan politics or bash their successor on talk shows.  It’s an old school approach that speaks of personal humility and properly recognizes the dignity of the presidency.  His ego obviously doesn’t compel him to stay in the media spotlight.  Instead, he’s taken to painting, he’s written a book about his Dad, former President George H.W. Bush, and he’s focused on charitable and humanitarian efforts.

Yesterday, George W. Bush listed some of the qualities we want in our President.  I think the former President’s personal conduct since he left office illustrates those qualities — and draws a pretty sharp contrast with the vulgar, egotistical, limelight-loving loudmouth who currently is leading in the polls.

 

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Barack Obama And George W. Bush

New York magazine has an interesting article with a headline no one thought they would see after President Obama’s triumph in the 2008 presidential election.  The headline is:  Barack Obama Is Not George W. Bush.

The comparison is being made by some because President Obama’s approval ratings have dropped to levels at or below the levels for President Bush at the same point in the second term his presidency.  The article argues that although the approval ratings are similar, the reality of the two presidents is much different:  President Bush had bipartisan support and lost it, and President Obama never had bipartisan support to begin with.  The article contends that President Obama’s dropping ratings are due to diehard, unending opposition that has been adopted as a tactical matter by Republican leaders.

I’m not convinced by that contention, which strikes me as a bit of a dodge.  The implication is that President Obama’s policies have nothing to do with his falling popularity, or with the opposition to his initiatives — the Republican tactics are wholly responsible because they have made the President look “partisan.”  In reality, I think, the opposition to many of the President’s proposals, such as the Affordable Care Act, is due to disagreement with the merits of those proposals:  Republicans and many independents thought they were bad ideas, and nothing that has happened since the recent rollout of healthcare.gov and the insurance exchanges has caused them to change their minds.  The mismanagement of the “Obamacare” rollout, and the President’s claimed unawareness of governmental actions like the NSA’s surveillance programs, also have caused people to question the President’s competence.  Those are self-inflicted wounds, not the product of stalwart opposition.

One other aspect of the New York piece is troubling.  It forecasts that the remainder of the President’s term will focus on executive action, where the President simply announces decisions without having to win approval from Congress.  We are already seeing that with some of the recent decisions to waive enforcement of various provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  That process is troubling in and of itself, but even more troubling is that the political focus has shifted from Congress to the federal judiciary — specifically, the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia, which hears appeals of many administrative decisions.  The New York article states that Republicans have had a “functional majority” on the D.C. Circuit, and argues that the recent changes to the filibuster rules will allow President Obama and Senate Democrats to approve nominees to that court who will approve the President’s expanded use of “executive powers.”

This kind of frank assessment of the politics of a federal court should be disturbing to everyone.  Our government has been increasingly politicized in recent decades, and it hasn’t exactly worked well for our country.  If the judicial branch — which, with its lifetime tenure, is supposed to be immune from base political considerations — becomes explicitly politicized, it will not be a good development for the United States of America.

“Selfie”-Absorbed

The latest thing to apparently go “viral” is a series of photos of President Obama, his wife Michelle, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday.

The President, Cameron, and Thorning-Schmidt joked and took a picture of themselves with a cell phone — called a “selfie” — while Michelle Obama sat to the side.  Countless bits of space on the internet have now been filled with debate about whether taking a “selfie” and sharing a joke during a memorial service is appropriate behavior, interpreting Michelle Obama’s demeanor as depicted in the photos, and trying to read whether she is irked that her husband is chatting and chuckling with the Danish leader.

This incident, in a nutshell, is one of the things about the internet that I find maddening.  So many things go “viral” that viral status seems to be the norm these days, and people fixate on trivial things at the expense of understanding the significant matters.  It’s a shame that anyone running a Google search on the Mandela memorial service will have to wade through commentary about the silly “selfie” incident rather than stories emphasizing the extraordinary fact that leaders from across the world — including the current American president and three former Presidents — traveled to South Africa to pay tribute to a former prisoner who is now regarded as a great historical figure.

So I’m not going to criticize President Obama for posing for a “selfie” and I’m not going to speculate about whether and how his wife Michelle reacted to his behavior.  That’s their business, not mine.  The significant thing is that he and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter saw fit to attend and honor the memory and life of Nelson Mandela, and I’m glad they did.

A Plague Of Disillusionment

Fellow blogger Elroy Jones has a piece out today about being deceived — in this case, by President Obama.  She voted for him twice, and she’s feeling bamboozled.

I wonder how many other supporters of President Obama are feeling a similar, profound disillusionment.  I know many people — including members of my immediate family — voted for the President with great excitement because they expected a lot from him.  In fact, they expected a President who would realize dramatic change, turn around the world’s perception of our country, and achieve historic greatness.  In my view, at least, that hasn’t happened.

What must be even more galling is that many of the people who voted for President Obama did so largely because they wanted to reverse course from the Bush years.  That hasn’t happened, either.  More and more, it has developed that President Obama has adhered to the security policies established by the Bush Administration and, in some cases, expanded and amplified them.

