What Good Are These Particular Presidents?

Previously, I have written about why the Presidency is important.  Lest anyone think I was overcome by an uncharacteristic mood of sunny optimism and governmental idealism, I’d like to append to that statement by arguing that actual Presidents, within my political attention span, have been drastically less important than almost everyone thinks.  Given I do firmly believe my previous statements about the potential of the office, I find the indistinguishability of the actual people to be rather depressing.

Let’s start with my key example from the previous article on the subject: George Bush’s speech after 9/11.  As I said then, that speech set the tone of the nation’s response – but would any other President have responded differently?

I remember the national mood after the World Trade Center attacks with particular clarity because that is the moment I began to pay attention to politics.  It’s easy in retrospect to see the mistakes and overreactions, but that doesn’t change the near universality of the vengeful public mood.  Three thousand people in the heart of New York, as well as two iconic (if, we must admit, fairly ugly) elements of the skyline were gone.  At first, no one knew who did it.  The response was fear, uncertainty, and anger in that order.  Indeed, about as blind an anger as any populace as large and diverse as the United States can manage.

The country at that time would not have responded positively to a measured response.  Something along the lines of ‘we will discover who is responsible and take appropriate measures’ would not fly well, and no speech-writer or PR manager would have suggested it.  The People wanted action, damn it, decisively.

Further, the military was already mobilized to destroy any other airplanes attempting to follow the efforts of the first four.  Bureaucracy being what it is, the involved parties would stay involved, and the military had been advising and responding since the very first day.  The Pearl Harbor type psychological impact only encouraged a Pearl Harbor type military effort in response.

Of course, few doubt the invasion of Afghanistan to go after bin Laden would NOT have occurred.  The more important question is of Bush’s biggest crime – the lies leading to Iraq, managed by his inner circle of Neo-Con cronies.

Well, there were Neo-Liberal Hawks, too, (including Gore’s chosen Vice-Presidential running mate!) and the national mood clearly empowered the Hawks.  Second, those NeoCon cronies would still have been around, influencing Congress and whispering in the upper echelons of the CIA & NSA.  Don’t forget the part Tony Blair’s United Kingdom played.  In short, for all Bush and his advisers are blamed they were only one factor among the many outside influences pushing the Executive Office towards Iraq.

As for Obama’s surge, it was precisely the kind of thing we’re supposed to be afraid conservative Hawks would have done.  Or will do, based on this election campaign’s rhetoric.  Again, Military advice, Intelligence Agency data, and the need to Do Something appear to have triumphed over widely advertised Presidential character traits.

As for the rest of what Bush is hated for – the torture, the black sites, the drone strikes, the spying, Guantanamo Bay, and so on – it’s hard to argue Obama is all that much different.  Let’s look at the list:

Torture and Blacksites?  Possible improvement, but there remains evidence that the administration merely resorted to outsourcing, encouraging some of our less pleasant allies to just do the whole mess themselves.  The effect on the people at the wrong end of the stick is similar, and possibly worse.  For all the debate, the CIA’s torture methods were a step up from the stories that leak out from Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Drone Strikes?  Expanded.  And how.  Including now against U.S. citizens.  And with officials claiming legal justification for doing the same to citizens inside the country, also under the President’s authority.  ‘Due Process’?  More like ‘a process‘.

Alright, how about spying?  I think the Snowden documents more or less cover that.  Particularly note the Five Eyes treaty is used by members (including the U.S.) to get information on citizens they shouldn’t be able to spy on.  Most of the Five Eyes nations have heavy restrictions on using security services on their own people, but not on doing the same to others and then sharing the resulting data.  Mutually beneficial spying.

Guantanamo Bay?  Bush wins by number of prisoners released or moved, getting the number down to the 200s before he left office.  Obama does win in the category of percentage decrease (250ish to 91), and the remaining cases might be expected to be the trickier than the ones Bush dealt with, but Obama did campaign long and hard on the issue, eight years ago.  Not exactly inspiring.

As a final point of interest, what of the headline diplomatic and domestic political achievements of Obama?

The Iran Deal?  I’ll admit this one is rather difficult to decide.  There are suggestions that Iran was the desperate party following Stuxnet, other covert actions, and a global depression in oil prices (and thus Iran’s economy).  The argument in favor of Obama mattering is that the Iran deal required the personal relationship breakdown between Obama and Netanyahu following the ’12 election, a problem that (for obvious reasons) would not have affected Romney.  That being said, there are numerous ways Netanyahu could grate on a sitting President, particularly if Netanyahu were to claim There are, however, plenty of ways Netanyahu could grate on a sitting President.  Though I don’t believe it’s as clear as most people assume, the Iran Deal is very nearly a good example.  But, it may yet end up as ineffectual and forgettable as the Russia Reset.

Obama’s legacy: The healthcare reform.  U.S. healthcare was a giant mess of red tape, mismanagement, and overly powerful health insurance cartels.  Now, it’s … broadly the same, just with new red tape dispensers and shiny new forms.  The health insurance companies supported the passage of the bill, which I always thought was a telling (and disturbing) detail.  Did it increase the number of people ensured?  Yes.  Were the uninsured still getting hospital treatments at the public’s expense before that?  Yes.  Are lives and money saved by more people being ensured via access to preventative medicine?  Theoretically, but then the issue gets complicated, and I have yet to spend the requisite time to feel confident in my analysis.  Suffice to say the most facially convincing arguments of the law’s supporters merely state that the healthcare law isn’t dramatically ruining things the way Republicans said it would.  “It didn’t make things obviously and immediately worse” is hardly a stirring defense of all that effort.

Education reform?  The program Obama has pushed is called the Common Core, which calls for increased standardization and higher standards in education.  The Common Core builds on and nominally fixes the No Child Left Behind Act, which Bush once hoped would be his legacy.  What I read about the goals and criticisms of the Common Core sounds suspiciously similar to commentary I read a decade ago on NCLB.

Moving on to areas I have spent the time to investigate properly, consider the Russia Reset.  Remember that?  Yeah, that certainly made a lasting impression on foreign politics.  It is also not complementary that the tensions (re)started when Russia shielded Snowden from extradition.  The United States has often criticized Russia for going after dissidents and those who publish unfavorable information about the regime.  Ah well, international relations has certainly never been about avoiding hypocrisy.

How about Cuba?  Would Romney have opened Cuba?  Let’s see, a pro-business, pro-Globalization, pro-immigration Republican opening up new markets, while possibly scoring points with Latinos and banking political capital with Congressional Democrats in dealing with a third-rate (at best) non-threat.  Why not?

I hope I’ve made the point here that across the two very different Presidencies, the decisions that mattered were not exactly distinguishing, and the ones that distinguished haven’t mattered.  Perhaps future presidents can do better at being unique – preferably without doing something uniquely stupid.

* Updated 2016 March 14 with education example and some desperately needed editing.

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