America Politics Presidents

The President of My Twenties

Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.

There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)

The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.

Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.

The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.

Looking back, many of these moments were in the context of bad news. For every White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, there was an emotional statement after a gun massacre. For every car ride with Jerry Seinfeld, there was another emotional moment after a gun massacre. For every championship team welcome at the White House, there was another emotional statement after a gun massacre.

But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:

I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.

For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.

As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.

So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.

America Media Politics Presidents

Hugging, No Learning

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2011 at the ceremony for the new CBA.

I remember back during the 2011 NFL lockout, a columnist kept writing to the fans not to get invested in the heated rhetoric between the players and owners, because once an agreement was reached—and it would be reached—the representatives of the players and the owners would be hugging on stage, all would be well again, and the fans who’d so adamantly taken sides would be wondering why they invested so much energy and partisan passion into a PR battle. And sure enough, a new CBA was reached, football started on time, and all those months of tit-for-tat suddenly seemed far less serious than diehard fans would have believed.

I was reminded of that time and feeling while listening to David Axelrod’s conversation with Karl Rove on Axelrod’s podcast. As the two chief political operatives for the campaigns of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they are each other’s political opposite and rival, representing the ideologies of the two primary political parties in the United States. And here they are, chatting about life and politics like old college chums. If you didn’t know which party they worked for you might not even know they were opponents.

So when the fire-breathers on either side of the aisle get fired up on cable news or talk radio, excoriating the Other Guys for the sin of not agreeing with them or even viewing them as downright evil, I get to wondering if they’re just being played for suckers.

If Karl Rove and David Axelrod—the guys whose job it is to convince voters in strong terms that the other guy is absolutely wrong and must be stopped—if they can sit and have a laugh together, why can’t the people whose votes they seek?

If Trump toady Sean Hannity can hang out at a baseball game with Keith Olbermann, his arch media rival for a time, or harass Megyn Kelly—also a Fox News commentator—on Twitter and then literally hug it out, why don’t Hannity’s wound-up followers see through the pablum he’s peddling for views?

Sports and politics are similar in that they involve intense gamesmanship, strategy, and a struggle of power and will and performance in a high-pressure environment. Obama even compared politics to football in a chat with Jerry Seinfeld. So why is it NFL players can play the game intensely, trying desperately to defeat their opponent, but still converge on the field after the game for hugs and handshakes and prayer circles? And why can’t voters?

The easy answer is that sports don’t matter, ultimately. They matter to the players, whose livelihoods are affected by their performance. But when a fan turns off the TV after a game, his life is the exact same as it was when the game began. Conversely, politics do matter. People’s lives are affected by legislation and the action or inaction of leaders.

But I don’t think it has to be that simple.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning—i.e. getting legislature through Congress or changing their opponents’ minds—they wouldn’t demonize the people whose votes will be needed in order to achieve that desired victory.

If voters and pundits actually cared about winning, they should read and view things outside of their ideological media echo chamber to better understand why some people have different opinions.

But it seems like people just want to act angry. Settle scores. Humiliate whoever their Other is. And all the while the TV networks, talk radio, the NFL, or whoever has something to gain from outrage, rakes in enough revenue through clicks, ads, and eyeballs to self-justify, rinse, and repeat.

I’m not doubting the sincerity of those with strongly held beliefs, or those who go public with them. In a democracy, that should be encouraged. I only wish to avoid the scorched earth that comes of it, because I, speaking for those of us who aren’t holding the flamethrowers, am not interested in getting burned by someone who doesn’t know how the game is played.


Lest We Forget

Daniel Larison at The American Conservative remembers what we ought never forget:

People that now panic about incipient caudillismo and the dangers of a nationalist demagogue didn’t care when Bush expanded the security state, trampled on the Constitution, or launched an unnecessary war of aggression, and people that yawned at the steady expansion of government and creation of new unfunded liabilities under Bush are now supposedly alarmed by Trump’s lack of fidelity to the cause of limited government. They correctly identify many of Trump’s flaws, but refuse to acknowledge the fact that the party was already killed (or at least severely wounded) years ago during the disastrous Bush era. It was that period of incompetence and ideologically-driven debacles that shattered the GOP, and for the last seven years the vast majority of die-hard Trump foes have refused to recognize that and have chosen to learn nothing from it. They lost to Trump, but the part they can’t accept is that they deserved to lose because of their role in enabling the GOP’s past failures. Now they’re touting their abandonment of the wreckage they helped to create as if they deserve applause for running away from their own handiwork. If it weren’t so serious, it would be quite comical.

This is one of the many things that worries me about Trump’s baffling GOP takeover: that the Republican establishment types, as historically amnestic as the rest of the body politic, will blame Trump for the chaos he’s wrought upon the Party, and not the very establishment who readied this bitter harvest. They’ll write this election off as a freak accident, the result of bad timing or sour national mood or misinformed voters, and mend not one bit of the destruction from the Bush years.

In reality, though, they were toast in 2012, after Obama won re-election. I wondered then if the GOP would react to a decisive defeat with a reformist self-reckoning or with more of the same denial, delusion, and demagoguery.

We now have our answer. Ain’t no way they’re winning my vote this year.

