We are in one of the longest presidential campaigns in modern memory — and haven’t even started focusing on the general election.
It’s been enough to drive most of us mad, but if there’s one person in particular suffering the most, it may be President Bush.
It’s been noted here before that we have not had an election since 1952 in which an incumbent president or vice president was not running in at least partial defense of an existing administration’s record.
That means Bush is not just a lame duck but an easy target for all three current candidates — none of whom have any investment in the president’s legacy.
Consider that the last president in a similar position was Harry Truman. He left office with an approval rating in the 20s, and it took years before historians revised the standard negative and mostly unfair view of him.
When there is no incumbent in a long race, almost everything of the last four years becomes fair and uncontested game. In 2004, Bush defended his record for months on the stump; now it has become almost second nature for all three candidates to denounce it daily.
John McCain has distanced himself from Bush as much as he can, even as his Democratic opponents dub him John McBush — when they are not outdoing each other in their denunciation of the president.
Last week, I asked a fierce Bush critic what he thought were the current unemployment rate, the mortgage default rate, the latest economic growth figures, interest rates and the status of the stock market.
He blurted out the common campaign pessimism: “Recession! Worst since the Depression!”
Then he scoffed when I suggested that the answer was really a 5 percent joblessness rate in April that was lower than the March figure; 95 to 96 percent of mortgages not entering foreclosure in this year’s first quarter; .6 percent growth during the quarter (weak, but not recession level); historically low interest rates; and sky-high stock market prices.
There are serious problems — high fuel costs, rising food prices, staggering foreign debt, unfunded entitlements, and annual deficits. Yet a president or vice president running for office (and covered incessantly by the media) would at least make the argument that there is a lot of good news, and that the bad that offsets it could be shared by a lot of culpable parties, from the Congress to the way we, the public, have been doing business for the last 20 years.
Bush, like Truman, will have to leave his final assessment for posterity. But for a variety of historic reasons as well as his own self-interest, Bush should at least take his now-unpopular case to the people, with more press conferences, public addresses, stump speeches and one-on-one interviews.
Bush’s own legacy will be affected by who succeeds him. Ronald Reagan received great press after leaving office in part because a Republican followed him for four years — quite the opposite from the senior George Bush who was thrown out of office in 1992 and blamed for assorted sins the next eight years. Likewise, compare the image of Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton when a president from the opposite party followed each into office.
Second, public perceptions, such as ongoing consumer confidence or support for the war, can dramatically affect policy success or failure. Defending past decisions can sometimes improve their outcomes.
Third, it would elevate the arguments of all three candidates if someone could remind them that energy and food problems, foreign-policy crises, and economic woes usually involve bad and worse choices.
The American people are more interested in exactly how they are going to improve things, rather than hearing each hour how our collective problems are simply the fault of one man. Searing “Bush did it” into the public conscious won’t resolve our energy, economic, or foreign-policy challenges.
The truth is that America is providing unprecedented amounts of money to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Tax cuts brought in greater, not less total revenue. International trade agreements created more, not fewer, jobs. Security measures at home, and losses suffered by terrorists abroad, in part explain the absence of a second 9/11.
And drilling in ANWR and off the coasts and building more nuclear power plants, refineries, and clean coal plants — if the Congress would only approve — could provide a short-term mitigation of energy prices until we reach a new generation of clean-burning and renewable fuels.
George Bush could learn from “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.” A disliked Truman never went silent into the night, but defended his record until the very end — and was ultimately rewarded for it.
© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.