About Those Problems, George....
It was not quite four years ago that George Bush said, in his 2003 State of the Union address:
This country has many challenges. We will not deny, we will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations. We will confront them with focus and clarity and courage.
And yet, Bush is going to do exactly that. And the problems are whoppers. What is Bush going to pass on to future Presidents and future generations?
If his consistent intentions to "stay the course" in Iraq are carried out in these next two years, he will leave a military, fiscal and diplomatic problem of gargantuan proportions. The military--and particularly, the National Guard--will be more demoralized than at any time in modern history. The debt associated with war and increased military spending will further erode the discretionary side of the budget through increased interest payments on that debt, and the next president will be left with only unpleasant choices related to stabilizing Iraq: a draft to put more boots on the ground, a withdrawal which would have adverse political consequences here and in Iraq--especially if the civil war there increased in intensity (which it certainly would, for a while), or maintaining Bush's current policy of not nearly enough military force to bring stability to a country which already greatly resents the troops that are there now. For practical purposes, Bush has put the next President in a box with regard to Iraq. Even if withdrawal is generally supported by the public, the next President will have to endure the media/GOP/right-wing harpies screaming that leaving Iraq to organize its own government was a capitulation to the terrorists.
The next several Presidents will also have to contend with a world grown suspicious of U.S. intentions and unhappy with U.S. foreign policy. In October, 2003, Bush still believed that his "flight suit" moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln was the actual end of the war in Iraq and that the mission had been accomplished. In fact, most of the Middle East is in even greater turmoil three years on, and with Kindasleazza Rice and John Bolton in charge of putting out the brush fires with gasoline, the next two years promise very little in the pacification department. Future presidents will have to contend with the problem of keeping troops throughout the region and suffering continuing losses and political instability because of their presence or drying up Rumsfeld's "lily pads" and watching fragile governments fall to fundamentalists (though those fundamentalists, particularly the Taliban, know about as much about governing as the Bushies do and are certain to eventually be overthrown), knowing that the bad press will accumulate to them no matter what they do.
There's also the matter of being seen as ineffectual, which might induce future presidents to go on relying upon precisely those same tools as Bush--that very large hammer, the military--which got us into the current messes in the first place, thus burying us even more deeply in the hole which Bush has been busily digging for himself.
Katrina: despite huge sums of money spent, little has been done to effectively improve the lives of the victims. So, the next president will have few resources to correct a problem which the Bushies have been too slow and too indifferent to solve equitably. Five years after the hurricane, the plan will still be to turn the city into a gold-plated gated community with a few people of color tending the lawns.
No Child Left Behind: quite apart from lingering Foley jokes, there's little good that will come from reducing education to simple metrics, just as Rumsfeld has done for defense. About half a generation will graduate from high school knowing the basics of reading and arithmetic and won't do either, because they're not interested in anything and weren't taught to think for themselves. NCLB is the New Math of the 21st century, so one segment of society will travel through their lives missing an elemental aspect of life. Many others will be shunted out of the system or be encouraged to drop out to preserve a school system's test averages, thus creating an underclass which will work for substandard wages Bush's economy will create.
Debt: at the current rate, by the time Bush leaves office, total debt will be nearly double what it was when he was inaugurated. Interest payments on the debt are now over $350 billion each year--a considerable chunk of the discretionary budget, and by 2009, will be close to $450 billion--roughly double the amount necessary to run the entire government exclusive of the DoD and the intelligence services. The next several presidents will probably have to raise taxes (and not just on the wealthy), trim services beyond their already low levels and reduce defense spending, all of which are political poison. The only obvious way to correct the problem is to undo what created it--reducing defense spending to approximately double peacetime levels (spending now is about five times peacetime levels) and raising taxes on the wealthy to a much greater degree (pre-Reagan levels) to offset the money transferred in the past six years to the rich and to large corporations through changes in the tax structure and war. And any president recognizing the obvious and doing this is handing his political opponents the grenade they will throw at him.
