Editorial | January 28, 2009
George W. Bush’s presidency has generated unprecedented amounts of controversy and news coverage. However, this fact is not solely a reflection on his policies or his leadership style, but rather a sign of the times we now live in. News stories are now created and flung around the globe at breakneck speeds. Consider that today, over 80% of Americans live in a household with internet access, a huge increase from 1998, when only 26% of citizens did. The first commercial text message was sent in 1992; now, the total number of text messages sent exceeds the global population on a daily basis. CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and approximately 30 other news stations run 24-7, always ready to pounce on the smallest shred of information and transform a slip of the tongue or a juicy conspiracy theory into the story of the day. For a president who spoke his mind and believed in the “ends justifies the means” mantra, these technological advances spelled disaster.
More than ever, public opinion of complex issues has not been affected by laundry lists of facts or well-crafted arguments but instead by slick presentations. President Obama understands that it is not his stance on issues but how he presents his beliefs that ultimately affects how the public views him. Many of Obama’s policy positions, including his views on gay marriage, offshore drilling (summer 2008 version), and ethanol subsidies fly in the face of his most ardent supporters. Yet somehow, Obama has convinced individuals to focus only on the issues that reinforce their support for him. His tightly controlled image, due to his ability to avoid major speaking slipups and his command of the media, have bought him reprieve from his most glaring weaknesses.
As president, Bush struggled to develop this relationship with the public. While reflecting on the environment after September 11 during his last press conference, Bush talked about the accusations that flew around Washington: “How could you not see this coming?” Quickly the situation was reversed though; after the PATRIOT Act Bush said people criticized his administration for “connecting the dots.” The mainstream media and ultra-liberals soon had convinced the country that the government had been transformed into the ultimate spy machine. Even though a 2006 Zogby poll showed that a majority of Americans supported video surveillance of public places and random searches of purses, briefcases, and backpacks anywhere, Bush was vilified for his domestic security measures. As a politician who came of age before the internet era, he was unable to adapt to a world where there is virtually no buffer between the government and media members ready to dissect every tidbit of information. This development certainly has positive implications but it also causes citizens to be incredibly short sighted and lose focus on the big picture. And since Bush was a big picture president in every way, often dismissing the “small stuff,” he was granted little leeway whenever his big ideas did not succeed right away.
Perhaps Bush’s biggest problem was that he came to office 10 years too late. In an era where issue polls include questions about a president’s handling of gas prices, highlighting misconceptions of presidential power, Bush’s forthright and blunt approach to politics left him unable to cross the innumerable party barriers, barriers exacerbated by the media in their drive to categorize and simplify every issue to the lowest common denominator, in Washington.