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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

George W Bush? Fail, but There's More

I don't think the subject of this post requires a preamble but if you want one, Reuters can help.

Although his presidency doesn't expire for another week, I've long been done reflecting on Bush the man as we've known him for eight memorable years. I suspect many of you have as well, if for nothing else than to turn the page sooner than fate allows. Even the media got a clue and avoided Bush stories like the plague, instead plastering on every Obama story whether it was newsworthy or not. Anyway, this should be the last week we'll have to experience a substantive Bush newsflash, even if the repercussions of his presidency will be with us a long, long time.

At least this should be the last time I have to think on Bush directly, and I'm thankful for it. My bag is foreign policy, so you can imagine just how thankful I am.

For both good and ill, Bush's character has been remarkably consistent throughout. Like the prototypical American, he is a high risk high reward kind of guy, the sort of president who requires a whole lot of political capital up front and operates by spending it in huge chunks. That's all fine, all the great presidents probably do that. But the problem with Bush is, he doesn't seem to understand how to earn that capital without resorting to brash politicking and frankly, he doesn't understand how to spend it strategically either. He got away with that approach on domestic issues up to a point, but he never stood a chance on the world stage once our political capital reserves got burned up. That happened fairly quickly after our engineering venture in the Middle East got underway.

What struck me most of all about his mostly inept foreign policy is that he seemed to react to things that weren't quite there, or things perhaps he wanted to actually be there. More often than not, either it turned out there was no there there, or in reality there was actually something else there there. I call this the preemptive reactionary syndrome, and it seems to be a weakness that the world caught on to real fast after it became all too apparent. It's entirely plausible someone, whether friend or foe, would preemptively plant something in Bush's mind just for him to react to in order to advance their own agenda.

Even if Iran really isn't weaponizing plutonium, they already know Bush is going to act as if they are. Moreover, it's easy for them to surmise specific actions he might take, because Bush is like an open book whose rhetoric is so idealistically removed from harsh realities that it constrains his choice of actions irrevocably. Under this condition, certainly Ahmadinejad was not afraid to pit his wits against Bush, and it's arguable Iran has gained both political and geopolitical capital from that confrontation. At the presidential level, politicians are about as savvy as they come and for savvy politicians, knowing what your opposition is thinking is tantamount to stealing a commanding advantage. That's a dangerous disadvantage that I simply cannot tolerate from my president in these dangerous and changing times.

It's a deathly glaring weakness that I don't expect in Obama. Despite his imminently accessible rhetorical stylings, Obama deftly disguises the true depth of his idealistic core, something that Bush nakedly paraded throughout his presidency as if he still needed votes or something. Haven't you ever felt that although Obama seems to reveals so much in his rhetoric and writings, he still exudes a certain veiled mystery nonetheless? It's this masterful simultaneous disguising and revealing of his inner mind that earned Obama frightful labels from political enemies like the socialist moniker which, in its absurdity, he was actually able to turn around and use to his advantage. It suggests that Obama subscribes to a brand of political subtlety at least one level beyond what Bush demonstrated through his sophisticated campaign style of governance. That's what my gut tells me, and it's given me a certain hope for competent leadership I couldn't feel for a long time

Actually I kind of have a grudging respect for Bush. Quite frankly, if I were him I would have probably hung myself dead by now after having looked the goat so profoundly so many times. Instead, over the years this man has had to carry his goat baggage all around the country and world at large, forced to take himself seriously when much of the actions taken on the basis of his rhetoric has proven anathema to reality (exhibit shoes). His ability to do that is not just savvy politicking, it's the mark of a real man who would stay true to his course in spite of anything or anyone who opposes him (for better or worse). Of course I know this trait is prerequisite to high office, but the magnitude of his worst blunders is so large and sustained that I can't help but admire his handling of himself. After all, I suppose there was a reason why he was twice elected. I can't help but think if another president had Bush's character but actually wasn't Bush, he might have turned out a successful presidency.

Sadly that wasn't the case. It's easy to blame Bush for everything, but to do so would be to miss the big picture. No one man or even administration could have accomplished the spectacle of failures that Bush has. Rather, it was as if Bush and company represented a certain archetype of Americanism that is no longer effective in our country or applicable to today's changing world, and it was the culmination of this particular cultural bias that failed Bush and all of us in turn. That is my belief (Paul Krugman explores this subject in some depth).

I may be stating the obvious, and nothing affirms that more than the pasting Bush's party candidate got in the electoral college in 2008. Speaking of which, don't let people write the election off by saying it was a referendum on Bush any less than those who said it was a referendum on Obama, and even less than the people who suggest an African American could not have been elected if it weren't for Bush. They don't know what they're talking about. The election was bigger than Bush and Obama, namely the respective biases in American culture that culminate in their world views.

In any case, the whole Bush episode has reminded me of one thing that's intrinsically beautiful about our nation: through grey skies come blue and through darkness come light, the promise of democracy in so many words. Our course has the potential to be fundamentally recharted if the need be great enough, and certainly that fact has contributed mightily to the longevity of the United States. I do not speculate on our future successes, but perhaps we can credit Bush for playing his part in forcing us to reflect on our weaknesses that have probably been incubating for a long, long time.

Well anyway, farewell Bush, thanks for doing all that you could have done. Here he is in his final press conference addressing the subject of this post.


Dave C said...

Oy, my favorite subject...

Bush was unique in the apparent shallowness of his decision making process. Any look for a consistency with his brand of 'conservatism' and the conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater can only be found on the surface... masculine posturing. There is an element of machismo to conservatism, and Reagan and Goldwater alike were known for saying bold things, but the strength came from a firm foundation of principal.

Bush has been all surface. His concept of democracy is holding elections, nothing else; surface.

His idea of leadership is doing something in-spite of protest; surface. There are examples of this in history, sure, but the true leaders had a clarity that gave them insights that proved to be true. He clearly lacks this, but acts the part anyway. It's all very shallow.