Energy: at a time when there are intertwining energy and climate problems, Bush handed significant amounts of tax money to mature, profitable hydrocarbon-based industries and essentially told them, "go ahead doing what you've been doing." The rest of the world already sees the U.S. as the CO2 pig, and continued high consumption of hydrocarbons will exacerbate existing problems, both domestically and internationally. Reversing this policy in the midst of also having to contend with the problems created by debt will force upon future presidents conservation policies which will be highly unpopular with the public (remember Jimmy Carter's "wear a sweater" routine?).
Quality of life: Bush's attempt to institutionalize fear of terrorism will persist, and interference in freedom of travel, particularly, will continue. There will be more delays, more random searches, more legislation reducing fundamental rights to technicalities. Congress will not repeal the more draconian of legislation passed during the Bush years, but will continue to tinker with it to ameliorate the complaints of civil libertarians. The most tyrannical aspects of the legislation will likely continue unabated. Any president seeking to completely undo the framework of authoritarian law created during the Bush years will be attacked as "soft on terrorism," or, more cynically, as a "terrorist sympathizer." Any attempts to bring order to and end the gross cronyism of Homeland Security will be met with the same sort of attacks reserved in the past for anyone suggesting cuts in defense spending.
Environment: the next president may find the repairing of the EPA an onerous, but doable, task. It's one of the few areas where the general public doesn't respond positively to the prevailing market-first politics. Nevertheless, those agencies which have been effectively neutered by political appointments (EPA, Interior, BLM, National Park Service) will not suddenly spring back to life. There have been losses of career personnel which will take time to rebuild.
Faith-based Initiative: once forbidden fruit has been tasted, it's hard to deny the appetite. Bush opened the gates for evangelicals to easy cash from the government, and as David Kuo has recently said in a new book, the process was fraught with Tammany Hall-style favoritism. Any future president determined to shut off that tap--for the good of both religion and taxpayer--will be subject to charges of religious persecution. Bush's Office of Faith-based Initiatives was meant to be both a wedge into church/state separation and a poltical patronage system, and as Chicagoans well know, getting rid of political patronage is a Herculean task. Throw into that mix a few megachurch pastors suddenly cut off from easy government money and it could easily turn ugly.
The intelligence swamp: with the additional layer of bureaucracy established by the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence situation will continue to deteriorate, and the general trend toward privatization of intelligence will accelerate. Any president trying to stem the tide of money directed toward private companies will be accused of harming national security. The morale problems at, particularly, the CIA won't go away just because Bush is gone. There is a fundamental split between the analytical and operations sides growing out of the institutionalization of torture and kidnapping and the politicization of the agencies from the top down. Bush has also given the paramilitary sides of the intelligence services--particularly in the Pentagon--free rein, and this will probably continue without the next president's knowledge until an international incident blows up in his face. When not even our own embassies know when such paramilitary intelligence groups are operating in their sectors of interest, the situation is rife with potential for disaster. The situation may be analogous in some ways to Kennedy inheriting the Bay of Pigs debacle, or Clinton inheriting troops in Somalia. There are likely plenty of trip wires waiting for any future occupant of the Oval Office.
Iran: it's speculative to talk about Iran at the moment, since there's been no overt military action against that country as yet. But, all the signs point to an attack on Iran as an inevitability. The consequences will largely shape the foreign policy of any future president in adverse ways, since Iran will likely not sit still and will react in ways not easily predicted. Oil shortages could produce price manipulations a new president would be unable to deter and present economic problems similar to those encountered by Ford and Carter in the `70s, and renewed terrorist attacks on American interests, domestically and in the rest of the world, seem an almost foregone conclusion. The expectation of the Bushies that the Iranians will thank the U.S. for attacking them and will overthrow the ayatollahs and install a government sympathetic to the laissez-faire free-market policies embraced by U.S. multinationals is just as insane as that same expectation was with regard to Iraq. An attack on Iran will also further inflame the Muslim community around the world, and lend further credence to the currently-held view that Bush is waging a holy war against Muslims.