When people criticize actions like the NSA’s routine collection of reams of data about ordinary Americans, and the Obama Administration’s defense is that the programs were begun under the Bush Administration, how is that received by Obama voters who hoped for change?  Do they suddenly develop a deeper respect for the policies of President George W. Bush, or do they scratch their heads and wonder why they voted for a guy who promised so much and seems to have delivered so little?

The Value Of In Person, Versus In Writing

The recent attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have come on the heels of reports that President Obama has missed more than half of his daily intelligence briefing meetings.  And, in the wake of the embassy attacks, The Independent, a British newspaper, is reporting that the the U.S. received warnings of attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates but did not respond to them.  The Obama Administration flatly denies the latter report.

The Obama Administration doesn’t deny that the President has missed a lot of his daily intelligence briefings but argues that missing the meetings really isn’t that important because the President can get all the information he needs from briefing books.  As the writer of the linked article points out, that position stands in contrast to earlier reports in which Administration sources contended that the daily meetings were important and were well handled by the President.

I don’t doubt that President Obama gets lots of information in writing and reads it carefully.  In addition, some complicated concepts are better explained on paper.  Still, I think face-to-face interaction must play an important role.  Obviously, you can’t ask questions of a briefing book, but there are other important elements to in-person discussions.  The act of preparing for such meetings — finishing the review of briefing books in advance, preparing questions, deciding where to focus — itself has value for the person leading the meeting.  Attending such meetings shows that you attach importance to what the other participants do and thereby encourages them; attendance also permits give-and-take, brainstorming, and free-wheeling discussion that simply can’t be replicated by a written document or an email exchange.  Finally, humans communicate a lot of information through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and other methods that can’t be translated to writing.

I’m not saying that President Obama could have waded through intelligence information and pieced together clues that would have alerted him to the impending attacks if he had regularly attended the daily intelligence briefings, as President Bush apparently did.  What I am saying is that national security issues are a crucial part of the President’s job, and that attending meetings where the President participates, in person, in discussions about intelligence and threat issues is an important part of doing that job the right way.  I don’t know why President Obama has missed so many of these meetings, and what other events took priority on his schedule.  In view of this week’s events, however, I think he, and we, would be better served if he made it a point to make those meetings.

The High Cost Of Constant Fundraising

We’ve heard a lot recently about President Obama’s fundraising.  One journalist reports that, so far, the President has attended 160 reelection fundraisers — twice as many as President Bush had at the same time in his 2004 re-election bid.

I’m not a Polyanna about fundraising.  Modern presidential campaigns are crushingly expensive.  A President seeking reelection needs to raise lots of money, and no one is going to be a more effective at it than the President himself.  The inevitable consequence is that the President will spend a lot of time at fundraisers, hobnobbing with high-rollers and collecting their checks.

There’s an unseemliness to the emphasis on cash, cash, cash and the President’s involvement in raising it, but we’re beyond the point of worrying about unseemliness in modern politics.  Instead, I’ve been thinking about the impact of constant fundraising on the President’s ability to perform other important parts of his job — such as working with Congress and trying to build the kinds of coalitions needed to pass legislation.

The focus on fundraising interferes with the President’s relations with Congress in at least two ways.  First, there are only so many waking hours in the day.  Every hour spent on the rubber-chicken circuit is one that could have been spent strategizing with congressional allies, schmoozing opponents, or seeking points of potential compromise on important legislation.  What’s more likely to break the stalemate in Congress — another glitzy fundraiser in Hollywood, or a weekend retreat to Camp David with House and Senate leaders, or wavering Members of Congress who might be persuaded to vote for a presidential initiative?  Politics is personal, and if a President doesn’t regularly offer the personal touch, he is bound to be less effective in his relations with Congress.

Second, the President gives a speech at every fundraiser.  What does he typically talk about, to fire up his supporters and spur them to write bigger checks?  Why, it’s the “do-nothing” Congress that won’t act on his agenda.  So the fundraising grind exacts a dual toll — the President not only is taken away from Washington and the opportunity to spur the legislative process, but he also bashes Congress and thereby reduces his chances of achieving consensus in the future.

President Obama wants to win re-election, and he and his advisers know that he needs money to achieve that goal.  I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.  Still, I can’t help but think that it would be better for the country — and for President Obama, too — if he spent less time at black tie galas and more time with Senators and Representatives, slapping backs and twisting arms.

Voting With Their Pocketbooks?

Here’s an interesting story:  former President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold as many copies in one month as former President Bill Clinton’s book, My Life, has sold in six years.  The book’s publisher apparently has been amazed by its sales success.

I don’t think the book’s success means that people like Bush better than Clinton, or that people think Bush was a better President or is a better writer.  Instead, the reality is that — whether you love Bush or think he is just this side of Satan — the story of Bush’s presidency is much more compelling than the story of Clinton’s life.

The country never faced a great crisis under Clinton, but it did under Bush.  In comparison to the deadly trauma of 9/11, and how to respond to it, the Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the Lewinsky scandal, and the various other international and domestic challenges of the Clinton presidency pale into insignificance.  And the key players in the Bush presidency are much more vivid than in the Clinton presidency.  Who makes a better read:  Dick Cheney or Al Gore?