Obama is in may ways Bush's opposite. Partly because he masks his surface with eloquence and pragmatic concepts. Obama has a certain stealth to him, as you pointed out, which is my main reservation (aside from an obvious philosophical difference). I'm not as optimistic to think it's idealism, as much as maneuverability. But it is the avoidance of stands that worry me. As Rudy Gulliani pointed out, 'Change is not a destination, and hope is not a strategy.' Part of his inspirational appeal is due in large part to his lack of specifics. (We can all agree that hope is a good thing, so that doesn't count).

His short senate record is stealthy, avoiding any major test or difficult votes. He never has had to take a difficult stand or costly position. Much of what appealed to me about McCain was a record of actual leadership when it was difficult, which is very different of both Bush and Obama. His stance against Russia was far ahead of the curve, as was his stance against water-boarding, and support of the surge while being an early critic of Rumsfeld. HIs integrity while a POW is justifiably legendary. All of these examples are examples of a moral clarity in the face of challenging circumstances that came with actual personal cost.

I don't mean to discredit the way Obama has energized and inspired a lot of people. I think in many ways, 'what' he is has proven to be a great thing for this country and of tremendous value. The significance of this is not lost on me, nor is his skill in utilizing this. But 'who he is' is yet to be defined. He's yet to be faced with a challenge that will force him to make that clear.

But I have no desire to continue an election that's already over. We'll see how Obama adjusts to the challenges presented to the president of the United States. He was elected on ethereal messages, but his challenges are about to get tangible. I sincerely wish him luck. We are all ready for a successful President.

miles said...

EXCELLENT. Here we go.

Very astute judgment on Bush, and it's one I don't think anyone can argue against. As I mentioned in my post (milepost, haha), the biggest problem I had with his lack of depth is that he pretty much nakedly paraded this fact around the world consistently. I already suggested that our enemies have already taken full advantage of Bush in this regard, and I'm very glad that won't happen anymore. Actually I would argue that Bush was hijacked even by his friends, namely the neoconservative clique because their rhetoric is so compatible. But that's just mere speculation and does not deserve to be looked into further here. Perhaps another post for another day.

But enough about Bush the Shallow, he is done and we are all the better for it. Let's talk about Obama the Master Politician.

One of the core competencies in politics is to be able to veil your message effectively, because #1 you want to engage your voters' imagination in a way that ensnares them (2008 was a good year for the Libs), and #2 you want to bait your political enemies into stating gotcha statements (but blatantly obvious on second thought) that go AGAINST those voters' imagination. Obama is a master at this political manipulation. He played into the cynicism of voters who actually expect veiled statements from their politicians, and indeed they do. Tell me you think it ain't so! Perhaps I'll go into this curious effect later on, but basically I believe Guilliani found himself criticizing the very core of something every politician employs, including himself. I don't know what else Gulliani said afterwards, but I'm willing to bet he didn't go into specifics underneath that quote either. Or at least he offered specifics that are just as veiled as anything Obama would come up with. I'll bet you 50 bucks on that.. it's politics 101, same trick, it's just Obama got the better of it. Namely, he got there first: he outmaneuvered the entire GOP party before they even realize they were outmaneuvered.

Obama is the perfect politician, if you ask me. Notwithstanding his true philosophical stance, that's the kind of political skill set I want in the man leading our nation. That is my hope of which I alluded to in my post.

Anyway, let me get out of politics mode and back to human mode **slap** Indeed, Gulliani's warning should be taken seriously. I share your concern for politicians who masterfully employ stealth and lack of specifics, and indeed that was my position on Obama for some time. Since then, however, as I've listened to and read some of his speeches, I was able to detect subtle yet substantive openings through which his true stance on world views can be accessed and subsequently assessed. This I have done, and it's my opinion that he left those openings on purpose. Actually I was planning to write a post on Obama about what my gut has told me about Obama the man beneath his veiled rhetoric, and thereby reveal insight into the positions that he is so deft at avoiding having to clearly state. But again, that's a post for another day. I haven't decided what angle I'm going to take yet, but hopefully it'll turn out to be something that can interest you enough to comment. I'm sure it's going to be another huge glob of text heh. Then again what else would you expect from me..

As far as Obama's slim voting record versus McCain's, I hesitate to use that as a barometer of the man behind the politics because votes are so damned partisan these days that, in my opinion, it's very hard to reliable distill accurate insight. But as you said yourself, you don't want to continue an election that's already over, so let me just say that I believe McCain could have had a much better chance of winning if only his campaign managers hadn't handle his image so incompetently. Although I am an Obama supporter, I still felt pretty maddened by the misfortunes of McCain's campaign! Everything felt so forced, and it's my belief that they completely wasted the opportunity afforded by McCain's personal integrity as you reviewed here in brief. I share your respect for McCain, and I happen to think that his is the kind of respect that can never be taken away from him even by a defeat in politics as soundly as it turned out to be. Even before the campaign was over, I had a feeling that if Obama had won, he would go out of his way to achieve detente with McCain and try to earn his alliance. Recent headlines have proved me right!

Damn I wish I had been blogging back during the campaign.. I had sooooooooo many ideas ahhhhhhhh

Dave C said...

To be clear, there is much of Obama I appreciate. He's clearly a capable, intelligent, confident guy who I hope takes advantage of the political and diplomatic equity of the worlds good will towards the historical significance of his election. If Bush taught us anything, its that good will can be spent quickly if foolishly squandered. It's particularly shameful because the political equity Bush squandered came to him at the cost of 3000 American lives. I suspect Obama is patient, perceptive, and intelligent enough not to be so reckless with his.

But onto the relevant topic at hand. I understand any politician's desire to avoid a "Read My Lips" moment of promising something specific and then not being able to deliver it. Also, for context sake, Gulliani's comment was made at the RNC and was simply meant to be a crowd pleasing highlight. And it was, but it spoke to something of genuine concern. It was a comment on vagueness.

Obama ran on Hope, Change, and reciting Yes We Can. None of these things are actual philosophical insights. He managed to run a negative campaign on the Bush administration presented as a positive campaign towards ideals. But his ideals were impossible to disagree with because there is no substance to them. Who could possibly be against Hope? Who would possibly say No You Can't? If there wasn't such an appetite for any change at all, his words would have struck us as much more shallow than they did.

