Economy

This Is George Bush's Recession: Why Doesn't Anybody Talk About That?

If the partisan tables were turned, the GOP would waste no time laying the blame on Democrats. We need to do the same to build political capital for key fights ahead.

In October, Barack Obama told a San Francisco audience about what it was like trying to deal with an economy he’d inherited in smoking ruins last January. “I'm busy … cleaning up somebody else's mess,” he said. “We don't want somebody sitting back saying, you're not holding the mop the right way… That's a socialist mop." As the audience applauded the line, Obama challenged Republicans to "Grab a mop, let's get to work."

The image of cleaning up after his predecessor’s mess pleased pundits like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that "get a mop” is "an inspired three-word challenge to the GOP. Devastating, actually -- because it both reminds people of the damage the GOP did while not seeming to dwell on the past or to score partisan points (while actually doing both).”  

It’s certainly punchy, but perhaps unnecessarily oblique. Given that even a recent Fox News poll found that almost six in 10 voters believe Bush bears the ultimate responsibility for the recession we’re staggering through, you have to wonder why Democrats aren’t simply referring to all of this as "the Bush recession."

One thing is certain: were the partisan tables turned, every elected Republican, conservative columnist, right-wing blogger and hate-radio gabber would be repeating the phrase ad nauseam, but progressives have always lacked that kind of message discipline. In a 2004 interview, legendary right-wing activist Richard Viguerie -- an instrumental figure building the conservative movement since the 1960s -- told me that his side has an inherent advantage in top-down message discipline because modern conservatives "are descended from monarchists,” and have a "natural instinct to follow the king."

So it has been as Washington scrambles to rescue the tanking economy. Republicans have offered consistently hollow sound bites about creeping socialism and government takeovers, and Democrats have come up with clever ways to "frame" the issue (grab that mop!), but haven’t consistently played the age-old and rather straightforward game of laying blame for calamity at the door of one’s political opponent.  

Calling the mess we’re facing the “Bush Recession” isn’t a matter of looking back out of spite, but of developing political capital for some key fights ahead. There’s a potentially ugly battle with Wall Street coming up over financial reform. There are calls for more stimulus, new jobs programs and more relief for those suffering the most as a result of the crash. There’s value in tying those already lined up to defend the status quo on Wall Street, or who’d deny more assistance to “Main Street,” to the least popular president in memory and reminding people that the economy was never going to be a quick fix even in the best-case scenario. 

Yet just as the Obama administration has been reticent to tackle the nation’s crushing jobs and foreclosure crises, officials have also been hesitant to hold Bushenomics explicitly accountable for the mess. That’s likely a matter of style -- Obama has always tried not to appear overly partisan. But it’s a missed opportunity -- a chance to channel the fury caused by nearly one in four U.S. homeowners with underwater mortgages and the debilitating loss of jobs over the past three years (illustrated with devastating effect in this animated county-by-county map depicting the rise in unemployment since 2007). 

Of course, the reality is that anyone who grasps the dynamics leading up to the Great Recession will agree that it’s not really Bush’s (or any president’s) recession -- there’s ample blame to go around, in Congress as well as the White House, in both parties and on Wall Street. The wave of deregulation that caused the economy to crest and crash under Bush Jr. in 2008 started under Reagan and accelerated under the elder Bush and Bill Clinton. The cheap money that fueled the last two bubbles started flowing in earnest under Clinton -- overseen by some of Obama’s most trusted advisers -- and Bush just kept the spigot open.  

But that has little to do with politics. Americans have always conferred more economic influence on the White House than reality dictates, and Washington players have always tried to gain political capital from the belief that the White House actually manages the economy. Despite the fact that the whole house of cards came crashing down on Bush’s watch, and has remained stagnant since, conservatives have even had the temerity to try to brand the crunch the "Obama Recession."

It's also true that Bush was a purer kind of corporatist than his predecessors; his administration even more deferential to the Titans of Wall Street. Over the past eight years, the financial press detailed how financial regulators -- regulators across the board, essentially -- all but stopped regulating on Bush's watch. He stacked federal agencies with "free-market" ideologues, and helped fuel the housing bubble's growth by pumping more cheap money into and lavishing those huge tax cuts on the investor class.

And while the sell-outs and misguided technocrats who enabled a rapacious financial elite to imperil the world economy continue to litter the political landscape in bipartisan fashion, on a philosophical level there’s something very appropriate about branding the aftermath with the Bush name. After all, in his personal, professional and political lives, Bush was the living expression of everything at the root of the economic meltdown -- both the sense of entitlement among our corporate elites, and the ideological blinkers and piss-poor governance that let them undermine the foundations of our financial system. 

So, next time you’re discussing the housing market, or the fact that more than one in six working-age Americans are underemployed or without a job, call it the Bush Recession.  

A more appropriate brand name would be hard to come by.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.
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