By Nancy Jane Moore
Over on the Freakonomics blog, Stephen J. Dubner suggests that the President of the United States doesn't really matter much. I usually find Dubner's ideas compelling, but I don't think I agree with him on this one.
When the Supreme Court put Bush in office back in 2000, I was disappointed, but I was also relieved that we finally had a decision. At the time I comforted myself with the thought that he couldn't do too much damage, assuming he didn't get to make too many Supreme Court appointments.
And without September 11, he might not have done much harm. Prior to the terrorist attacks, Bush was already unpopular and being tarred as the President from Enron. But after September 11, both the press and the Democrats gave him a great deal of support -- after all, the country had been attacked.
When you combine that support -- which involved going along with virtually everything and never asking questions -- with the effort by a number of people within the administration to strengthen the power of the presidency (see my earlier post on David Addington), you get a very powerful president. And this particular president has done so much damage with that power that it boggles my mind.
There's the unnecessary war in Iraq, which kept us from finishing the job in Afghanistan (a war I do think was necessary), tied up and demoralized our military, and made us more enemies than friends. There are his court appointments -- to the lower federal courts as well as the Supreme Court -- which, coupled with appointments by his father and Reagan, strengthened conservative control of the courts and put some extremists in powerful positions. There are the results of his appointment of incompetents -- see New Orleans. (I cannot think of any other US natural disaster in my lifetime where people's lives weren't more or less back to normal within a couple of years.) There's his abysmal environment policy -- probably dictated by his ties to the oil business -- which has put the US even farther behind in dealing with global warming. There are the tax cuts coupled with war expenses, which caused a huge federal deficit after Clinton had actually fixed the last one. And finally, there is his assault on civil liberties in the US and his approval of torture and complete lack of rights in dealing with "enemy combatants."
George Bush has left us in so deep a hole that I don't expect things to be fixed in my lifetime (and I'm planning to live a considerable number of years yet).
Now Dubner's piece suggests that he means the president is not that important because his actions don't really affect individuals on a daily basis. It's true that Bush's administration hasn't done much to my daily life, though it certainly has affected an awful lot of people in the military, particularly those in the National Guard who weren't expecting quite so much combat duty. And while his tax cuts and other supposedly probusiness nonsense has aggravated the economic distance between rich and poor in this country, a lot of economic changes are tied to globalization, which is going to happen regardless of who's in the White House.
But the long term damage he's done to the country, not to mention the rest of the world, is immense. It's structural damage, infrastructure damage. We aren't going to see all the results of it for years to come.
I'm not sure a new administration is going to be able to do a lot about any of these problems -- which fits into Dubner's arguments. We may not be able to disentangle ourselves from Iraq easily, any change in the courts will require years of moderate-to-liberal presidents with clout in Congress, and environmental issues get worse every day. It is possible that a good president will put the right person in charge of disaster relief and possibly even do something about our infrastructure problems, but the other things will take a long time and several administrations.
So I'd suggest that Dubner is right, to a degree. A president only has so much power when it comes to making changes and putting programs into place. But unfortunately, an incompetent surrounded by power-hungry associates can do an incredible amount of damage.
I just hope the country recovers.