That's why a record is a useful insight into the man himself, and why I cite the stealthy nature of his short one. There are occasions where you HAVE to be tangible. Gulliani made the best criticism of Obama in that same speech of the whole campaign, referencing how an executive can't vote "present" when a difficult decision that comes at great cost needs to be made. There simply is no example of Obama in the position, and that's a real concern.

Furthermore, it's somewhat folly to think that because a campaign speech can't or shouldn't go into the level of detail of an actual legislation that it should be veiled as well. I don't agree with the precedent of politicians needing to hide who they are so they can be flexible in our mindset.

I'll try not to always bring up Ronald Reagan, but I probably will, haha. But I think he and Obama are an interesting pair to contrast because they both bucked the false notion that "People vote with their fears,' since they both found a following on optimism. America is, after al, famously optimistic.

Anyway, Reagan was a man of few, but clear principals. And he communicated them to the American people and connected to an awful lot of them. But when he spoke he didn't simply speak of vague notions like there being "no red America, no blue America, but a United States of America." Its pretty words for sure, but inarguable. It's like arguing against sunshine.

Ronald Reagan's Time for Choosing speech, in favor of Barry Goldwater, is the basic template of everything the man said ever since. In it, he speaks of an actual philosophy and policy and justifies it. There is no stealth in it.

Check it out, I think you'll find it interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt1fYSAChxs&feature=related

Keep up the good work Miles, I'm enjoying these exchanges.

miles said...

Man, despite your claim otherwise, you're still pretty caught up in Election 08! That's good, you give me the chance to talk about all the things I had wanted to but didn't. I have a feeling this will be a LONG response... prepare yourself.

You bring up three points, #1 Reagan's substantive rhetorical prowess, and by contrast #2 Obama's vague ideals and empty rhetoric, which compounds your concern over #3 Obama's inexperience. Right? I'll address each in turn in the context of my own analysis of the election.

I personally don't know much about Reagan, but his standard of upfront rhetoric that you speak of would be relevant as a standard for today only if he were still alive and kicking. Were he here, perhaps the indomitable Reagan could have elevated the political landscape by exposing everyone else's dodgy rhetoric. But as it was, for the GOP to impale Obama on this count was to invoke a double standard. Or at least I didn't hear anything that struck me otherwise.

You said you don't agree with the precept of "politicians needing to hide who they are so they can be flexible in our mindset", but that's just what one needs to do in order to flourish in a democracy such as ours. Our leaders' philosophies should not be inflicted upon us, but rather precisely the opposite. This is why political messages should be veiled, so we can largely make up our own minds. Maybe that's just an illusion, but that's a food-for-thought topic for another day..

By this principal, Obama's otherwise-empty rhetoric were given substance and vindicated in the minds of his supporters, and you'd have to agree that was not a demanding task in 08. That's the name of the game, no exceptions. But besides, I was fairly clear on the tangibles as to what an Obama administration planned to do anyway, so I wasn't overwhelmed with the impression that he was "hiding" something per se with his veiled rhetoric. It was just extra good quarterbacking, I thought.

One of the GOP's big mistakes was to attack the substance IN Obama's rhetoric rather than the substance BEHIND the rhetoric. And even when they employed the latter attack, it was via relatively ineffective angles like socialist, elitist, extremism, inexperience, etc etc. In the current political environment, for the GOP to directly attack the vagueness of Hope and Change and Yes We Can as bereaved of substance was a horrible decision and I can tell you why. Then you can tell me you think it ain't so! I'll even throw in a metaphor for good comparative measure.

The GOP argued that Obama's rhetoric didn't have substance when in fact, as I argue above, it wasn't meant to have substance in and of itself. It's much like dumb atheists arguing against religious faith, that's it's unreasonable to accept things that can't be proven (lack of substance) when in fact faith is unreasonable to begin with (substance is imbued not by faith itself but by believers). But that's not all. Now, I disclose that I have a general distrust for religious faith, but to attack faith in this brash manner is a total dead end which in fact shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the atheist cause (which I'm sympathetic to). To fight religion with a religion of their own (the religion of no religion) is a fruitless enterprise and only turns away the very people they need to bring into their fold (believers). And this is just what the GOP did: fighting vague rhetoric with vague rhetoric that goes against the current political landscape was a fruitless tactic, and indeed there were many discouraging loyalty poll numbers to back that up. For the very same reason, atheism as it is foolishly advocated today will never achieve its aims. Allow me to elaborate.

Hope, Change, and Yes We Can are only bereaved of philosophical insight to those who do not subscribe to the insights which the rhetoric inherently suggests, namely to those who subscribe to the GOP (like yourself). Thus the obvious campaign tactic for the GOP, who was just bleeding supporters from the get go, should be to try and make Obama's rhetoric ring as hollow as possible in order to retain theirs subscribers. It wasn't enough. The only thing that tactic accomplished was to ensure as few defections from the McCain camp to the Obama camp as possible, but ironically that in turn also ensured minimal defections from the Obama camp to the McCain camp (which I think was a big reason why McCain lost). Therefore, attacking Obama's rhetoric like the GOP did was a defensive tactic disguised as an offensive tactic, and that's why it rang hollow with me (it wasn't because I'm a mind-numbed Obama crazy!) Seems it didn't ring hollow with you hehe..

But the GOP is not stupid and knew better. Did you notice as the campaign went on, McCain started to cop Obama's buzz words, namely Change and Hope? Country First in my opinion is a more abstract form of Yes We Can in a democracy like ours, the main difference being that the former embodied bonus overtones for people who thought Obama wasn't as patriotic and was all star-power (this time it's an offensive tactic disguised as a defensive tactic aimed at voter retention. The GOP has a very deep playbook. Man I watch too much football). But in the end, all of these tactics were proved futile probably because the political environment was so venomous to the GOP. But you gotta give them props for trying every play in the book that could possibly turn the tide. I sure do.

