During Monday’s press conference, President Bush was asked whether he ever felt the burdens of the presidency. He responded “no” and explained that one would have to be a whiner to feel burdened by the job. He then offered an example. “I didn’t sit around and whine about ‘Why did the financial collapse happen on my watch?'”
This statement reveals – to put it in crude terms – a sort of “shit happens” mentality toward the economy and may explain a lot about why we find ourselves in such a mess. We see that there is no tendency in the man to look back and wonder whether his policies played a role – whether he could have done anything differently to prevent it. It just happened. Not my fault. Jim Lehrer’s interview of Dick Cheney, broadcast on PBS’s Newshour on Thursday night, reinforces this attitude in the administration. Cheney said that the administration did a good job with economic policy, citing the tax cuts and their response to the financial crisis, preventing it from becoming worse. The financial crisis itself was something that just happened outside their control.
I’m not saying the global economic melt-down is a result of policies that Bush enacted. On the contrary, I believe that it dates all the way back to the signing of GATT in 1947, setting up the enormous trade imbalances that doomed the global economy from the beginning. Every president since shares some of the blame for supporting a trade regime that was nothing more than a thinly-veiled global welfare state, slickly packaged with high-minded names like “free trade” and “globalization.”
However, Bush was the only man for the last eight years who could have done something about it. By the time he took office in 2001, it was clear that the trade deficit was escalating exponentially out of control. But it seems that month after month, year after year, as the trade figures grew worse, he maintained his “shit happens” mentality about the whole thing, never pondering whether it was sustainable, where it would all lead, and if he should do something about it.
There’s a lesson here for Mr. Obama. Things don’t just happen. You’re inheriting a world of institutions and agreements, all of which were well-intentioned but some which will ultimately prove to have been horrible ideas. When they blow up on your watch, you can’t just sit back and say that “I didn’t create this mess and it’s just dumb luck that it came crashing down during my administration.” Your job is to root them out and fix them before that happens. Take a good look at the structure of the global economy, the stated goals of the World Trade Organization, our trade agreements and the results of decades of trade negotiations. And take a good look at the results of trade policy for the first 171 years of our nations history. Compare those results to the last few decades and decide for yourself whether it’s time to make a correction.