Too bad for Barack Obama and the Democrats, but George W. Bush is the shrinking man of American politics, growing ever smaller on the far horizon. Merely invoking his name will soon no longer frighten women and horses.
The not-so-new president has treated his predecessor as his training wheels, invoking his presence every time (which is often) the ground trembles, a dog barks, the wind blows, the rain falls and he threatens to topple over. We were promised nirvana, or at least a lollipop, if only we could banish George W. and the inept and evil Republicans. Banish we did, and the messiah from the South Side of Chicago has been practicing miracle-working for five months. Alas, there's no sign of clearing skies.
Five months is not very long, of course, and it's unreasonable to expect nirvana so soon, but that's the nature of the impatient American public. Reason, like love, has nothing to do with it. With every nightfall, the news gets worse, or at least not any better, and growing numbers of Americans are beginning to doubt that he has all the answers he so confidently insisted he did. The public-opinion polls clearly show deteriorating public confidence in the confidence man. Worse than not having the answers is the growing suspicion that Mr. Obama and his wise men even understand the question.
The unemployment numbers, the closely watched benchmark by which presidents are judged, stood at 7.2 percent when Mr. Obama took his oath, and Thursday, it inched up to 9.5 percent. The average workweek subsided in June to 33 hours, lowest since the feds began keeping such records in 1964. Cutting hours and freezing pay has spread even to companies awash in profits, with managers, never wanting to waste a crisis and looking to an uncertain future, are taking advantage now, just in case.
"We are in some very hard and severe economic times," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told an interviewer in the wake of the new bad news. "The president and I are both not happy. I do think the public needs to be patient. We know they are hurting."
The president is saying the things every president says when recession hits and panic and depression threaten. Some of the president's friends insist they see "tiny green shoots" on the landscape, promising prosperity soon. The president himself concedes the economy is in a hole and blames the man who preceded him. His predecessor's policies "have left us in a very deep hole," he says, "and digging our way out of it will take time, patience and some tough choices." The secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, likes the shovel-ready metaphor, too. "You know," she told a television interviewer the other day, "we are in just so many deep holes that everybody had better grab a shovel and start digging out."
What "somebody" should do is hide those shovels from "everybody." If you're in a hole, as any ditch digger could tell you, the only thing you can do with a shovel is dig yourself a little deeper into the hole. Not a good idea. A speechifyer such as Barack Obama is expected to be more careful with his metaphors (Hillary gets a pass), and the president's growing problem is that growing numbers of voters who imagined he was "the one" now think he's in that hole and over his head.
The Democrats diverted attention from shortcomings big and small for a decade of depression by hauling poor old Herbert Hoover out for frequent floggings, and Mr. Obama obviously thinks he can similarly use George W. Bush. But that was then and this is now; no president now can monopolize the microphone as FDR did, with his mastery of press and radio and equipped with a terrified and compliant Congress. Barack Obama once imagined he could make it so by saying it's so, but that only works for a little while. He's learning what presidents before him learned, that the job of president is harder than it looks.
As the effects of the stimulus, such as they are, begin a slow fade, the unemployment number, already the highest in 26 years, is projected to keep rising. Shrinking payrolls naturally restrain growth. A jobless recovery driven by federal spending may improve certain numbers, but "it's the economy, Stupid." Stupid, standing in the rain out there on the street will say, "Where are the jobs?" Stupid is not actually as stupid as presidents sometimes hope he is. He's not so stupid that he can't see who that is in the White House.