Tuning Out a President

Tuned-out Presidents

Somewhere around early 2006, the nation tuned out George W. Bush for a variety of reasons, some warranted, but many not. Most thought the Katrina aftermath catastrophe was due to state and local officials (do you recall the utterly incompetent loudmouth Mayor [“chocolate city”] Nagan, or the clueless FEMA director Michael [“Brownie”] Brown?), while the president’s culpability was largely political: he flew high over, rather than waded into, the muck on the first day of the recovery.

No matter: either the media or his opponents succeeded in confirming the narrative of an out-of-touch president at best, and at worst one indifferent to the plight of African-American poor in particular. The more the president talked of help and rescue, the more we heard absurdities from a malicious Nagan and inanities from an incompetent Brownie.

The same was true of Iraq by 2007. I felt the surge had a good chance of restoring calm and salvaging Iraq, especially given the skill and determination of David Petraeus and the admirable decision of George W. Bush not to give up. And establishing a consensual government in the heart of the ancient caliphate after removing the genocidal Saddam Hussein was an historic achievement. No matter again -- almost every column I wrote in 2007 suggesting that Iraq was not only not lost, but also in the process of a brilliant recovery, earned lots of venom, many of it from some of the original staunchest supporters of the invasion. The people, I guess, had by then tuned the president out.

Perhaps it was the media barrage. Perhaps it was the relief of the incredible three-week Iraq victory followed by the furor over the carnage of a botched occupation. Perhaps it was the visceral hatred on the Left of a Texan evangelical Christian. Perhaps it was the estrangement of the right-wing base, angered over the deficits, big-ticket entitlements like the prescription drug benefit, or No Child Left Behind. Perhaps it was the strategic blunder of hyping weapons of mass destruction rather than sticking to the 23 congressionally passed writs authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam. Perhaps it was weariness from the 24/7 assault on the Bush-Cheney security protocols, a paradox in which the more such measures succeeded in reducing the chance of another 9/11 attack, the more an increasingly complacent public bought the Barack Obama/Michael Moore line that renditions, Guantanamo, wiretaps, intercepts, Predators, and preventative detention were superfluous anti-constitutional excesses all along and the ensuing post-9/11 calm was more a natural development than the result of the new Bush vigilance.

One could not convince the American people, say in 2007, that deficits were heading downward and a balanced budget was scheduled on the horizon, much less that 5.5% unemployment or 3% GDP growth was not that bad. And when the September 2008 meltdown came, no one wished to examine the policies of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that allowed the utterly unqualified to receive government-guaranteed subprime mortgages. Few cared about the machinations of a Maxine Waters or Barney Frank, or wished to concede that government corruption, hand-in-glove with Wall Street buccaneering, had led to the housing explosion. It all happened on Bush’s watch, the public had concluded, and it was the fiscal bookend to Iraq and Katrina. All the good economic news of the first seven and a half years mattered nothing. Massive help to stop AIDS in Africa was of no consequence. Quiet in Iraq in 2008 was too little, too late. Again, no matter what one wrote to offer context, it mattered nothing. Fairly or not, the public had just tuned the president out -- in the manner it had tuned out Jerry (cf. WIN buttons) Ford in 1976, Jimmy (cf. the waterborne rabbit assault) Carter in late 1980, and George (cf. “read my lips”) H.W. Bush in 1992. Some presidents recover from a tuned out public -- Reagan did after Iran Contra, Clinton did in a way after Monica -- but most don’t, especially if they are conservatives and not adept rhetoricians.


Imagine if Barack Obama said the following: “I promise by the end of my second term that I will close Guantanamo Bay, end renditions and preventative detentions, cut the deficit in half, that my second stimulus program will put the unemployment rate below 6% within three years, that I will create 5 million new green jobs, that my health care plan will lower premiums, that I will ostracize lobbyists, end the revolving door, and earmarks, that I will participate in public financing of the 2012 campaign, and that I won’t raise any tax whatsoever on those earning less than $250,000.”

Would any believe him?

So Barack Obama is likewise being tuned out. “Let me be perfectly clear,” “Make no mistake about it,” “In truth,” “In point of fact,” “I’m not kidding,” and “I’m not making this up” all tip off a weary public that just the opposite is true. We are so confused over Guantanamo, Predators, and renditions -- being told everything from them being unconstitutional to vital -- that we likewise just shrug at the absurdity of an Obama and Harold Koh embracing all the protocols that they once has so vehemently demonized. Were they then, now, or always just simpletons, naïfs, hypocrites, or abject careerists?