If Clinton and the Democrats manage not to screw up this golden opportunity for victory (which I’m not terribly bullish on, given Clinton’s baggage and Trump’s irrational success), they too will have a reckoning and a choice to make. Bernie Sanders didn’t get this far on a whim, and what he represents to people isn’t going to disappear. In fact, in another Goldman Sachs Clinton administration, it’ll only get stronger. Who will be 2020 or 2024’s Democratic Trump? (Maybe Trump again, given he’s actually a Democrat?)

Politics Writing

The Meal

Back in 2007, the Iraq War was experiencing a “surge” courtesy of the U.S. military and I was a college student sitting at a dining hall table, wondering how I could capture the political debate of the day in metaphor through a short film script. Thus, the following piece of trenchant political satire was born. The three characters in it—George, Harry, and John, creatively representing George W. Bush, Harry Reid, and John McCain—I recast as students at a dining hall table stuck in a debate that seemed quite similar to the one occurring at the same time in Washington. I recently found this in my files and just had to let the world see its genius. Get your popcorn out for:



Three guys are sitting at a table eating lunch. The conversation is pretty heated.

America History Politics Presidents

The President Of My Youth

I remember just a few things from the Clinton ’90s: Kosovo, Elian Gonzalez, and impeachment mostly. But most of the decade flew by under my radar as I concerned myself with more important things like the world champion Green Bay Packers and what colors I wanted for my braces. It was seventh grade when I finally paid attention to something that adults cared about: the 2000 election.

My social studies teacher, like every other at the time, had us involved with the election. We learned who the candidates were, what the Electoral College was, and how many votes you needed to win. My friend Ryan and I made up nicknames for the candidates-“Gush” and “Bore” were the favorites. We even got to “vote” on Election Day in our very own school-wide election. As my classmates voted I acted like a TV journalist gathering exit polls which I reported to my teacher. Then, I went into the booth and voted for George W. Bush.

It has been a little over eight years since that day. Times have changed and so has my vote; it went for Obama this year. Yet as I watch our 43rd president fade away into the background, I have mixed emotions. Sure, the country has gone to a tame version of hell, but my last eight years of life (my entire adolescence) were never without Bush in the White House. And in that time, I’ve gone through a plethora of feelings about the man.

First was apathy. I remember the 2000 election debacle vividly because my name was in the news every night thanks to those old voters in Dade County who couldn’t manage to push a paper dot hard enough. But once it was decided, I didn’t really care. Even after the terrorist attacks and Bush’s subsequent popularity surge, I was too young for him to make an impact on me.

In the meantime, everything bad happened: Katrina, the Iraq debacle, Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib scandal, Alberto Gonzales. Then the 2006 midterm elections went for the Democrats and I started to pay attention. I began to lean left. (Living in the ultraliberal Madison, Wis., certainly helped.) I read the Huffington Post and watched Keith Olbermann a lot, relying too heavily on their liberal outrage to dictate my political beliefs.

Their opinion of Bush was becoming mine too: I became increasingly convinced he was a scheming far right hawk hell-bent on jailing all dissenters and propagating through Fox News, all the while fleecing Middle America and laughing while major cities flooded and foreign countries burned. Arianna Huffington and Keith Olbermann continue to think this and said so throughout the 2008 election. It helped get Obama elected and Bush became a lamer duck in the process.

But ever since the election, my righteous anger has settled. I now think Bush is not evil but flawed, a tad misunderstood and, dare I say it, underappreciated. Sure, his “Bring it on” braggadocio and “Mission Accomplished” banner were mistakes. He dropped the ball post-Katrina and did not speak candidly about Iraq and WMD. His No Child Left Behind Act was misguided and his economic policies exacerbated an already growing problem.

Yet, despite all that, I don’t hate him. There was a time when I would have refused to shake his hand if I met him simply because of our differing political views, but I’ve moved on from that. Perhaps it’s pity, seeing him roundly crucified by the left for his mistakes large and small. Perhaps it’s because of our common Christian faith. Perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to get annoyed with liberals.

If I were to meet not George Bush the president but George Bush the father and family man, I think I would really like him. He’s a laid-back straight shooter who probably holds a conversation at a barbeque much better than he does at a press conference. He obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously and can withstand a brutal bombardment of criticism much better than most.

“George Walker Bush is not a stupid or a bad man,” writes Ron Suskind in Esquire magazine. “But in his conduct as president, he behaved stupidly and badly.”

Because he behaved stupidly and badly, Bush will leave with comically low approval ratings. He has said repeatedly that history will hold his unpopular acts in higher regard than they are today. He’s right, to an extent. Presidents Lincoln and Truman made grave and consequential decisions that ended the Civil War and World War II, respectively. Bush is no Lincoln (far from him) but both men stuck to their guns. Bush has always stuck to his guns, no matter what. Even when things got bad, he “stayed the course.” It was simultaneously honorable and maddening.

History in fact will reveal if he was right to do so, but judgments of Bush cannot be written today with a clear head. The old wounds are still fresh and the animosity still potent.

Now we’ve got a new president to love or loathe. Let us learn from the last eight years to separate the man from the mission. Obama, like Bush, is a good man who will have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences forever. If we can discern the policy from the personal, I think we will all have fairer views of the people who take on the toughest job in the world.

George W. Bush may be crossing the finish line with a limp, but at least he finished the race. You’ve got to give him props for that.