Lastly, let me address the GOP charge that Obama is much too inexperienced to be the main man, then your own concerns for his unproven voting record. Indeed, his inexperience was his Achilles's Heel, if not the biggest issue on which Obama was constantly forced to play defense. Choosing Biden certainly proved for me. But for one reason or another, as the campaign went on, inexperience really wasn't as strong an argument as the GOP hoped it would be. In mine and many people's opinion, that argument was totally void once Palin was unveiled. The way I saw it, her main purpose was to be the sacrificial self-portrait who can genuinely mirror Obama's inexperience (i.e., Achilles's Heel). More precisely, Palin was supposed to highlight the notion that Obama is at most qualified to be VP, but not the main man. This comparison was especially effective because Obama had already chosen Biden, a mirror image of the experience-hardened McCain, and I'm willing to bet money that McCain decided on Palin the moment Obama decided on Biden. Very shrewd and utterly brilliant, I thought! Certainly it was a brilliant move for the GOP, because at that point attacking Obama's character was the only recourse they could effectively levy against Obama's lights-out momentum. And they sure did ramp up character attacks at the end. Somehow, for the most part it all just bounced off Obama. What a masterful politician he is! I was very impressed. That alone made me want him to be our president heh. Watch out, axis of evil (+ Russia heh)!!!!!!!

Ok, regarding Obama's nil voting record, I know you won't buy what I'm about to say but I'll say it anyway. To me, for certain things in life, what is most important about a man is not his experience (although a crucial part) but rather the wholesomeness of his world view. You can have tons of experience but still make fundamental mistakes, but you can be inexperienced and possibly do the right thing. So the combatants Experience vs Inexperience cancel each other out in my mind, especially for a job like the presidency which is a much more cerebral charge than something like, say, a pro athlete where experience counts for everything. That may sound like mere moralizing but... be that as it may, that's why I was not as concerned with Obama's untested record as I probably should have been. But on the other hand I was subconsciously glad his record is slim because voting nowadays can be based as much on partisanship as on principles. Frankly I'm not savvy enough to distinguish the difference clearly enough on this matter to satisfy myself, and so I look to other ways to judge a politician.

So for me, it comes down to character, or in another words Obama's world view. As I keep mentioning, I'm planning to expound on my perceptions of Obama's world view which were able to allay my original fears about his inexperience. It was convenient for me to do so because it's my thesis that Obama intentionally left subtle openings in his rhetoric through which crazy people like me could assess his world view. Now that's the way to make a voter feel important! Shit I can't even vote yet haha.. but hey at least I care! Anyway, hopefully my analysis will hold water as his presidency proceeds... fingers crossed!!! But in all seriousness, so far so good, not least of all his hobnobbing with the conservative establishment that's been well-documented in the media recently.

All yours Dave ^_^ Sorry I just went off but I had subtly warned you before that I had a LOT to say about Election 08...

Drew Edwards said...

Hi Miles, and welcome to the Internet.

While I won't touch on every point you have raised, I thought you might find it interesting that your discussion reminds me of Max Weber's words regarding politicians' character and motivations.

You both seem to agree that, regardless of the substantive merit of Bush's policy, he operated consistently according to known principles. His consistency, however, became the vice of inflexibility, and his transparency became predictability.

Similarly, you seem to agree that Obama seems less predictable than Bush. I would argue that this is evidence of flexibility rather than vacuity, but only time will tell. You also characterize him as more "stealthy," though I don't know how accurate that is. I think that Obama's sense of mystery comes less from an affirmative obfuscation of his means than from a very visible willingness to adapt to changing circumstances and new information -- something Bush certainly lacked. Whereas Bush was strongly attached to a set of means without much regard to the ends they brought about, Obama seems strongly attached to ends without a strong attachment to a particular set of means.

All this is just another way of saying that Bush leads according to Weber's "ethic of ultimate ends," while Obama seems to lead according to Weber's "ethic of responsibility."

An "ultimate ends" leader is like a good Christian: he does right, and leaves the results with the Lord. As long as he acts strictly according to well-defined moral standards, he can have a clear conscience. As Weber puts it: "If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor's eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God's will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil." Bush said basically this exact thing in his farewell address: that he felt he had a clear conscience because, although things didn't always turn out well, he had done what he thought was right at the time according to his moral code. This is a terrifying thing for a leader to say, but not unexpected at all from Mr. Bush.

By contrast, a leader who operates according to an ethic of responsibility assumes that he will be responsible for how his decisions affect the fate of those he leads, for better or for worse. When acting according to responsibility, "one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action." Although it is true that we really don't know what Obama will do in the White House and whether or not he will be a good president, he has made us believe (rightly or wrongly) that he thinks about America in terms of concrete problems that are his responsibility to solve, and not in terms of inflexible ideological precepts. Obama has convinced Americans that he's committed to getting real results on the ground -- and that that's the standard by which he wants to and is prepared to be judged.

Now it is obvious that Weber's concepts are necessarily imperfect, and they certainly do not map perfectly on to the present situation. But I believe that Weber's theory gives us a useful framework within which to think about your discussion of Bush and Obama -- the one a predictable but inflexible believer in "ultimate ends," the other somewhat of an unknown quantity, but who has captured the imagination of Americans in large part by evincing a quality sorely lacking in current American politics: responsibility.

Here's a link to Weber's "Politics as Vocation," which you can snuggle up with on your Sony, Miles:

miles said...

Drew thank you!!!! I find your exposition here more than interesting, it's just what I seek: a well-tread framework on which I can corroborate and place my intuitive musings. And I didn't even have to go looking for it myself ^_^ Nice! And moreover, I MUST learn how to write more like you. Does this mean I actually have to read? Like hardcore?

What you said about Obama here is going to influence my eventual post about him. Weber is just too damn good! My Sony and I are totally going to spend time on that link. But yeah, I want to look for evidence of this responsibility ethos and willingness to adapt from nuances I detected in his speeches and other slick utterings. By doing that, my hope is also to show with my post that he is potentially a pragmatic leader who, as you said, would not be easily ensnared by ideological precepts. And more than that, I want to also show Obama is one who's suitable to navigating systemic problems in America because he has a nuanced grasp of our cultural wants and needs.

