Just a few short years ago we grew accustomed to daily observations by Democratic politicians, editorial writers, and spinsters about how President George W. Bush was disconnected from reality. He was too aloof to figure out what was wrong "out in the country" and how to relate to the people living beyond the Western White House in Crawford, they said.
It looks like the detachedness of the last three years of the Bush presidency has finally met its match when President Obama departed earlier this week for a three state bus tour through America’s heartland. This isn’t your ordinary campaign bus—it’s a $2.2 million taxpayer funded reelection wagon—retrofitted to serve as a rolling Oval Office. BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell describes the monstrosity as "Big, blocky, black, with painted-out windows, it looks more like a police mortuary van than a symbol of hope arriving on your street."
Most Americans—including this pundit—will call it what it is: silly, stupid, gimmicky, un-presidential, ineffectual, expensive, and incoherently disconnected from the reality that most Americans are living with.
They should have christened this rolling mortuary van as Malaise One, the term most capable of describing the state of the economy and the feeling most Americans have about our current predicament.
Last week 73 percent told the Reuters/Ipsos poll that the country is on the wrong track, a number that hasn’t been matched since the voters turned out the Republican regime and swept the Bush/Cheney administration into the dustbin of history in 2008. A CNN poll released on Aug. 8 showed 60 percent saying the government should focus on the economy first. Almost 50 percent told Reuters/Ipsos they believed the economy is going to get worse rather than better. Most strikingly for Obama, CNN’s polling says that just 44 percent approve of how he’s handling his job. An anemic 37 percent say they approve of his handling of unemployment and just 34 percent approve of how he’s handling the economy overall.
This bus tour is counterproductive for Obama for a number of reasons. First, while Americans are worried about their jobs and their livelihoods, the White House has handed them a tab for over $2 million for a ride through Cannon Falls and other lovely Midwestern hamlets. Since the public believes that the country is hemorrhaging jobs and questioning the overall spending priorities of government, it makes little sense to add to those feelings of discontent by spending more money on an advertising stunt. The Economist reported this week that the Obama campaign is likely to raise and spend over $1 billion. Why not let the deep-pocketed campaign bank accounts pay the bill rather than allow for the public to believe they are being forced to pay for this?
Second, it is simply not presidential for the Commander-in-Chief to be touring on a tricked out Greyhound when he has no primary opponent, while the country is reeling from a bitter summer debt ceiling battle, and when confidence in the administration and markets is low. It makes it even less presidential or less effective to embark on such a publicity tour without a significant, marketable piece of legislation or a groundbreaking policy proposal to sell along the way.
This excursion through the heartland could have served as a meaningful launching pad for a serious, comprehensive plan to dig the country out of debt, reverse the economic tailspin, and create jobs for middle and working class America. Instead, it’s looking increasingly like an ego trip, not a policy outing that has the president pitching small concepts rather than the kind of grand vision he campaigned on in 2008. The White House seems content to let the "Super Committee" in Congress do the tough work while the president dithers.
Lastly, it leaves us wondering what became of the well-oiled, message driven campaign machine that got Obama elected. It doesn’t take Lee Atwater or Karl Rove to deduce that hokey, gimmicky stunts like this reveal a president’s remoteness and lack of policy direction, inevitably drawing predictable attacks from opposing candidates.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman—two of the sharpest candidates in the 2012 GOP field—released clever, yet pointed rebukes of the president’s decision to waste time, money, political capital, and energy aboard Malaise One.
"Come on, let’s face the facts. Bus tours are great and I particularly like it when a good rock band is on tour, but to have the president or anybody else, when the most important thing they can be doing is standing up and say, okay, the regulations of this country are what are strangling business, that’s why capital isn’t making its way to the marketplace, that’s why people aren’t hiring, that’s why there’s zero confidence in our future, because we’re stuck in bureaucratic red tape," said Huntsman.
Romney quipped that "During his Magical Misery bus tour this week, it is unlikely President Obama will speak with unemployed Americans, to near-bankrupt business owners, or to families struggling to survive in this economy." He noted that Obama "is more interested in campaigning in swing states than working to solve the economic crisis that is crushing the middle class."
The real question candidates like Huntsman and Romney should be asking is whether they will inherit the presidential bus when one of them takes the reins of power in January 2013. If so, they ought to retire the moniker Malaise One, renaming her Resurgence One.