WHEN BUSH WRAPPED HIMSELF IN HIS OWN FAILURE
It's hard to have a simple response to Peggy Noonan's opening paragraphs this week:
At a certain point, a president must own a presidency. For George W. Bush that point came eight months in, when 9/11 happened. From that point on, the presidency -- all his decisions, all the credit and blame for them -- was his. The American people didn't hold him responsible for what led up to 9/11, but they held him responsible for everything after it. This is part of the reason the image of him standing on the rubble of the twin towers, bullhorn in hand, on Sept.14, 2001, became an iconic one. It said: I'm owning it.
"I'm owning it." Noonan's partly right about that: after running scared on 9/11 and ducking the situation for a couple of days, Bush began on that Friday to act as if having presided over the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil was a mark of virtue. In retrospect, it's as if he was pleased about it -- proud of it. Eight years later, I can't help thinking he really was pleased: now he'd be consequential, rather than the no-account black sheep of his family.
It's true that he wasn't held responsible for what led up to 9/11 -- his administration and its propagandists took great pains to shift the blame to his predecessor -- but it's odd how Noonan puts that. She mentions responsibility for what went before (presumably so her right-wing base can think about how it's all Clinton's fault) and responsibility for what came after (it's OK now, if you're a Republican, to say bad things about Bush), but it's as if she still can't face the fact that what we need to talk about is responsibility for what happened on 9/11. Yes, I'm playing with words a bit -- but it's as if Noonan doesn't want to address the point that something unspeakably horrible happened that day -- and on whose watch? It's as if she can accept the build-up (all the fault of the Democrats) and the aftermath (so much failed Republican promise), but looking at the actual event is unthinkable. Which it wouldn't be if it had happened in a Democrat's administration; then failure to obsess over the awful day would be unthinkable.
Noonan pivots to Obama:
Mr. Bush surely knew from the moment he put the bullhorn down that he would be judged on everything that followed. And he has been. Early on, the American people rallied to his support, but Americans are practical people. They will support a leader when there is trouble, but there's an unspoken demand, or rather bargain: We're behind you, now fix this, it's yours.
President Obama, in office a month longer than Bush was when 9/11 hit, now owns his presidency. Does he know it? He too stands on rubble, figuratively speaking -- a collapsed economy, high and growing unemployment, two wars. Everyone knows what he's standing on. You can almost see the smoke rising around him. He's got a bullhorn in his hand every day.
It's his now. He gets the credit and the blame. How do we know this? The American people are telling him. You can see it in the polls. That's what his falling poll numbers are about. "It's been almost a year, you own this. Fix it."
"It's his now." The first eight months of Bush's presidency weren't his, and that's fine, but rubble from a collapse that began long before Obama became president is his rubble. Bush chose to own his rubble (actually, he chose to milk it for sympathy and to wave it like a bloody shirt that justified unrelated foreign adventurism, and inept adventurism than that). But Obama doesn't have agency. We tell him -- or, rather, Noonan, purporting to speak for us, tells him -- what's his responsibility and what isn't.
If you want to use a 9/11 metaphor for Obama, compare him to the people in charge of rebuilding on Ground Zero. Blame him for failing to get that job under way quickly enough. I blame him for not doing enough by now to rein in the fat cats, and not enough to jolt Main Street's economy until we can feel a pulse. And the public is, yes, blaming him for that, too. But, sorry, Peggy: it's not his rubble -- and the public knows that, even if this self-appointed spokeswoman for the public doesn't realize that.
55% Still Blame Bush for Economic Problems --Rasmussen, October 5, 2009
If even Rasmussen gets numbers like that, it's Bush's rubble, even if it's Obama's job to clean it up.