I will dedicate this milepost to Dave and Drew.

OH I read this really funny thing awhile back, hope you guys can appreciate it. I frigging love it:

If you're not a "Star Trek" fan, you might not get this, but as I've watched President-elect Barack Obama these past few weeks, I feel as if the country is passing the torch from the brash, rule-breaking Capt. James T. Kirk, whose Starship Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before in the original sci-fi series, to the more cerebral governance of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, who ran the Enterprise not so much as his merry ship but as a cutting-edge corporate venture, which culled databases and held meetings to brainstorm possible responses to new challenges. (Note: when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" first aired in 1987, viewers didn't look at corporate execs as greed-filled panic-fueled incompetents.)

Dave C said...

Damn-it, MIles, I really don't want your blog to take over my life! Haha. But I do appreciate that its becoming an engaging forum.

But I will also echo Mile's sentiment that Drew put up an interesting and well written post, and I look forward to reading up on Weber's points of views.

There are too many things to directly address between my last point and now, but I will address Drew's thoughtful and concise summary. It’s clear that the big question we are debating is what does Obama’s coyness mean

But before I do, I want to address one thing. Drew, I apologize for being unclear, but I seemed to have given Bush more credit than I intended, haha. I don't think he operated from a principled core. I think he postured. He lacked any sort of fundamental insight behind his conviction, he just emulated the machismo that’s on the surface of a principled leader. Though they often appear similar, there is a real difference between principled and stubborn. I’d hate to think his presidency put into question the value of beliefs. Since all three of us cite schools of thought when making a point, I don’t think it’s an argument I need to make here.

But the question at hand. What does Obama’s coyness mean, and how will he govern?

I think its a bit too generous to conclude his vauge campaign platform as the virtue of flexibility. In his Senate career, there doesn’t seem to be any significant examples of him voting outside of party lines or striking compromises. I simply don’t see the evidence of this optimistic view. This interpretation strikes me as a sign of our eagerness to see Obama as everything Gorge Bush is not. We simply do not have a lot of clues to how he will run his administration. It's not a lack of experience (which doesn’t bother me) but from a lack of record.

I want to make that clear as well. Its not inexperience that bothers me, I think he's quite capable. It's his lack of record. A record is something tangibile that you can find patterns and core values out of, and the only thing his record shows is smart ambition. To be clear, anyone who runs for president is ambitious, so I don’t intend that to be a criticism. But he has never been in a position to make a difficult executive or legislative choice so we don’t have the insight that would provide.

So while I agree, and Ends approach is better than a Means approach (and I think you made a good case for George Bush as a Means president while Obama will be an Ends one), you still need a means to get to the ends, and both preferred ends and preferred ends are always debatable. As it stands, you both seem confident that he'll be a pragmatic and nuanced leader who will lead the country to a better place place. I share in the hope, but I don't share in the confidence.

We’ll find out soon enough.

Dave C said...

I just realized what I've been trying to say, haha. Obama has an appealing nuanced tone of pragmatic intangibility. But it is a luxury, and we've never seen him without it.

Stephen said...

I think perhaps that its obscures things somewhat to concentrate too much on George Bush's own personal failings as commander in chief. Those have been well documented. It seems to me that the public discussion should start moving beyond the purely personal level.

Civilizations tend to get the leaders that they deserve, after all, and so in some sense we could say that personal failings at the top are symptomatic of deeper problems with American institutions and morals. If you look at all of the major policy failings of the Bush administration (the Iraq War, the War on Terror, Katrina, the financial markets, etc.) you can see that Congress, the media, the professional classes, all of the people who were supposed to act as gatekeepers to prevent screwups from happening, simply bailed on their responsibility. At every major test put before them, American institutions failed totally to assess the risks inherent in the situation.

The conclusion is inescapeable, that America got George Bush because that's what it deserved. Let's remember as well that this was the man who became president because of a dirty trick he pulled on John McCain in 2000. I refer of course to that completely repellant whisper campaign in which McCain was accused of having a half black baby, the product of some interracial hoochy-cootchy. Completely repellant. This should was an early sign of his unprincipled character, and yet he got a free pass on it.

If we look back on the 90's, what you see is a time of total complacency as regarding politics as serious business. Political headlines from that day were just salacious sex gossip. The economy was doing well. The Soviet Union was gone. There was a sense of politics as some kind of amusing side show; very entertaining, but not very important. Our stock market would go up forever no matter what unprincipled jerk was in office.

George Bush is really the product of this decline in the integrity of the American public realm. Now, after things falling into ruin so precipitously, Americans are paying the price for having fallen asleep at the switch, having forgotten vigilance.

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that Americans will always do the right thing, after every other option has been exhausted.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit that I haven't read in detail all of the above posts and responses, but I think that the bigger issue about Bush-- that which was at the core of his inept arrogance-- was his hardline evangelical Christian faith.

I believe it is the book of Kings in the Bible that has a verse that says "If you stand with Me, who shall stand against you?" Me being the god of the Israel, who is also the god of the Christians (father of Jesus and all that).

Evangelicals believe in the absolute, factual correctness of the Bible, and consider it a sin to second guess it (or apply scientific reason) because it is THE word of God. These are the people who show saddles on dinosaurs to illustrate how the dinosaurs helped Adam and Eve plow the fields after they got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. No, I'm not kidding.

So let's do a little proof here: If you stand on God's side, then no one can stand against you. If you're evangelical, you're on God's side. So if you're evangelical, no one can stand against you. They're all destined to fail. And who are "they" who are destined to fail? All those who are not on God's side, who are those who doubt him/his word/teachings of his son.

This includes, of course, Jews, Catholics, moderate protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, animists, secular humanists, Shinto, [fill in your favorite] and atheists.

