We are in one of the longest presidential campaigns in modern memory
— and haven't even started focusing on the general election.
has been enough to drive most of us mad, but if there's one person in
particular suffering the most, it may be President Bush.
has been noted here before that we have not had an election since 1952
in which an incumbent president or vice president was not running in at
least partial defense of an existing administration's record.
means Mr. Bush is not just a lame duck but an easy target for all three
current candidates — none of whom have any investment in the
president's legacy. Consider that the last president in a similar
position was Harry Truman. He left office with an approval rating in
the 20s, and it took years before historians revised the standard
negative and mostly unfair view of him.
When there is no
incumbent in a long race, almost everything of the last four years
becomes fair and uncontested game. In 2004, Mr. Bush defended his
record for months on the stump; now it has become almost second nature
for all three candidates to denounce it daily.
has distanced himself from Mr. Bush as much as he can, even as his
Democratic opponents dub him John McBush — when they are not outdoing
each other in their denunciation of the president.
I asked a fierce Bush critic what he thought were the current
unemployment rate, the mortgage default rate, the latest economic
growth figures, interest rates and the status of the stock market.
He blurted out the common campaign pessimism: "Recession! Worst since the Depression!"
Then he scoffed when I suggested that the answer was really a 5
percent joblessness rate in April that was lower than the March figure;
95 to 96 percent of mortgages not entering foreclosure in this
year's first quarter; 0.6 percent (six-tenths of 1 percent) growth
during the quarter (weak, but not recession level); historically low
interest rates; and sky-high stock market prices.
serious problems: high fuel costs, rising food prices, staggering
foreign debt, unfunded entitlements and annual deficits. Yet a
president or vice president running for office (and covered incessantly
by the media) would at least make the argument there is a lot of good
news, and that the bad that offsets it could be shared by a lot of
culpable parties, from the Congress to the way we, the public, have
been doing business for the last 20 years.
Mr. Bush, like
Truman, will have to leave his final assessment for posterity. But for
a variety of historic reasons as well as his own self-interest, Mr.
Bush should at least take his now-unpopular case to the people, with
more press conferences, public addresses, stump speeches and one-on-one
(1) Mr. Bush's own legacy will be
affected by who succeeds him. Ronald Reagan received great press after
leaving office in part because a Republican followed him for four years
— quite the opposite from the senior George Bush who was thrown out of
office in 1992 and blamed for assorted sins the next eight years.
Likewise, compare the image of Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy
Carter and Bill Clinton when followed into office by a president from
the other party.
(2) Public perceptions, such as ongoing
consumer confidence or support for the war, can dramatically affect
policy success or failure. Defending past decisions can sometimes
improve their outcomes.
(3) It would elevate the arguments of
all three candidates if someone could remind them that energy and food
problems, foreign policy crises and economic woes usually involve bad
and worse choices.
The American people are more interested in
exactly how the candidates are going to improve things, rather than
hearing each hour how our collective problems are simply the fault of
one man. Searing "Bush did it" into the public conscious won't resolve
our energy, economic or foreign policy challenges.
truth is providing unprecedented amounts of money to address the AIDS
epidemic in Africa. Tax cuts brought in greater, not less total
revenue. International trade agreements created more, not fewer, jobs.
Security measures at home, and losses suffered by terrorists abroad, in
part explain the absence of a second terrorist attack like that of
Sept. 11, 2001.
And drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife
Reserve and off the coasts and building more nuclear power plants,
refineries, and clean coal plants — if the Congress would only approve
— could provide short-term mitigation of energy prices until we reach a
new generation of clean-burning and renewable fuels.
Bush could learn from "Give 'em Hell, Harry." A disliked Truman never
went silent into the night, but defended his record until the very end
— and was ultimately rewarded for it.