If you look at the TV ads the president just unveiled today, you quickly see a main — probably the main — theme of his reelection campaign: it’s not my fault.
Yes, there are all sort of bad things going on. The economy’s been rough. The deficit is deepening. Job growth is barely registering. There’s all sorts of chaos on the international stage. But it’s not my fault. When I got here there was a recession already, which I didn’t have anything to do with. That was Clinton’s fault. And the same with all the corporate scandals. And then Osama bin Laden got involved and that wasn’t my fault either. And that Iraq thing didn’t completely work out. But that’s the CIA’s fault. So if there’s anything that’s bad now it’s not because of anything I did. It’s because of 9/11. And if it’s not because of 9/11 then it was already broken when I got here. So don’t blame me.
Now, I think that does pretty much sum up what the president and the White House are telling the public. But it’s important to draw back and recognize that up until this point that argument has largely worked. Now, however, I think people are beginning to question the argument.
By most objective measures, economic and international indicators of national well-being have been fair to bad for most of George Bush’s term of office. But for much of that time we were in either the immediate aftermath of 9/11, building up to war, or in the aftermath of war.
If you were to plop down in late 1943, for instance, you could point to all sorts of negative signs — rising deficits, crises abroad, etc. But Franklin Roosevelt would have said, quite plausibly, that we’d been attacked at Pearl Harbor, we were fighting a two front war across two oceans, and that things might well get worse before they got better.
Now, I don’t think that’s a remotely reasonably analogy. But it is the argument the Bush White House has been making for some two years. And it’s had a lot of success with it. Everything that’s bad has been framed as fall-out from 9/11 or our response to 9/11.
What we’re seeing now is that these two things — 9/11 and the current state of the country — are coming unhinged in the public mind. If they stay unhinged, President Bush looks less like a ‘war president’ than a president who just won’t take responsibility for anything that happens on his watch.
Thus the new ads, the message of which might fairly be summed up as “It’s midnight in America. But if the Democrats were in, the sun might never come up!”