How can someone espouse to be the leader of a pluralistic society if he believes to the core of his being, on threat of the fate of his eternal soul, that the vast majority of his constituents are wayward and hellbound, blind to the saving light that is Jesus' forgiving love?

And how can such a leader function in the world arena, which is composed of people of many cultures and faiths (or non-faiths, as the case may be)? He can't. And that is Bush's fatal flaw.

How ironic it was that the greatest threat to our national security came from a group of religious fundamentalists. A comic book couldn't have picked two better characters or a more obvious struggle-- two champions of ideology, equally imbued with righteousness, ready to go to extreme lengths to prove their cause.

It's the wacky fundamentalism which appeals to some people who then get into positions of power that is the key. As religious zealots, they credit everything to god (in his/her many names), and feel that it is divine providence that they're in this position of authority. I have little doubt that if the religious right hadn't been thrown out of office by the election, the US would be one step closer to the christian fundamentalist version of Iran. (And as a woman, let me tell you that there are things in the Bible that make it not so much better than sharia.)

So it's not just plain old conservatism that powered Bush, it's holy righteousness. It's said that the most dangerous man is the man who's convinced he's right. I'd say the most dangerous man is the man who's convinced that God's told him he's right.

Don't get me wrong. Religion has a place in the private lives of people. For those who need a reason to do the right thing, it is essential. But the President of the United States, leader of a nation founded on religious tolerance and governed by a Constitution that expressly states that the legislature shall not establish a religion, must not rely upon the evangelical God's guidance to make the "best" decisions for the welfare of our nation, whether that decision involves domestic or foreign policy.

I guess there's one verse that in all his readings of the Good Book Mr. Bush glossed over. In case he checks this blog, let me put it out there...

It's Proverbs 11:29, George. It goes like this: He who troubles his own house will inherit wind, And the foolish will be servant to the wisehearted.

miles said...

Now that I've finally put the 2008 Giants out of mind, I can get back to more substantive matters. And boy is this thread getting substantive.. I LOVE IT. Thank you!!!! This is what IT'S ALL ABOUT.

At this point, we've left the realm of mainstream politics well behind and are entering the passes of conjecture. Well, you guys have given me too much to play with here. I wanted to be rather conservative in my judgment of Bush for my post but in light of the material you guys contributed, I feel compelled to come clean. Wittingly or not, you guys dragged this out of me.

First, Dave, I'm not sure I agree with you that Bush did not operate on a principled core. In fact he operated a bit too much on one, so much that insularity began to veil his world view and constrain his leadership. You said he "lacked any sort of fundamental insight behind his conviction," but that's just it: the only insight Bush needed was his convictions, which was his fatal flaw. You also said you would "hate to think his presidency put into question the value of beliefs." Well there's no questioning of that, but rather there is a questioning of how one goes about carrying out a system of values and beliefs. That is a question that only an Ends president dares to ask.

Anyway man it was fun beating Election 2008 into the ground with you, thanks! We definitely got off the topic of Bush, but fortunately others have brought us back.. and now I double down on their antes.

Drew, Steve, and Ms. Anonymous: I sense a common thread of thought between your comments here and so would like to try and weave it into a narrative of my own. But as surely you guys can tell, I'm a rookie at this so my comment will probably be 4x the length it needs to be. But I'll try my best!

I'd like to start with Steve and his assertion that Bush was a symptom of complacency in American culture. As I asserted in the post I just finished writing about the 2008 Giants, we cannot get a full picture of what really went wrong if we just look at the loose threads (Bush) without also looking at the tapestry into which they're woven (culture). That is to say, we may know 'how' it all happened, but we also need to know WHY 'how' it all happened. Otherwise we cannot move forward as we need.

I agree that Bush's election is the culmination of a certain weakness in American culture. I alluded to this effect in my post as "a certain archetype of Americanism that is no longer effective in our country or applicable to today's changing world, and it was the culmination of this particular cultural bias that failed Bush and all of us in turn." I didn't get specific as you guys courageously do here, and now I feed off that courage in an attempt to develop this further.

It's painfully obvious that this particular American archetype does not know how to look itself in the mirror. In fact we feel like there is no need to. We feel like all the battles have already been won and it's now time to exert our proven world view and share our good fortune with others in the world. And why shouldn't we? As far as i know, there is no rhetoric in the world that sounds better and more genuine than ours, and indeed the public got drunk even with Bush's childish good vs evil characterizations in his foreign policy. To be precise, Americans were drunk with our sense of moral superiority over the world and indeed feel we've earned it. But that's not morality, it's mere moralizing; a very fine line indeed.

Bush is the culmination of this cultural complacency, of how we feel we've actualized a simplified view of the world such that we as voters could justifiably qualify Bush's rather insular world view as a sufficient representation of America. He's not.

As I ventured in my post, Bush's rhetoric was "idealistically removed from harsh realities," that is to say it was just too damn convenient to be true. Indeed a lot of it has been proven false. What Americans failed to understand is how the significance of rhetoric as it affects a person's world view and how that world view plays itself out in reality. And as such we couldn't foresee the consequences of carrying out that rhetoric as Bush did. It took eight years for enough people to see that. And maybe people still don't see it; they just see the world falling apart around them and felt the need to punish somebody with their vote. Regardless, Obama is as clean as a reboot as it gets, and voters at least understand that.

Of course, if one had the fortitude of will and strength of mind to dig deeper into Bush's rhetoric, I think most people would find precisely what Drew and Ms. Anonymous outlined in their comments. And if voters did see this in the beginning, I don't think we would have twice elected Bush; maybe once, not twice. Drew talked about Bush as a president of means, that his ends must invariably be good if the means were just. If the world were that simple, we wouldn't be having this stimulating conversation now would we. There is so much consistent evidence of this profound misunderstanding of life in Bush's character make-up that I would dismiss out of hand any lingering doubt about that.

