I remember a conversation I had with a Washington sage in December of 2000, shortly after the Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida, awarding the presidency to George W. Bush. "The country will be fine. It will be like the 1840s and 1850s," my friend said. "No one remembers the presidents from those decades but we all remember Clay, Calhoun and Webster. Congress will be the center of government." In the event, 9/11 changed all that. George W. Bush used signing statements, invocations of his authority as commander-in-chief, bizarre theories of executive power, and his personal and political prowess with the GOP leadership in the Congress to become the most powerful president in history.

But, where was he this week? He appeared in the Rose Garden last Friday with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He issued a statement on Monday. But, mostly, he has left the talking to Paulson and others.

Bush, you may recall, cited his MBA (the first presidential candidate to have one) as one of his principle credentials when he ran for president in 2000. And, he had "run" a business, if by "running" you mean getting a sweetheart political deal to manage a baseball team in one of the fastest growing markets in the country. Why did this economically savvy president not take to the airwaves to calm the nation, explain the economic crisis, and outline the government’s plan for action? Instead, we were made to feel that the W. in his name stood for Waldo, as in "Where’s Waldo?"

I will admit that the issues involved in the Wall Street meltdown are complicated. But, not that complicated. I never took an economics class in my life, but just from reading the papers it is clear that Wall Street engaged in risky behavior – the kind of behavior that Republicans were championing just two weeks ago – and had built a ponzi scheme of so-called "financial instruments" upon the home mortgage market. Greed doing what greed does, namely infecting everything it touches and expanding its reach wherever it can, went from being the engine of honest capitalism to the much-denounced cause of the crisis. How can the heart of the economic system be the cause of the problem?

Less clear is what should be done about it. Why not let investors hang out to dry? What would happen on Main Street if the stock market crashed? Many Americans have their 401k plans in stocks and would hate to see those depleted, but is it that much better to see their taxes go up paying for a bailout that would benefit the barons of Wall Street who created this mess as much or more than it would protect the average investor’s 401k?

Yesterday, Vice-President Dick Cheney went to Capitol Hill to drum up support for the administration’s bailout plan. His meeting with Republican congressional leaders did not go well. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a staunch Republican, gave voice to a widely held sentiment when he said that "Americans can no longer trust the economic information they are getting from this administration." Another GOP lawmaker said that Cheney was the wrong guy to send to Capitol Hill: "The problem is that they’ve used up a lot of goodwill." Nothing happens in a vacuum: The bullying of Congress for much of the past eight years has come back to haunt the White House exactly when it needs support.

Sic transit gloria mundi. These words were chanted by a Franciscan friar in front of a newly elected Pope just before his coronation as the friar burned flax, a plant that is quickly and thoroughly consumed by fire. The hubris of George W. Bush for the past eight years has resulted in his inability to show his face when the country needs its president. Like all who hold that high office, Mr. Bush must worry about his place in history. The thought should be haunting him at night as the nations focuses on the Senate in search of leadership.

Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 9/24/2008 - 4:24pm
In addition, are your partisan eyes so blinded that you can't recognize the failure to lead from both parties in this mess? Fine, President Bush has been a terrible executive and the Republicans in Congress are playing follow the leader. But did your confidence improve when you heard the Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid last week commenting on the unlikelihood of senate-sponsored legislation on the financial collapse:``no one knows what to do..." Perhaps he might join you in taking that economics class. You may learn there that some of the bank deregulations that are partly to blame in this financial collapse were championed by the Clinton administration. You may also learn that in the wake of the 2003 accounting scandal at Fannie Mae (under the watch of that loyal Democrat, Franklin Raines), Alan Greenspan warned the country of the risky loan portfolios at Fannie and Freddie and asked for independent oversight. President Bush agreed, as did a handful of congressional Republicans. The loudest opponents of that call for regulation: Democrats (including Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and Charles Schumer). As long as Wall Street fills their coiffers too, Democrats are just as willing to look the other way as Republicans. Need more proof on the bipartisan culpability? Here's an offering from slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/id/2200160. The amount of greed and corruption that infects both parties is unbelievable and unless voters demand better from all their leaders (a word which is quickly becoming an oxymoron when applied to government), the status quo will not change. But how will that happen if we can't move beyond our party loyalties?
Anonymous | 9/24/2008 - 1:52pm
I have written about this very issue in my blog over the last few days. The lack of firm, dynamic leadership from the White House and Congress in this trying time is truly amazing. Franklin Roosevelt would have been on the radio with a Fireside Chat, calmly explaining what the problem was, why it was important to Americans, what he proposed to do, and what citizens should prepare for. Mr Bush has done nothing but hector the Congress to act quickly. He has said nothing of substance to the people who elected him to be their leader. Nor, of course, has anyone in Congress who helped create this mess said anything more useful than to heap blame on the other party. I am utterly disgusted with the entire national "leadership" - and I put the word in quotes for the very best of reasons.
Anonymous | 9/24/2008 - 4:09pm
"Why not let investors hang out to dry? What would happen on Main Street if the stock market crashed? Many Americans have their 401k plans in stocks and would hate to see those depleted.." I'm not sure this bailout will do anything to prevent a stock market crash. There are issues beyond the credit crisis which are poised to torpedo the market. In addition, the raw power it gives to the government is frightening. But please don't minimize the effect this may have on the average person on Main Street. It's a little more than "many Americans...would hate to see those depleted". A significant number of Americans, including middle class Americans, have their retirement savings entirely focused on stocks, and a crash would be catastrophic to their financial well-being. So let's think for a minute before we fantasize about letting the "investors hang out to dry." Many of these investors live on the Main Street you so often seek to defend.
Anonymous | 9/25/2008 - 12:38pm
I think Mr. Winters only point the finger at some of those responsible. While it's true that some on Wall Street engaged in risky behavior, let's not forget that many more home buyers are culpable because of their risky behavior. Ultimately we have to hold the home buyer responsible for taking on a mortgage they clearly could not afford. Mr. Winters should also go back and actually take an economics class if he thinks only people's 401Ks would be decimated. While I have no liking for the fat-cats on Wall Street who got rich through irresponsible actions, understand that if Wall Street goes down so do a lot of innocent people’s lives. Credit will dry up, business will fail, and jobs will be lost. It seems that Mr. Winters is objecting to a bail out plan (that he clearly doesn't understand) based solely on his dislike for President Bush.