As I watched the sun set slowly and majestically over the hills in Simi Valley, California at President Reagan’s presidential library where Republican presidential candidates debated Wednesday, I reflected on a moment from a decade ago that illuminates some of our politics. Ten years ago, early the morning of September 11, I was sitting at my desk in my Austin, Texas office, looking at a national poll of voters that I had just gotten back that day.
At the time I was consulting for the Republican National Committee, and one of my jobs was to oversee the polling that might help inform the White House along the way. I was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C. that day to brief the White House on the latest numbers. And then the news reports came in about the hijacked planes on the East Coast. Planes were grounded, my trip was canceled, and life changed permanently for all Americans.
I never got to give the briefing on that poll. In one moment the entire political environment in the country changed. In that poll we did not ask a single question on foreign affairs, terrorism, or national security. President Bush’s job approval rating had drifted down to 51%, and the opposite poles of the electorate were reemerging strongly. Republicans adored President Bush; Democrats despised him.
Within a few days, national security and terrorism would dominate the conversation and continue to do so at least through the 2004 re-election campaign, and President Bush’s job approval would skyrocket to a historic high in the 90s. No more polarization; the country was united, and waited to be called into a common and unified bond of action by the President. Unfortunately this never happened. Instead, citizens were told to go shopping and get back on airplanes – a huge missed opportunity to address the problems of the day and on the horizon. Over time President Bush’s numbers would drift down, and the country would return to its polarized place it had started at before 9/11.
Flash forward a few years, and we see an inspirational and history-making leader inaugurated in January 2009. President Obama, while not at the all time highs of President Bush in approval, had a enormous support from Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Again, the country hungered for a call from our leader to come together as a nation and address our problems. Again, unfortunately, this didn’t happen. In a few months time, we degenerated back to the vitriol of the prior years. Another big window of opportunity missed by another president.
So here we are today, on the eve of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, going into an important presidential election, and the bitterness between leaders of the political parties is at an all-time high.
Neither party seems willing to be frank and honest with the American public. Our leaders seem unable to tell Americans that our economy has fundamentally changed and there is no going back. That to regain our future, we are going to have to all participate in shared sacrifice.
Republican candidates at the debate castigated President Obama, and offered economic solutions which, while appealing to the base, are out of step with today’s economic reality. We also learned that Republicans, while justifiably applauding former President Reagan, can’t seem to let go of the idea that maybe things aren’t the same today as they were in 1981.
In his economic speech to the joint session of Congress, President Obama offered a bipartisan collection of policy items but did not lay out a vision of what the economic future looks like or inspire any confidence about how we are going to get there. It felt more like a lecture by a professor to a class on homework assignments, than a leader professing the vision we could all get behind and move forward together. And the response to the speech has been predictably partisan and divisive – Democrats applauded the president, while Republicans criticized.
We can’t continue on the path we are on. Another window of opportunity will appear to unite the country, just like the ones that did for Presidents Bush and Obama. I am hoping a leader will be there to grab it and lead. And maybe the parties will let go of clinging to leaders of the past (for one campaign I would like a Republican to not mention Reagan, and a Democrat to not mention FDR), and follow the American public to the future — through that window to witness the sunrise that awaits all of us.