Ms. Anonymous expounded on Bush's means, namely that of religious fundamentalism. Indeed, Bush isn't "just a plain old conservative", he's at least akin to the neoconservatives who equate (indirectly?) their sense of moral superiority with "holy righteousness" and considers as vindication of the means to whatever ends they may bring. And I agree with you, Ms. Anonymous: as creepy as this sounds, perhaps in the end we turned out to be little better than our current enemy, the crazy ass jihadists we seek to vanquish. Religious fundamentalism is insular by nature, and so the inherent contradiction you bring up about Bush being the leader of a pluralistic society and in the world is irrelevant to Bush and his like-minded peers. Conveniently for them, it just doesn't process; the contradiction is subsumed by the insularity of Bush's world view and is voided on that basis. Can Bush or his peers even realize this fallacy? Probably not.

I argued in my post that our extremist enemies probably understand Bush more than he understands himself, and that's why they've strengthened themselves while we've weakened. It's as if our enemies knows their enemies better than their enemies knows themselves. And like i said in my post, I simply cannot tolerate such a huge disadvantage in my president in these dangerous times. Ugh!!! I mean ahhh I'm so glad Bush went home ^_^

Let's explore this religious fundamentalism in the context of America's sense of its own prescience with regards to the world. In my mind, the reason why the religious establishment was able to successfully hijack the presidency was because it naturally formed a connection to our general sense of moral superiority in the world, which we feel was the fruits of our pre-1990's struggles and wars. As a result, Americans on the whole became people who lost sight of the need to question themselves because we felt there was nothing left to question (until now anyway, BIG TIME.. which is the inevitable result of not questioning in the first place). And when you can't look yourself in the mirror and doubt yourself, you leave your unactualized world view open to such dangerous influences as religious fundamentalism veiled under the guise of patriotism (indeed a common GOP buzz word for a time). That is a big cultural weakness that I hope we will begin to genuinely reflect on as we tread these trying times. At this point, it's really up to Obama to help us do that through the successful or unsuccessful actions he may take as president. That's the greatest hope I have for him and man, I hope he can man up to it.

If you ever see this: I thank you, Ms. Anonymous, for bringing the contentious topic of religion fundamentalism to the table. While not directly related, I must disclose that I'm planning an entire series of blog posts that can eventually culminate as a criticism of the intra- and inter-religious conflicts that religion inevitably engenders. I do so by questioning religious faith in its most innocuous form, namely why such faith is even necessary for one to find meaning in one's life. I question religious faith because, in my opinion, the leap from legitimate and innocent religious faith to rampant extremism might be very much shorter than we think.

But I digress... now I'd like to wrap this whole thing up with a consolidated view of Steve's, Drew's and Ms. Anonymous' contributions, and cap it off with my final and most damning criticism of Bush.

There is a connection between American culture, who Bush is, and why Bush was the elected face of America for eight years. It was in a time of cultural weakness that we elected a purely 'means' president, why Bush made us feel safe. The rhetoric of neoconservatism, religious fundamentalism, and the notion of moral superiority is something we Americans can easily digest. Too easily; it just feels right and nothing else does, and this mindset permeates Drew's point that our means always justify the ends, as Bush himself admitted in so many words.

As I alluded to in my post, all this plays into what I called Bush's "preemptive reactionary syndrome." Bush reacts to things in the world by processing them through his particular world view, that of a hardline Christian evangelical. Inevitably, this condition conjures up scenarios that aren't really there, because religious fundamentalism is by definition insular and can only be so applicable to the demands of reality. Then, whether evidence of these scenarios surface or not, Bush goes ahead and preempts them by taking action, often at extreme lengths, and often at great disadvantage.

For me, that's what defined his presidency. Whether Bush's actions are eventually proved right or wrong, I leave to history to judge. Though if his decisions did turn out in the right, I would chalk it up as mere coincidence! But either way, Bush would sleep easy for the rest of his life. Must be nice.. maybe I should immerse myself in religion too. I really could use some good sleep every now and then.

Dave C said...

CS Lewis, an excellent Christian, writer described the dangers of groups in his book "Four Loves." He describes social groups under the definition of his second love Friendship. All friendships, he theorizes, can be traced back to a "you too!" moment. A moment when you find some one who thinks something or cares for something you thought you were alone in. That friendship strengthens conviction, and truly an movement, wether it be artistic, political, or otherwise is formed out of that dynamic. It's what emboldens people to project their beliefs outward.

The danger, of course, lies in the deafening of the circle to outside influence. A shared delusion can take place, where people exist in an echo chamber reassuring themselves of assumptions that should be challenged.

That's a reality of human nature, and hardly exclusive to Evangelicals and Islamic Terrorists. The scale is of course very different, and there is no comparing the scale of the Taliban or Al Qaeda to that of a typical church goer or even the former President Bush, but its something we should all be wary of in ourselves. As a Conservative living a typically very Liberal lifestyle, I assure you I've seen plenty of people consumed by the 'moral superiority' of the left. Many people I've known have gotten there Liberal convictions from quarantine, not exposer, and are content to look at those they don't actually interact with as if they are in a pitre dish, purely products of factors they can see but the people in it cannot.

I'd warn all of us, without indicting any of us, of this danger. Strip away the labels, and it's all different expression of the same pitfall of human nature.

For me it comes down to asking the correct and simple question. Did George bush live up the responsibilities the people entrusted him with? And to Steve's point, did the people live up to the responsibilities entrusting the right man with our power?

The answer is clearly no on both accounts. We can look at it from all the distance we want, citing all the different cultural shifts, but at the end of the day countries are made of people. People share human nature, and we share certain experiences and certain interests, and enable each other with destructive behavior for sure... It's a murky image to be sure, everyone finds themselves trying to conform to a label and join a group at one point or another, but at its fundamental part its still a bunch of individuals handling and processing and seeking and ignoring influence uniquely.

At the end of the day, I judge George Bush on his personal failure to live up to the responsibility "We the People" trusted him with. His failure to execute his responsibilities successfully should not be an indictment on anyone other than himself.

