The first election I remember paying attention to with any detail was the 2000 presidential elections. I didn't really get a lot of the very serious inner workings of the campaigns - why wanting to have a beer with someone made them a capable leader, why intelligence was a non-factor, or, later, why people didn't want to count every vote in Florida - but my introduction to politics was with George W. Bush, and, up to this day my perspective of American politics has been dominated by that one man.
I'm sure that there are millions of people slightly older and younger than I am with the same perspective - Bush is all we've really known. It's a sad thing, really, since he's normalized things that, before him, were considered unspeakable, like torture. It's a strange way to look at this country, that it considers someone like Bush to be its best leader. It can make someone a little cynical.
Now, just this past week, I was talking about politics with someone who has never really paid attention to the subject. She said that Obama won't change much, no president ever changes much, and that everyday life isn't really affected by whoever is in that office. That kind of attitude, which I remember in abundance in 2000, seems completely ignorant right now.
No single president changes much? Just ask people in Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans, Detroit, Wall Street, Guantanamo Bay, or the military - their lives have been dramatically changed because of the 2000 election/Supreme Court decision results.
I think, for an understanding of American culture, it's important to remember that Bush didn't win the 2000 election, but was instead appointed by the Supreme Court which overran the will of the people in Bush v. Gore. While the right likes to bandy about words like "judicial activism," never in recent history has there been such a disregard for the law in favor of raw politics on that court like there was after the Florida fiasco.
While I do remember people in my modest home town/Republican stronghold begging everyone else to just get over it and admit that Bush was president, I don't think that a lot of people really got over it. I remember even a politically aware friend at the time, who was about as far left as they come in Carmel, Indiana, was even asking for Gore to just give up and respectfully concede to Bush. There was an epidemic in the US of nonchalance as the media told us to get over it as, well, we did.
While Bush is saying that only history can judge him, it's pretty clear that his legacy will be dominated by:
- Crashing the economy with Randian economics
- Starting a war against a country that posed no threat to the US
- Legitimizing the idea of a preemptive war
- Making torture seem like a necessary, mature response to any threat against the US
- Expanding the powers of the executive to completely ignore the rule of law
- Strengthening the idea that powerful people are simply better than everyone else, so they can do what they want
- Making protest and democracy moot
- Politicizing any part of the government he could get his hands on to the point where much of it was dysfunctional
- Allowing the biggest foreign attack against American civilians to happen
- Furthering the conservative backlash against respect for other cultures and peoples
Now there's a large segment of American politics who thinks that this is exactly how things are supposed to work. There's another large segment who'll be calling Barack Obama out for participating in any of these actions, after letting Bush get away with them, even encouraging him, for eight long years.
Obama has delivered a few mixed, and often weak, messages about turning some of these around. While he's made it clear that he won't continue torture, he's not likely to prosecute those who did it. While he said he'd eventually close down Guantanamo Bay, he's looking for a new legal framework for prosecution, which will only delay the termination of that camp, perhaps indefinitely. He wants to pass a large stimulus plan, but a surprisingly large amount of it is devoted to tax cuts.
This isn't to say that Obama is horrible. Far from it. We'll soon find out exactly what he can and will do on each of these issues.
But it does point to the depth of the Bush legacy by showing how, in many ways, Obama isn't starting from the center and moving left, but instead has to pull the political establishment and the country back from the extreme-right. It will hamstring him. Our scholars, pundits, politicians, and compatriots now believe that the most bizarre, idiotic, or immoral acts are normal. As hated as Bush was towards the end of his second term, he was still powerful enough to handicap the left for a good while.
If Obama is concerned with building a lasting American agenda centered around what is good instead of what is right-wing, as he says he is, he's going to have to find a way to overcome these forces, prosecute the prosecutable wrongs of the Bush years, and build a new consensus around what is considered normal, serious, and mature.
Because, if he doesn't, I can easily see a Bush III being elected in eight or twelve years, and we'll be right back to where we are today. If the people don't know why everything messed up over these past 8 years, and if future politicians don't know that punishment will be in the works if they break the law, then Bush's legacy will be more bigger than Obama's.
And that's not the way this is all supposed to work.