By JOE KLEIN
(TIME+CNN) We have “only one President at a time,” Barack Obama said in his debut press conference as President-elect. Normally, that would be a safe assumption – but we’re learning not to assume anything as the charcoal-dreary economic winter approaches. By mid-November, with the financial crisis growing worse by the day, it had become obvious that one President was no longer enough (at least not the President we had). So, in the days before Thanksgiving, Obama began to move – if not to take charge outright, then at least to preview what things will be like when he does take over in January. He became a more public presence, taking questions from the press three days in a row. He named his economic team. He promised an enormous stimulus package that would somehow create 2.5 million new jobs, and began to maneuver the new Congress toward having the bill ready for him to sign – in a dramatic ceremony, no doubt – as soon as he assumes office.
That we have slightly more than one President for the moment is mostly a consequence of the extraordinary economic times. Even if George Washington were the incumbent, the markets would want to know what John Adams was planning to do after his Inauguration. And yet this final humiliation seems particularly appropriate for George W. Bush. At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks.
It is in the nature of mainstream journalism to attempt to be kind to Presidents when they are coming and going but to be fiercely skeptical in between. I’ve been feeling sorry for Bush lately, a feeling partly induced by recent fictional depictions of the President as an amiable lunkhead in Oliver Stone’s W. and in Curtis Sittenfeld’s terrific novel American Wife. There was a photo in the New York Times that seemed to sum up his current circumstance: Bush in Peru, dressed in an alpaca poncho, standing alone just after the photo op at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, with various Asian leaders departing the stage, none of them making eye contact with him. Bush has that forlorn what-the-hell-happened? expression on his face, the one that has marked his presidency at difficult times. You never want to see the President of the United States looking like that.
So I’ve been searching for valedictory encomiums. His position on immigration was admirable and courageous; he was right about the Dubai Ports deal and about free trade in general. He spoke well, in the abstract, about the importance of freedom. He is an impeccable classicist when it comes to baseball. And that just about does it for me. I’d add the bracing moment of Bush with the bullhorn in the ruins of the World Trade Center, but that was neutered in my memory by his ridiculous, preening appearance in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier beneath the “Mission Accomplished” sign. The flight-suit image is one of the two defining moments of the Bush failure. The other is the photo of Bush staring out the window of Air Force One, helplessly viewing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. This is a presidency that has wobbled between those two poles – overweening arrogance and paralytic incompetence.
The latter has held sway these past few months as the economy has crumbled. It is too early to rate the performance of Bush’s economic team, but we have more than enough evidence to say, definitively, that at a moment when there was a vast national need for reassurance, the President himself was a cipher. Yes, he’s a lame duck with an Antarctic approval rating – but can you imagine Bill Clinton going so gently into the night? There are substantive gestures available to a President that do not involve the use of force or photo ops. For example, Bush could have boosted the public spirit – and the auto industry – by announcing that he was scrapping the entire federal automotive fleet, including the presidential limousine, and replacing it with hybrids made in Detroit. He could have jump-started – and he still could – the Obama plan by releasing funds for a green-jobs program to insulate public buildings. He could start funding the transit projects already approved by Congress.
In the end, though, it will not be the creative paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. Bush never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and regulation that was necessary to make markets work. He never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and equity that was necessary to maintain the strong middle class required for both prosperity and democracy. He never considered the complexities of the cultures he was invading. He never understood that faith, unaccompanied by rigorous skepticism, is a recipe for myopia and foolishness. He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one.