Now the murkier question is how responsible the voters themselves for electing him. Any bad hire is partly the fault of the manager who hired them, for sure, but all hires can only be hired based on the interview. The ultimate responsibility is on the man doing the job, and it's a responsibility of the citizens to hold a public servant accountable. One of the great virtues of the American system is it's capacity to correct its course. I've already said that how well Obama's vauge message of "change" was received is a great indictment of the Bush years. The voters made a bad choice nominating him and a bad choice electing him twice. The Democrats did equally a bad job losing to him twice. The collapse of his presidency and the Republican party is evidence of that accountability.

The American people elected some one new who promises to fix the damage. It occurs to me just now that I really think Obama is the "means" president, since so much of his appeal is his even handed and inclusive approach. Bush was really an "ends" president promising to 'go it alone' when the process of diplomacy and popular opinion didn't serve his goals. Of course his 'means' carried great consequences that he seemed to have not considered.

Anyway, "We the People" have just entrusted Obama with an enormous responsibility. In four years we'll all judge him on how he and he alone carried it. Any thing else is just rhetorical din.

miles said...

(Drew, I leave you to address Dave's reversal of your means vs ends characterization of Bush and Obama)

Dave, it seems that you're convinced Bush was merely a man who did not carry out his responsibility to the people and hence the people are faultless. But I think Bush carried out his responsibilities all too well, as evidenced by his go-it-alone attitude in spite of all that opposes him. It is not mere posturing on Bush's part because if it were, he would have been forced by external circumstances to be flexible long before lame duck status, and obviously that did not happen. His iron sense of responsibility is attached to his world view, which some have argued to be his hardline Christian faith.

That is an oversimplification, in my opinion. It's not that Bush failed simply because he subscribed to his Christian faith, because as you pointed out we're all guilty of associations ourselves. Indeed, it is much more than Bush's religious faith that failed us, but rather it was his broad and once-in-power political coalition that did. And by coalition, I mean a cross section between MANY different "labels" of beliefs that various people subscribe to, a coalition LED by the Bush's group. Dave I know you're a hardened individualist but when it comes to the leadership of a democracy, individualism only occurs at the voter level; anything further, and individuals only exist in aggregate and are only represented in government. It is the group or coalition that powers our leader that we must explore, and further to the culture that created these groups.

And so, it was the politics engendered by Bush's particular coalition that was severely limiting on the world stage, one that requires a certain measure of flexibility in the face of changing conditions. Now, I disclose that I'm not opposed to strong arm tactics (e.g., cowboy diplomacy) in geopolitics, but I am opposed to such tactics when we are in a position of weakness. In such a contest, it may our arm that breaks, and yet Bush forged ahead as if our arm was impervious. If you want to be tough, you better make sure you really are tough relative to your opponents. Without getting specific and making this comment 4x longer than necessary, I offer the Middle East situations as proof of failure in Bush's inflexible world view. Now, whether Obama's or anyone else's world view is more workable than Bush's, only future history can tell. But I know this: Bush's world view was insular, inflexible, arrogant and frankly removed from the demands of harsh realities. I do not envy Obama's task.

There is plenty more to talk about on that front, but continuing to focus on the individual or coalition levels of analysis would be missing the point. As Steve pointed out, civilizations tend to get the leaders they deserve, which is a no-brainer when it comes to democracies. This is something we can't ignore. Dave, you characterized this situation as a job interview gone bad and regardless of the outcome, the ultimate responsibility falls on the man that the people hired. And while I believe Bush must take responsibility for his failures, I argue that the ultimate responsibility falls on the people because we cannot expect our elected leaders to be anything more than who they are. Furthermore, as I argued above, Bush carried out his responsibilities all too well. We knew exactly what we were getting with Bush, even if we didn't really know how events would play out. The only thing that really failed us was the childish imaginations of the American people, that at the individual level each voter found enough comfort in Bush's "what's right, what's good and what's evil" rhetoric to entrust him with a still-ballooning responsibility too great for him to handle. The world has once again become too complex for Bush's go-it-alone attitude to get the results we need.

Of course, this all begs the question of how the people elected a man destined to fail us so profoundly. Yes, electing the president is result of an interview, but the interviewee can manipulate the interviewers because the savvy interviewee knows what makes the interviewers tick. As I discussed in my last comment, Bush and his political coalition were able to appeal to the sense of moral superiority that all Americans feel over the world. Specifically, the neoconservative clique was able to piggy back on the people's feeling that the moral goodness of America is beyond question and justifies a unilateralist policy posture. Indeed, such a posture is REQUIRED in this world view. As the neo cons argue, were our policies not unilateral and were instead subjected to the agreements of other countries or international institutions, America would actually prevent itself from fulfilling its moral mission. Now, whether a voter felt that our unilateral foreign policy was the right thing to do or not, that voter is hard pressed to question our moral goodness and indeed superiority relative to the world. This is something that is hardwired into the fabric of our culture. Just look at all the Nazi movies that's been coming out lately! Or 300 or whatever.. all designed to remind us that we are THE good in the world.

Now, let me be VERY clear, I'm not referring to the moral superiority that the the political left champions because that's just silly politiking, and is no more relevant to the world than the right who stake claim to a superior sense of patriotism. These are utter dead end angles that do not deserve the attention that they get, as I'm sure you'd agree. No, I'm speaking to the moral superiority engendered by the American way of life, one that we earned through all sorts of wars and international good deeds and what have you. You know what I'm talking about.

What failed us was the people and the culture that binds us, and it was that culture that failed Bush, who failed us the people in turn. It's a neat circle, the kind of cause-effect explanation we have to look for when examining such deep matters. In a democracy, responsibility does not end with the man elected to do the job precisely because it is a democracy. Yes, we carried out our democratic responsibility in ousting Bush from office, but our responsibility does not end there: we must ensure we do not elect another like him UNLESS the conditions in the world allow us to be the brash cowboys who do as we please because we know what's right. This is why it's important to look beyond the failures of Bush the man, and rather to the culture that created Bush the man, the same culture that we Americans generally subscribe to that compelled us to elect Bush the man in the first place.

In four years, it's very well that I may write a similar post dedicated to Obama. I'm looking forward to it.