What Obama can Learn from W.

There are a few important reasons why George W. Bush made sense to many Americans after Bill Clinton. By now we’re familiar with the primary reason: the country was attracted to Bush’s ‘compassionate conservative’ message, a message that sanded off the hard edges of Reagan-era conservatism while simultaneously referencing a mythical American past in which right and wrong were definable and easily categorized.

The desire by some to embrace a leader who seemed to embody liberal and conservative ideals, who seemed, at least in rhetoric, to merge the best attributes of Republican presidents past (including his father) with the best attributes of Bill Clinton, can only be understood contextually; in the parlance of media and advertising, the Bush presidency was brought to us by Bill Clinton.

We knew what Clinton had done, but we never really knew who he was. To the end of his presidency Clinton remained an almost inscrutable figure. We knew, of course, about his various appetites, his charisma, his brilliance, but we never really had a sense of what made him tick. One of the enduring legacies of Clinton’s time in office is his penchant for triangulation, his perpetual search for the middle ground. In the end, Clinton seemed more a politician of strategy than passion. His methods were best described by the term he popularized with fellow politician-strategist Tony Blair; for most of his time in office, Clinton was a ‘third way’ President. While a cleaving to a ‘third way’ sounds fine, it is also an admission that one has arrived at a position by, in effect, splitting the difference. This does not a position make.

Bush took a different tack; he started with the poll-tested talk (‘compassionate conservatism’), and then committed himself almost wholly to a single side, much to the delight of right-wing partisans all over the country. In the end, Bush’s commitment to certain conservative principles won him more than a few enemies, but it also won him the earnest approval of a significant bloc of the country, a bloc that came out in large numbers to reelect him in 2004 (shenanigans in Ohio aside). As a Texan, I understand the main source of Bush’s popularity: whether we agreed with him or not, we understood his narrative. Unlike Clinton, Bush allowed us to access the heart of his decision-making process, the organ which converted the information he received to the policies he endorsed. Bush’s ‘heart’ was his conversion to Christianity. Many of Bush’s policies – PEPFAR and No Child Left Behind are examples here – neatly fit the Christian conversion narrative, and seemed to define his vision for the country. Bush seemed to believe that, for the disadvantaged anyway, America should be a country of rigid regulations, a country bounded by strict unalterable rules, but a country, too, that provided a path – narrow though it was – to redemption.

(We later learned that the ‘path’ was no path at all, but that is a different tale).

Many of us instantly fell in love with Obama because he, like Bush before him, wore his heart on his sleeve. His 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention was a declaration of who he was, why he was, and how he’d be different. He was a community organizer. A civil rights attorney. He was the product of two races, a walking, talking embodiment of MLK’s American dream. We believed that Obama would be a transformational figure because his narrative – his ‘heart’ – was about a man coming to terms with his identity and embracing the various parts of himself. We hoped that his policies would reflect this narrative, that he would help America complete the same journey.

The most dispiriting thing about the Obama presidency thus far isn’t that he hasn’t had some successes – surely he has. It is the realization that, perhaps, the poetry of his campaign can never be reconciled with the prose of governing. It is the realization that there is a possibility we don’t know as much about his heart as we initially believed. It is the realization that, when it comes to matters of the heart, there is a possibility that he will be more like Clinton, and less like Bush.

That said, Obama still has time, and I still believe in his presidency. He still has time to show us his heart.