By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
For many of us, the end of George W. Bush’s presidency could not come quickly enough. But as power changes hands peacefully, the result of a decisive democratic verdict, the most important question is: What can our new president learn from the one heading back to Texas?
The Bush administration’s specific failures—in foreign and domestic policy and on matters related to civil liberties—are clear enough. Yet the deeper cause of the public’s disaffection goes beyond these specifics.
From the very beginning of his presidency, won courtesy of a divisive Supreme Court decision that abruptly ended his contest with Al Gore in 2000, Bush misunderstood the nature of his lease on power, the temper of the country and the proper role of partisanship in our political life. His win-at-all-costs strategy in Florida became a template for much of his presidency, reflected especially in the way the Justice Department was politicized.
Bush did not respect the obligation of a leader in a free society to forge a durable consensus. He was better at announcing policies than explaining them. He dismissed legitimate opposition and plausible doubts about the courses he wished to pursue.
It is in part because of these failures that Americans reacted by selecting a successor with such a profoundly different political personality.
Barack Obama’s first response to a political problem is to offer a detailed analysis and to put whatever challenge he is confronting into some larger context. He absolutely loves sparring with his intellectual adversaries. And his “if you have a better idea, I’ll take it” approach is the antithesis of the my-way-or-the-highway politics of the last eight years.
Bush was capable of considerable charm, but he never really engaged his opponents. He rolled over them. He did not try to win expansive electoral majorities. Instead, he sought to build a compact, ideologically pure coalition that he could use on behalf of dramatic conservative departures. He claimed mandates he did not win.
Maintaining long-term support for the Iraq war required him to do more than just push a resolution through Congress with political threats and campaign trail rhetoric on the eve of a midterm election. “It’s better to fight them there than here” was not an argument that took the average citizen’s intelligence seriously. Cutting taxes rather than asking citizens to pay for the war suggested that while the president might ask others to sacrifice their priorities, he would never sacrifice his own.
Ironically, the clearest evidence of Bush’s larger failure can be found in the areas where he can claim genuine success.
Bush’s prescription drug plan under Medicare and his No Child Left Behind education program were far from perfect, but they reflected broadly shared goals—expanding health coverage, promoting accountability in education—and involved actual bipartisan wrangling and negotiation. Aspects of both programs will endure.
Bush’s dedication to the victims of AIDS in Africa and his dramatic increases in foreign aid were admirable, and surprised his fiercest critics. In the final days, his supporters were touting these least typical of his achievements.
For a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, the president governed as a truly national leader. At that moment, we saw the consensus-builder he promised to be in 2000. He might have built a durable majority for his party on the basis of more moderate, consensual policies. Instead, he moved to ridiculing those who doubted the wisdom of his Iraq adventure and used the war on terror for electoral advantage.
A hyper-partisan domestic politics of us-versus-them followed naturally from the president’s instinct to confuse moral certainty for moral clarity. In his farewell address, he reminded his listeners yet again that “good and evil are present in this world, and between the two, there can be no compromise.”
Yes, but the hardest moral decisions are usually not between good and evil but between competing goods (security versus liberty) or lesser evils (a draining war in Iraq versus a messy, long-term strategy to contain Saddam Hussein).
Our new president will make his own characteristic mistakes. He risks overestimating his capacity to persuade his most implacable foes. He may forget that a two-party system inevitably creates its own dynamic of loyalty and opposition. But he is decidedly not an us-versus-them guy. He gets both the uses and the limits of partisanship. He has been known to quote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the dangers of moral arrogance. He could make nuance and complexity cool again. It’s not enough. But it’s a start.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group