I stayed up till 2am last night to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama live on television. Two million cheering fans, as far as the eye could see, packed the Capitol Hill and the Washington Mall and turned a quadrennial domestic affair into a global celebration. Reporters and commentators talked ad nauseam about the historic significance of the first African-American president and the unprecedented challenges he now faces. But this transformative moment in history required neither narration nor embellishment. The sense of hope and renewal in the air, palpable and indescribable at once, moved us far beyond words. As one administration ends and the other begins, I can finally finish my obituary on George W. Bush’s accidental presidency.
Bush is not a terrible person per se. In fact, W (as he is often affectionately referred to by the press) is folksy, unpretentious and an all-around nice guy. In the 2000 presidential election, the Republican marketing machine sold the boyish Texan to the American public as the kind of Joe Six-Pack you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on a plane, in contrast with the stiff, professorial and sometimes awkward Al Gore. And weeks of cliff-hanging vote recounts and millions of hanging chads later, the average Joe stumbled into the Oval Office and began running the country like a dude. The football-watching, beer-drinking, pretzel-choking Ugly American overnight became the de facto leader of the free world.
W never belonged in Washington. True to form, our average Joe mangled his speeches, fumbled in front of world dignitaries and froze when a national crisis broke. Under the same kind of constant media scrutiny and daily bombardment of partisan politics, you and I probably wouldn’t have performed much better. But that’s why we are not not President and that’s why we leave it to people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately for W, however, national crises kept landing on his desk. Naturally, our average Joe turned to his ex-President father and Washington-savvy Dick Cheney for guidance. Unfortunately for W again, Bush Senior never got over his 1992 loss to slick Billy and Cheney turned out to be an evil power usurper. Lacking the experience and the intellectual capacity to understand, let alone resolve, complex issues, the President succumbed to the artful persuasion of unscrupulous advisers and special interest lobbyists around him and that made him as dangerous as a bus driver inside the cockpit of a passenger airplane.
W’s first term was a patchwork of monumental blunders and embarrassing malapropisms. The world might have forgiven America for its collective lapse of judgment in 2000, but handing the lone-ranger a second term was a crime as unforgivable as it was unbelievable. You know what they say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" Better late than never, however, Americans came to their senses last November and told the Republican Party that enough is enough. And so America snapped out of its stupor, but only to find itself deep in a gargantuan mess.
Domestically, America has regressed on every front: social security, healthcare, schools, infrastructure and energy independence. The country's social insurance program is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Millions remain uninsured and find themselves one accident away from losing their life savings to hospital bills. Grades are falling across the nation and inner-city schools are as lawless as Chicago in the 1930s. Bridges and highways are falling apart, sometimes literally as we have watched in horror on the evening news. From coast to coast, citizens scramble to adjust their daily routine to gasoline prices that soared and plunged at the whims of OPEC and commodity speculators. None of that seems to fit the description of the world's most powerful nation.
Internationally, America’s reputation has hit rock bottom. The once military superpower and economic engine of the world has become a wounded behemoth, universally hated and diabolically despised. Asleep at the switch, the Bush administration let the deadly sub-prime virus fester in his country and spread around the world, leaving Iceland dead and the rest of Europe seriously wounded. Then there are the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a double-trouble that turned America from a tolerable Big Brother to a schoolyard bully. In the past eight years, the star-spangled banner has never been burned more frequently or desecrated more spitefully than any other time in its history. It would make Betsy Ross roll over in her grave.
Struggling to salvage his tattered legacy, W defended himself in his farewell speech last week. “You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions," he said, sounding like a fifth-grader who flunked his Math test but wanted credit for having attempted all the questions. Unlike his predecessors, this two-term president is not getting any million-dollar book deal, keynote speaker invitation or Fortune 500 board seat. No one is offering and he probably doesn’t want them anyway. Our average Joe seems relieved to be finally out of the White House and content with spending a quiet retirement at his Texas ranch, riding horses and brushing up on third grade phonics.
America’s love affair with the average Joe is over, and it has been a costly lesson for the country. But if luck is on America’s side, President Barack Obama will spend his first term undoing all the damages Bush did and focus his second term making the country stronger and more respected than ever. Perhaps that was the one only good thing that W has done for America: he has created such a hunger for a proper leader that it opened the door for an African-American president to heal a deeply divided country. And if the liberals’ prayers are answered, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be elected the first woman president in 2016 and continue Obama’s work to nurse America back to health. But I should not get carried away. I should count my blessings.
And so I will. On 20 January, the Obamas moved into the White House and America is once again open for business. At the precise moment of 12:05 pm Eastern Standard Time when Barack Obama took his oath as the 44th President of the United States and renewed the American Dream, I finally exhaled. Citizens in places like Hong Kong and Singapore where democracy exists in form but not in substance should take note of the Obama phenomenon and realize what it feels like to be able to elect their own leader. Until then they have to keep holding their breath.