Our Fearless Politics
For now, fear is gone from Washington. What will happen when it returns?
When George Bush ducked shoes hurled at him Sunday at a press conference in Baghdad, it wasn't his only recent experience with defiance. Last week he urged his fellow Republicans to back a $14 billion bailout of the car industry, and they ignored him. We're all familiar with the powerlessness of a lame duck president. But usually there aren't events that so clearly celebrate it. Bush came into office boasting that he knew how to use the political capital of the presidency. Now he's showing us what it looks like to be completely without political capital.
No one is afraid of the big bad W. In fact, the threat level in all of Washington is generally low. Fear, which has always played an important role in focusing the minds of politicians, has dissipated, even as an ever-souring economy and turmoil in South Asia give us all more to be afraid of. Even fear itself, which has been used to justify so much public policy, just isn't what it used to be. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Republicans who voted against the auto bailout that they would be responsible for tanking the stock market the next day. The Dow closed up 64 points Friday.
Some of this is to be expected. In addition to Bush's twilight status, members of the House are as far from an election as they can be, which makes them less fearful of voters. But there are also factors unique to the new landscape.
Democrats, giddy after years in the wilderness, have big majorities in the House and the Senate—and the freedom that comes with emergency. First they'll shape $1 trillion in stimulus spending. Then, they'll take on Barack Obama's bold public-works programs, health care reform, and energy legislation. Republicans, battered and bruised, have nothing to lose and therefore fear no one. With no clear leader and competing theories for how to rescue the GOP, everyone is acting out.
In less than 40 days, there will be a new sheriff in town. But Obama has promised that hope rather than fear will rule the city. But not only did Obama run his campaign on hope; he also ran against fear as the justifying language of public policy. Michelle Obama articulated it most succinctly: "I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of living in a country where every decision that we've made over the last 10 years wasn't for something but it was because people told us that we had to fear something."
Obama shows no signs of using his popularity to bend people to his will. His temperament is more of a persuader than an arm twister. Drawing on his experience as a community organizer, he will look to build bonds and buy-ins and bridges, not pressure reluctant allies into a forced march. His initial moves all point in this direction: He has put Republicans in his Cabinet and sought their counsel, and asked his aides to do the same. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, known for his toughness, is receiving praise—even from Republicans—for being approachable. Having run on hope, Obama plans to govern on it as well.
This will be a departure from his predecessors. Lyndon Johnson used the whole palette of emotions to set the tone for his presidency—guilt, affection, and ambition—but fear was his most powerful weapon. "I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket," he once said. When Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers in his first term, he increased his leverage because it showed he wasn't afraid to act. When George W. Bush came into office, he preached bipartisan cooperation, but it soon became clear that he was willing to punish those who deviated from the administration line. Because he tried to use fear so aggressively, he was immediately singed: Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont bucked at being pressured by the White House and left the party, giving Democrats control of the Senate.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.