February 16, 2016
George W. Bush ended his post-presidential political exile to stick up for his little brother yesterday. He’s still good on the stump. Watching him reminded me how he won twice. Some presidents are better at campaigning, others are better at governing. The best are above average at both.
Both Bush 43 and Barack Obama were better at running for president than being president. It’s how they went 4 for 4 in elections while being net unpopular for much of their terms.
You can chalk some of this up to polarization, Obama is widely popular among Democrats and otherwise scorned. W has a similar situation, with few beyond the home team appreciating him. Independents have softened a bit since 2008.
That’s not the whole explanation. Campaigning is a different style. A State of the Union speech isn’t the same as firing up the troops ahead of a big primary. Addressing the nation after a terrorist attack or military victory is not like participating in a debate.
W has a great delivery for campaigning. When he’s in this role, that smirk is an asset. When he was giving a serious speech and trying to tamp it down, he sometimes seemed un-presidential. He can connect with a given audience in a way that is tougher when speaking to the whole country.
Ronald Reagan could do both. FDR and JFK could do both. That’s how you win elections in the short run and are well remembered by history in the long run. W could not. In this setting, he’s still very good, holding up far better than Bill Clinton is.
Jeb followed his brother to the lectern and had one of his best performances of the campaign. W clearly gave him a jolt of energy. The crowd was fired up and ready to listen to the latest Bush. He still didn’t connect as well as W did.
For 20 plus years, we’ve heard Jeb was the smarter of the two. I’ve never interacted with either, but it sounds plausible. W is definitely the better campaigner though. You can argue that if Jeb could just get elected, he’d do fine while in office.
That’s possible, but not definite. We know he’s effective at the mechanics of governing, a very helpful skill for a president. We don’t know how well he would communicate in office. Florida is not a great test or example.
Donald Trump criticizes Jeb’s record, pointing out the state economy crashed not long after he left office. That isn’t his fault. The real estate bubble happened in California, Nevada, Arizona, and elsewhere too. All popped at about the same time.
However, Jeb did benefit from it. When he talks about jobs added, outperforming the national economy, and all the rest, it was with the help of a residential construction boom and rising values making it possible for Floridians to borrow against their homes in large amounts.
When there was trouble, it came in the form of hurricanes and tropical storms, the perfect type of disaster for a confident if technocratic leader. Bobby Jindal did notably well with the same challenges in Louisiana. He’s not getting elected president either.
Bush was able to partially co-opt the press, a group still largely kind to him at home. He’s won 2016 endorsements from Florida papers and is better thought of by editors and the Tallahassee reporters than Marco Rubio. He has deeper ties in many respects than Rubio in their mutual Miami-Dade home turf.
The presidential bubble makes much of this impossible going forward. This isn’t the early 1960s, when JFK still regularly hung out with the influential columnists who were friendly with him as a senator. Jeb doesn’t have those ties, and it hasn’t worked that way for generations anyway.
There is every reason to think Jeb Bush is more than qualified to act as commander-in-chief. He has an above average understanding of how the economy works, compared to previous presidents. He cares passionately about education and empowerment.
Those things aren’t just campaign issues for him. He’s spent much of his time out of office working on them too. It’s easy to see why the rise of Rubio, somebody just rising to prominence in state government as Jeb was exiting, disturbs him.
The presidency is first and foremost about communication. As relatively effective as he sounded yesterday, seeing Jeb next to his brother is a reminder of where he falls short. The president is just one voice in a sea of commentary. In 2008 Obama was a revelation. By 2010, many voters completely tuned him out.
The next FDR, JFK or Reagan will need a whole additional range of skills to win the trust of the public in the social media era. Each was revolutionary for their day, but today requires even more. It’s hard to see how Jeb Bush would meet the challenge of survival, let alone being more effective communicating in office than his brother was.
George W. Bush is the communications savant of the Bush family. He often couldn’t reach the public while in office. Yesterday showed both how far Jeb has come in the past few months and how short he still is of what an effective modern president needs.