Today, the President and the president-elect will meet at the White House to discuss the transition - among other things. One can see Bush - a man who by several accounts, does not take criticism gracefully - all steely eyed, a grim smile playing around the corners of his mouth as he will no doubt find some way to remind Obama of some of the things our new president said during the campaign about the 43rd chief executive.
But it will hardly be the most uncomfortable meeting of incoming and outgoing presidents in history. Jackie Kennedy described the ride to her husband’s inaugural with the Eisenhowers as “glacial.” Ditto Nancy Reagan who thought the Carters were being deliberately distant. When the White House changes party hands, it necessarily follows that the winner didn’t think much of the policies of his predecessor. Given the titanic egos involved, it is not surprising that there would be some hard feelings.
In this case, it follows that Obama will probably not be the most welcome visitor in the 8 years of the Bush White House. The Democrat, after all, has accused the President of ruining the country, of destroying the American Dream, of not caring about war casualties, of lying about weapons of mass destruction, of initiating policies to benefit the rich, of not caring about the financial meltdown, of destroying the planet, of sticking it to the poor and middle class, of not caring about the people of New Orleans after Katrina, and of general incompetence - among other things.
Gee. Why would Bush be upset with Obama?
They met once before at a White House breakfast for new senators. Obama described the meeting in his book The Audacity of Hope :
Obama!” Bush exclaimed, according to Obama’s account of the meeting in his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” “Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours — that’s one impressive lady.”
The two men shook hands and then, according to Obama, Bush turned to an aide, “who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president’s hand.”
Bush then offered some to Obama, who recalled: “Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.”
The president then led Obama off to one side of the room, where Bush said: “I hope you don’t mind me giving you a piece of advice.”
“Not at all, Mr. President,” Obama told the commander-in-chief.
“You’ve got a bright future,” Bush said presciently. “Very bright. But I’ve been in this town awhile and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you’ve been getting, people start gunnin’ for ya. And it won’t necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody’ll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself.”
Bush then noted that he and Obama had something in common.
“We both had to debate Alan Keyes,” the president said. “That guy’s a piece of work, isn’t he?”
Both men laughed and seemed to hit it off. But then, Bush began to speak of his agenda for his new term and weirdly, Obama describes Bush’s demeanor when talking about his goals exactly the same way that Obama talks when he speaks of his plans for the country:
“Suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch,” Obama wrote. “The president’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders’ wisdom in designating a system to keep power in check.”
Obama should examine tapes of some of his major speeches. There he will see “messianic certainty” in spades. And by the way Mr. president elect, did you happen to see the slavish devotion, the swooning, fainting, weeping, chest heaving, short stroking response of your robotic followers whenever you uttered any of your vapidness? “Republican Senate colleagues hang[ing] on his every word,” absolutely pales by comparison.
To be fair, that passage was written before Obamamania hit the world. But one wonders if Obama will still appreciate “the Founders’ wisdom in designating a system to keep power in check,” now that he has been elected to the same office.
In truth, the only check on Obama’s power will be Obama. As we’ve seen with President Bush, the Constitution is quite an elastic document when it comes to powers granted the chief executive. In time of war, the powers of Commander in Chief are expanded - sometimes considerably (see FDR and Lincoln) - and notions of civil liberties get a rough ride from the tug of war between privacy and security.
I did not support some of what President Bush initiated as security measures these last 8 years but neither am I a civil liberties absolutist who some suspect would be enormously satisfied if the government bent over backward to obey Constitutional protections to the letter and the spirit of the law while the US suffered a horrific attack. It would prove how morally superior they are to the rest of us mere mortals. (”What’s a couple of 9/11’s a year if the price we pay is a lessening of Constitutional liberties?”) That’s easily worth a couple of thousand lives to the Glenn Greenwalds of the world.
But Obama will no doubt discover very soon - perhaps today - what has kept our elected leaders from sleeping very well at night; that the extent and nature of the threat against our people is the biggest security challenge he will have as president. It is true that many of Obama’s followers do not believe this and, in fact, believe that the threat is overblown, used by Bush as both an electoral club to beat Democrats and as a way to aggrandize power unto himself. If Obama believes that, he is in for a very rude awakening.
I have no doubt that if the two men meet privately today, that President Bush will try to impress this fact on President elect Obama. Will he believe Bush? Will he believe our intelligence agencies? Rightly, Obama appears to be keeping his options open on the Terrorist Surveillance Program and other anti-terror measures initiated by Bush. He can talk all he wants to about “restoring Constitutional protections” but I suspect that, in the end, he will make a few adjustments to satisfy critics but keep the basic programs intact. The simple reason he might very well do this is that they have worked.
This is one meeting where I would love to be a fly on the wall. The expression is overused and has become hackneyed and cliched but that shouldn’t stop us from using the imagery of being an unobtrusive observer of great events to become immersed in history rather than just reading it.
Think of it as one of Einstein’s thought experiments. Go back to the cabinet meeting in June of 1862 where Lincoln discussed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Put yourself in that time and in that the room as Stanton tries to dissuade Lincoln from issuing the edict until the Union achieves a military victory, telling him that otherwise, it would be seen as a “cry for help.” As they go around the table, each advisor in turn giving their opinion, would you be persuaded? Remember, you know nothing except what has happened previously, the future being as clouded as it is for Lincoln.
Such exercises teach you a lot about yourself as much as they instruct us of history.
In this case, being a fly on the wall when Obama meets Bush might open our eyes about how both men see the realities of power - its uses, its pitfalls, and its limitations. The presidency, it is said, is both the strongest and weakest elected office in the western world. It is the one office in America where power is measured by how the people perceive their chief executive. Bush was virtually powerless his last year in office due not only to his lame duck status but his historically low approval numbers. Conversely, Obama’s power will be at its zenith when he takes office next January.
After all, the Constitution gives the president very little to do. It is up to the man and his understanding of how to exercise the powers granted him that makes the president or breaks him. And being a fly on the wall as Obama discovers that for himself would be fascinating indeed.