We’re on the cusp of witnessing history in the United States. A brief moment in time when the stars have aligned symbolizing unity and hope. Across the world, across party lines, across the races, masses of humanity will celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Then, the hard work will begin, hopes will be crushed, and the magic of Obama will begin its inevitable downward slide.
There is no denying how significant this particular transfer of power will go down in history. One can’t discount the twist of fate that finds the U.S. holiday marking the birthdate of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preceding this historic inauguration by one day. It’s hard not to find some parallels to the ascendency of two sons of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, and Obama, both lawyers and state legislators, both advocates of human rights, and both successors of a top job left in a mess by its predecessor.
George Bush leaves office perceived as a bad President as much as Barack Obama has already been bestowed the honour by many as America’s greatest President, even though he hasn’t yet been sworn in. Along with that there’s been plenty of negative reaction in the media to a press conference George Bush gave last week, headlined all over the place as “Regret’s, I’ve had a few” summary of his Presidency. This of course has been followed with opinion pieces which have positioned the Bush Presidency at the top of the worst in history list — here, here, here, and here.
People should be careful about making bold declarations that the most recent President is history’s worst. Yes, the economy’s in the tank, America’s reputation abroad is a disgrace, the environment has been ignored, civil liberties are under enormous threat, and two unending big wars are a psychological drain. These calamities, all of the making under the Bush era, will most certainly stain his record, as much as the awkward position he was put in from an enormous event that was not of his making, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
So what will come from the successful outcomes of the Bush White House? The fact that he kept the U.S. free of terrorist acts after 9/11? Might the Bush legacy benefit if a terrorist act happens on American soil under Obama’s watch? What about the muted acclaim Bush has received for quietly doing better than any previous President in terms of sending aid to Africa to combat AIDS? What about the other merits to the Bush Presidency that have been drowned out with all the negative, including improved test scores for American students, better race relations, reforms to Medicare, and the removal of Saddam Hussein, the overthrowing of the Taliban, and restraint shown towards an aggressive North Korea, and Iran?
I’ve observed enough Presidencies in my 40 year life to recall the popular sentiment that the outgoing guy is the worst President in history is said of every outgoing President and it’s likely to be pronounced by some when Mr. Obama is finished his term of office. Think back to the past two double term Presidents, Clinton and Reagan, both reviled at the end but quietly rehabilitated with the passage of time and some scholarly reflection on their legacies. History will be the ultimate judge.
The magic of every Presidential honeymoon starts to be chipped away as soon as the oath of office is administered and the new guy starts to make decisions which inevitably divide the public into more distinctive groups, those who support the President and those who don’t. Much is expected of Obama and his failure to live up to expectations may very well herald the beginning of his demise in the days and weeks to come.
As much as I’m uncomfortable with the predictable rantings against Bush from the left as he leaves office, I’m also uneasy about the doubts from the right about Obama living up to expectations as he assumes the Presidency. That will inevitably come later but for the time being we should revell in the history we’re about to witness, all the trappings of ceremony and tradition, a smooth transfer of power, and the passing of a difficult eight years to a new era of hope and reinvigoration.