You say your old union job left for the Third World, and the one that replaced it pays half as much with no benefits? Look on the bright side: At least you're working. You say your company bailed out on its employee health plan, and your pension's been replaced by something resembling a lottery ticket for the stock market? Hey, this is America; nobody gets any guarantees.
You say your car is running on fumes because you can't afford to gas it up at today's prices? That's just the free market operating as it should. Be thankful you're not living in a country where windfall profits would be regulated by the heavy hand of government. You say the cost of everything is so high you have to shop at Wal-Mart just to get those cheap Chinese products? Be happy you don't have to buy American and subsidize your overpaid countrymen.
You say your kids graduated from college, but they're still living at home because they can't find affordable housing on their fast-food salaries? Look at it this way: Illegal immigrants have to start at the bottom, too; what makes your family special? You say mom and dad are barely getting by on Social Security and can't continue paying those higher Medicare premiums that keep going up? Well, they should have started saving sooner and joined the investor class. Don't look to Washington for a handout.
Pardoning the exaggeration, does any of this sound vaguely familiar? It should, because it's the Bush administration's general take on the domestic economy -- to the extent it's conscious of domestic issues at all. Except for homeland security, this is an administration that consistently expresses little or no interest in the homeland, as the inhabitants of New Orleans can attest. As far as the Bush team and its majority in Congress are concerned, the nation can fend for itself at home; they have bigger fish to fry, and those fish swim in foreign waters.
George W. Bush, like his father before him, finds domestic concerns frankly boring. Aside from brief excursions into high-end tax cutting and entitlement privatization, foreign affairs has been the overwhelming preoccupation of his time in office. And increasingly, foreign affairs has come to be defined as Middle East policy, more specifically the Iraq war and occupation. For the president, it's now all Iraq, all the time, with an occasional sideways glance at that other regional member of the "axis of evil" next door.
The Bushes, father and son, see themselves in the guise of warrior-kings; it's a self-image that seems to run in the bloodline. To their way of thinking, war is what a president does, and remaking the Middle East is a good excuse for war. Foreign combat correspondent Chris Hedges's philosophical observation that the excitement of armed hostilities "gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living" applies no less to political leaders than to others. Bush Senior came to life as chief executive only when waging the Persian Gulf War; Bush Junior floundered distractedly until 9/11 and the onset of the present Mid-East unpleasantness engaged his energy and attention.
Partly, this presidential thirst for state-sanctioned combat has its roots in the dangerous but alluring theory, propounded in recent times, that an occupant of the White House can only be deemed great if he manages and wins a war. (If he has to initiate it himself, so be it.) Bill Clinton is said to be melancholy over the fact that he had no major conflict (Bosnia doesn't count) to ensure his place on Mount Rushmore. The consequence is that, increasingly, American presidents look longingly for a war in which to prove themselves, affirm their toughness, and establish their Churchillian bona fides. The Bushes have been more susceptible than most to this addictive love for the use of force in the international arena.
The truth is, there are other ways to achieve presidential greatness. Some chief executive, at some future time, will be recognized as heroic for taking on the challenge of globalization and saving the American middle class by rebuilding the social contract and ensuring the survival of the domestic job base. Another may well achieve greatness by establishing, once and for all, the principle of universal health care as a right of citizenship and not a privilege. Still another may go down in the history books as the farsighted leader who preserved and expanded Social Security as a crucial safety net in a time of economic turmoil and uncertainty. And one may even achieve worldwide acclaim by being the driving force behind an environmental crusade to end global warming and save the planet.
But George W. Bush will be none of these, and more's the pity. He will continue to see himself in his desired role of commander-in-chief, tilting lances against a perceived worldwide "Islamo-fascism" and trying to persuade Americans that an exercise in law enforcement and security intelligence, aimed at combating an international criminal class, is really a third World War on a par with the struggle against Nazism. He'll continue expending the nation's blood and treasure on ill-considered foreign adventures undertaken on the flimsiest of pretexts. (Imagine what the $300 billion thus far wasted in Iraq could have accomplished at home.) He'll continue restricting American rights and liberties (the real contemporary fascism) in the name of public safety. He'll continue undermining our moral authority abroad through bullying diplomatic tactics, illegitimate antiterrorist methods and shortsighted preemptive aggression.
He'll do these things because he's "the Decider," and that's what he's decided to do, unless, that is, a changed Congress decides otherwise after the coming November elections. If not, it's on to Syria or Iran to seek greater martial glory and cement the Bush place in history. But maybe, just maybe, voters will exercise the final say and rein in our tin-pot Napoleon. Hold the statues and memorials.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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