Wanting George W. Bush to Succeed

Watching presidents go into free fall near the end of their tenure makes me quite nervous. Not so much for their sake, but for our own.

Several presidents ago, while still early in my years as a Treasury public servant, I underwent such a change in bosses at the top. We were called on once again to write memos as a primer to one in a long string of novices—as Treasury secretaries almost always are—on the department’s role, the issues that would confront him, and possible options for legislative action.

My first instinct was to ask myself why I should care. Then it quickly struck me that the person in the office was not the issue at hand. I had the privilege of working for the American people. That was my commitment. Whether he had earned my respect or not, he deserved my support. I wanted the Treasury secretary to succeed.

So it must be with any president. All of us should want our leader to succeed. I have watched us time and again put presidents on a pedestal, crown them, and—within a few years—tear them apart and drag them down. The news media goads us by thriving on controversy to attract viewers and readers. This is not, however, a recipe for good governance.

It doesn’t matter whether a president is popular or brings glory to his office. It doesn’t matter whether he has failed in the past. Wanting a president to succeed does not mean voting for him, nor does it mean abdicating any belief that others might do a better job.

There’s a danger in wishing for a president’s failure. Forget partisanship for a moment or who might be the next officeholder. Our political parties’ inability to work together now toward common goals only makes it harder for them to work together later—almost no matter how the next election and the one after that turn out.

Problems left to fester intensify. Systems about to blow up—whether they be related to tax, health, pensions, retirement, homeland security, or anything else—are seldom made better by explosions. Think of problems exposed in New Orleans before Katrina—the inadequacy of the levees and lack of insurance for buildings in high-risk disaster-prone areas. Should Democrats be happy that these failures happened on a Republican president’s watch? Or Republicans rejoice if a Democratic mayor is blamed? Such self-serving doesn’t serve the common good.

Blaming or delighting in leaders’ failure isn’t just a policy game. Real people stand to get hurt. Even minor policies inadequately designed, implemented, or enforced can harm thousands of people and cost billions of dollars. And victims of policy failures should not be callously written off as nothing more than collateral damage in a bigger political fight.

Nor does it make good sense to give Icarus’s temporary wings to broken or unsustainable policies—along the way misleading those who plan their lives around such policies. Think about Americans retiring today in their early 60s, often preparing inadequately for the last years of their lives when they may well be in their 90s, and yet relying on unknown Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid long-term care benefits since these programs must be reformed. Or ponder the plight of the many health care workers who will be bounced around once an unsustainable health policy structure is taken off artificial life support. Or consider the thousands of people already losing their homes because some egregious forms of lending in the subprime mortgage market escaped the oversight required for traditional lenders.

The point is simple. We should want our president, and all our elected officials, to succeed. History counsels that we’re not going to get good government simply by waiting to appoint another person Queen (or King) for a Day.

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