Social Security: unbeknownst to most of the U.S. public--thanks to a press as uncurious as the current president--some elements of privatization were slipped into the 2007 fiscal year general appropriations budget and their effects will be a time bomb on the system. Moreover, Bush will continue to push for radical privatization of the system in his last two years. In the meantime, the real, but repairable, problems of Social Security will be ignored by the administration, leaving--as with climate change problems--a bigger mess for future presidents.
Medicare: most seniors have reached the the doughnut hole of Medicare Plan D, and will be pretty much on their own until the end of the year. Expect complaints to surface and the number of marginal fixed-income seniors dropping below the poverty line to increase. With drug prices increasing well above the rate of inflation, 2007 and 2008 may end up creating a huge backlash against the drug plan just as a new president arrives. Taking care of that problem with a Congress of uncertain composition is yet another problem waiting. The solution is actually very simple--enable the government to negotiate prices with suppliers and refuse to extend expiring drug patents--but the political costs of such actions would be high, mostly because Congressional campaigns are funded to a considerable degree by the pharmaceutical companies and the financials sector.
The economy: even as Bush extols the performance of the economy, it is slipping inexorably backwards toward recession. The effects of the housing bubble are starting to be felt--most painfully in the places where housing prices are most inflated--and the smart money has already left that market and returned to equities. There's no identifiable set of characteristics that would point to a sudden strengthening in the markets, so it suggests that either the housing market money has moved to create a new stock bubble, or money is being parked there until the next speculative opportunity comes along. For most of the people in the country, the economy has been drifting. Real unemployment is much higher than the advertised statistics (the Bushies have modified the way they count unemployment three times in six years) due to people dropping off the unemployment rolls when their unemployment benefits disappear, underemployment is almost pandemic and real wages are declining in the bottom three quintiles. All of the automakers are in some manner of serious trouble, and the net effect of that trouble will be more long-term unemployment and a decline in economic activity, which then will have repercussions in the federal budget as the government is required to prop up more and more traditional pension plans. Bush has been loathe to rein in hedge funds and the prospects for unregulated mischief there, with potential rippling effects in the capital markets.
There's an old adage in systems planning that big problems always have their origins in small problems that were easily correctable when they were small, but become almost insurmountably difficult in size and effect if ignored. Bush has done that, and created some truly large problems right from scratch. One has to wonder what he was thinking, if he was thinking at all, in January, 2003. The next president is going to be handed a blivet with a pretty bow tied around it, but, no matter how one tries to evade the obvious, it's still an overflowing bag of shit. One also has to wonder who in his right mind would want the presidency under such circumstances. There are no shortage of suitors for that position, and, perhaps, one should question the sanity of each and every one of them.
No doubt, there are St. Georges among them, but they should realize that when they enter the mouth of the cave, there's not a single dragon waiting for them, but, rather, a passel of them, bred with care and fed well by the Bushies, just waiting to roast the ass of the unsuspecting and the overly confident.
Would have been a whole lot better if George had done what he's done best in life--nothing. Marking time would have been easier to fix. The arch-conservatives' desires to wreck government (apart from defense, although Bush has done a good job of wrecking that, too) have been a fixture of Bush's policies to date, and he's done a "heckuva job" from that perspective. However, Bush's assertion that he came to office "to confront problems... not to pass them on..." can only be viewed as yet another self-serving (or self-deceiving) lie in a long, long, long litany of lies. The small problems have gotten bigger still, and the big ones are now of monstrous proportions.
And, I can't help but think, given the evidence, that that was the strategy of Bush and his people all along. As with much of what Bush says, whether it be on the prospect of war, the economy, on not leaving problems for his successors, the truth is ultimately to be found in its opposite.
Whomever gets to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, had better do it wearing asbestos underwear, a flak jacket and a crash helmet and have a healthy supply of tranquilizers on hand. Even then, it's going to be rough sledding. In more ways than one, it's going to be like having to clean up after enema day in the elephants' quarters at the zoo. A broom and a dustpan and a sunny smile aren't going to cut it.