Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Age of Tangents

John Kenneth Galbraith, an influential liberal economist who served under four Democratic presidents, once made this observation about the nature of leadership:

All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.

This quote, though wise in any period of history, struck me as being particularly prescient when I began to reflect on the legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After all, the historian in me knows that the final assessment rendered in textbooks about America's presidents usually comes from their success or failure in confronting the major crises of their time. When Abraham Lincoln is regarded as among our greatest leaders, it is because of his triumphs in eradicating slavery and preserving the Union; when Franklin Roosevelt is similarly lauded, it is because of his creativity and effectiveness in guiding America through the Great Depression and Second World War. Inversely, the presidents who preceded each of these men - James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, respectively - are often regarded as dismal failures precisely because they fell short in their struggles to deal with the pressing issues of the day (Southern secession in the case of Buchanan, the Great Depression in the case of Hoover).

How do Bush and Obama measure up to this standard? When their presidencies are viewed through the Galbraithan lens, an interesting theme becomes apparent: i.e., not only that both men failed to successfully address the crises that defined their tenures, but that in lieu of this, they squandered the enormous political capital with which those crises had temporarily endowed them in order to pursue digressionary policies.

Simply put... instead of providing America with leadership, Bush and Obama went off on tangents.

The defining issue of George W. Bush's presidency came on September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden led a group of Muslim radicals in a series of bloody terrorist attacks that took thousands of American lives. As was the case with Woodrow Wilson after the exposure of the Zimmermann telegram or Franklin Roosevelt after the Pearl Harbor bombing, George W. Bush's mission was now clear - to bring to justice the individuals and organizations responsible for wronging America. In Bush's case, the most important facet of this mission rested in apprehending Osama bin Laden.

In that mission, Bush was a failure. This was certainly not for want of political capital; Americans tend to cast aside partisan differences and unite behind their leaders when the danger of a crisis makes it clear that this is necessary, and Bush benefited from this much as Wilson and Roosevelt had before him. Yet rather than tap this solidarity so as to launch the military campaign required by the needs of the times, Bush focused instead on waging a war against Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein. This decision was noteworthy for two reasons:

1) Despite repeated (and often varying and conflicting) assertions to the contrary, virtually no evidence existed that Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi government had any meaningful connection to the September 11th terrorist attacks. As such, even if a case could be made that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power, doing so should not have been a national priority, at the very least not until the situation with Osama bin Laden had been resolved.

2) In order to have enough troops to both remove Saddam Hussein from power and temporarily control Iraq, Bush did not commit enough manpower to Afghanistan in order to obtain Osama bin Laden. Consequently, although some of bin Laden's associates were captured, bin Laden himself remained at large when Bush's presidency ended on January 20, 2009.

A similar story can be told with the crisis that has defined Obama's tenure. Unlike Bush, Obama's major crisis actually began before he took office; on September 15, 2008, a Wall Street meltdown exacerbated an economic downturn that had already existed for ten months, triggering among other things an explosion in unemployment. By the time Obama was inaugurated four months later, it was clear that the main challenge of his presidency would be successfully dealing with the aftermath of this event, one that had already been dubbed the Great Recession.

Like Bush before him, Obama had a deep reservoir of political capital into which he could reach, as the American people united behind him during this crisis much as they had supported Bush after September 11th
(albeit to a somewhat lesser extent). Also like Bush, Obama's mission was clear - in his case, to bring an end to the negative effects that the Great Recession was having on average Americans, most importantly by reducing unemployment. Yet instead of using the overwhelming support of the American people to pursue the policies necessary to achieve these goals, Obama instead focused on the issue of health care reform, one that was clearly much more important to him personally. This made itself manifest in two ways:

1) Although $2 trillion of stimulus spending would be necessary to cause a reduction in unemployment, Obama's fear of being branded a radical and his desire to quickly dispense with the issue of economic recovery caused him to settle on a package that was one-fourth that size ($500 billion of stimulus with an additional $287 billion in tax cuts). While the $500 billion in stimulus spending was enough to temporarily prevent unemployment from continuing to rise, it was woefully short of what was needed to lead to a reduction, thus unnecessarily prolonging the suffering caused by the Great Recession.

2) Because the American people judge their leaders based on their success or failure in meeting the pressing needs of the day (and not, as Obama and his advisers mistakenly believe, on whether or not they are sufficiently "centrist"), Obama's inability to reduce unemployment has fueled a lack of support for his other policies (including his treasured health care reform initiatives) and caused an overall decline in his approval ratings.

Of course, the parallel between the legacies of Bush and Obama is not absolute. While the need to topple Saddam Hussein and democratize Iraq was questionable at best, there can be little doubt as to the imperative behind reforming our health care system, thus making Obama's tangent more justifiable than the one chased by Bush. Similarly, Obama can point to a range of significant achievements in other areas of his presidency, including a health care reform bill that provides coverage for thirty-two million Americans and ends insurance company exploitation, a Wall Street regulatory package that will prevent many of the excesses that caused 2008's economic meltdown, and a foreign policy that brought an end to the seemingly intractable Iraq War. Bush, on the other hand, has very little to show for his time in office, with his primary achievement - the invasion of Iraq - being so bungled that ultimately his successor would be charged with bringing that conflict to a close. Indeed, only in the area of political tactics does Bush trump Obama, as he was much more successful in distracting the public from his failures with his tangent (the war in Iraq) than Obama was with his own (health care reform).

In spite of these differences, though, the salient feature of the Bush and Obama presidencies remains their tangential quality:

- George W. Bush's main responsibility was bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, yet although there can be little doubt that he knew this, he chose to neglect that objective and focus on destroying Saddam Hussein and democratizing Iraq.

- Barack Obama's main responsibility was ending the Great Recession by reducing unemployment, yet although there can be little doubt that he knew this, he chosen to neglect that objective and focus on passing health care reform.

I will leave to future scholars the task of ascertaining why these men pursued agendas that were so blatantly incongruous with the needs of their time. For right now, I feel it is enough to simply draw attention to the fact that we seem to live in an Age of Tangents.

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