Monday, May 02, 2005


The Little Bush Who Cried "Crisis"

George W. Bush, who prides himself on his in-bed-by-nine ethic, reminded Americans on Thursday about what it means to do hard work. Irony aside, he chided Congress:

We're asking people to do things that haven't been done for 20 years....So I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work.

For better or worse, this "hard work" stuff has been going on for quite some time, and is part and parcel of how Americans talk about politics. Many presidents recognized that it pays off. Perhaps the greatest "hard work" speech in American history was Teddy Roosevelt's Strenuous Life. TR aimed his six gun at wealthy "hucksters" and reminded Americans that

When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women who are themselves strong and brave and high-minded.

While we're on the subject of "brinks of doom," hard work rhetoric reached a memorable peak during the last year's first presidential debate (fun video here) when Bush used the expression eleven times, almost as though he were trying to convince John Kerry that the job would be too tough for a liberal windsurfer.

But Bush himself is falling into a trap of his own making. Hard work, when the work is the wrong work, doesn't pay off. Americans may appreciate a man who ploughs the field and chops the wood, even if it is done in a new and freshly ironed LL Bean jacket, but doing needless work? That just seems like a waste of time.

His sixty-day trainless whistle stop tour made this clear. Bush has been out there, on prairie and in desert, sounding the "crisis" alert to convince Americans that his privatization plan is necessary. And then, on Thursday, he claimed that the American people "understand that Social Security is headed for serious financial trouble and they expect their leaders in Washington to address the problem," despite the fact that polls increasingly indicate otherwise. Apparently, Bush's whistle stop "Americans" are the same ones who were allowed into his "Town Hall Meetings" in 2004: pro-Bush t-shirt and bumper sticker required for entry. Zealots, in other words, already on the bandwagon.

Anyway, for Bush to convince more than his supporters that his plan is necessary, he's going to have to sell the crisis. If he can't, a majority will continue to view this whole thing as one big choice, with Bush and his billion dollar gift to Wall Street on one side, and Americans concerned about their retirement on the other. Moreover, it's not just a choice, but a choice that has ramifications for funny distant dates like 2041. You've gotta make a damn good case to get Americans to change a system that they love if you're talking about 2041.

Despite his triumphant re-election, a majority of Americans - even those legions with the "support the troops" stickers on their cars - believe that Iraq was a mistake. This is because Bush convinced many of them that there was a crisis, and that invading Iraq was necessary. And he let them down. He continues to let them down.

The ability to establish a crisis moment is one way to gauge a leader's strength, and through this lens Bush looks markedly weak. He is "working hard" to frame this moment as one in which a fear of getting their hands dirty is keeping Congress - and, really, a majority of Americans - from stepping up to the plate. But all of the hard work in the world is irrelevant as long as most Americans think there is no plate to be stepped up to.

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