All the prognostication about the Bush administration aside, one thing is clear: Four years from now, Americans should have a very clear understanding of our new president's level of success or failure.
The reason for this? Simply put, the generally accepted benchmarks are, more than ever before, so obvious and so readily expressed statistically. We know where the stock market sits today; we will know in four years. We know the rate of growth today; we will know in four years. We know the level of inflation today; we will know in four years. We know that today American forces aren't engaged in combat. Bush starts here and ends there; he has no crisis to divert his attention, and, except for the price of oil, he opens his administration relatively free of external political perturbations, except those of his own making.
By comparison, the accomplishments or failures of recent administrations have been murky.
The Cold War was overarching. It colored political claims made during the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Truman, guided by Dean Acheson, led the United States into the bipolar world; but it was this same administration that was savaged by the Republican right before and during the Korean War for being too soft on Communism. Then came Eisenhower, who effectively did little more than carry out negotiations underway when he came to office, negotiations, which led us to an armistice. So, who gets the blame, and who gets the credit, assuming any is due? We know now that Truman was shortchanged at the time. But that was all that mattered in the 1952 election.
Or consider how Vietnam defined four presidencies, each, in its turn, blaming the previous for the mess, none able to claim much success.
Then came the inflation and stagnation of the middle and late '70s. Was it Ford's fault? Or Carter's? Or maybe we should go back to Nixon? Or even Johnson and his doomed guns and butter strategy. Who could be sure?
The Cold War ending? The USSR fell apart on Bush's watch, but was it Reagan's arms buildup that did it? Or was it the relentless arms race that preceded Reagan? Or was it just that the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight?
The Gulf War? At the time of the "victory," a number of old Carter hands, including Harold Brown, Carter's Defense Secretary, did some personal thumbs up, for that war, as it turned out, was won largely with so-called "smart" weapons developed on Carter's watch.
Had Clinton not made a mess of his personal life, my guess is that Gore could have made a clearer case; but even then the issue would have been, was it Reagan's supply side finally kicking in, or did Bill make the economy hum?
But now, eight years later, can there be any question? I don't think so. Clinton left things as he left them. The numbers are posted. And now what? America awaits.
Never before has the stock market loomed as such an important indicator. Half of America has investments in the market, compared to less than 5 percent when Eisenhower took office. Voters today are stakeholders as never before, and, as we know, the stock market numbers today can and are being read just after (or perhaps even before) the baseball box scores.
Or take the case of the expected surplus. Everyone, certainly President Bush and former Vice President Gore, assumed that surplus would materialize. The argument centered on what to do about it. But what if there is no surplus? What if the economy slows, but, with the chance for a tax cut, as David Stockman put it during the Reagan tax cut debate, the hogs begin feeding at the trough?
Bush will push for a tax cut, but the political reality of tax cuts is that tax cutting always has a bipartisan appeal, assuming, of course, that the esteemed representatives can find someone else to take the fall if things don't work out. Clinton didn't even allow the debate to get that far, and for that he should get credit. Bush is rolling out the trough, and no doubt the hogs are gathering. A bipartisan gathering.
So, if things work out, fine. If the market goes up, great. Rest assured, every member of both parties will take credit. But, if in four years we are back to deficit spending thanks to you know what, then it follows that all fingers will point right at you know who.
Given all this, I found President Bush's inaugural address surprisingly reassuring.
First, he spoke, mercifully, for only a few minutes. Bill Clinton never read a 10-minute speech that he didn't manage to turn into an hour-long marathon. Except for Castro, Clinton remains unchallenged as the Mark McGwire of speechdom. His verbal blasts just kept coming and coming, and who will miss that.
Second, Bush actually expressed reservations while speaking of "America at its best," and what a breath of fresh air that was. He went so far as to reflect on America's failures, its troubles and its shortcomings. But he did so without subjecting us to the moralizing that so characterized almost every speech poor Jimmy gave. His speech wasn't, shall we say, a downer. Nor did he rely on what to me -- but not apparently to most Americans -- is all that nauseatingly cloying drivel that Peggy Noonan subjected us to through her mouthpiece, Ronald Reagan. I thought I'd throw up if I had to listen to one more simpy morning-in-America speech. Or who can forget all that vacuous stuff about shining cities on a hill. I'm sorry. Barfola.
Compared to Reagan's renditions of Noonan, Bush the elder's call to all those imaginary points of light seemed a relief, albeit a silly one.
President Bush even managed to keep that nonsense about compassionate conservatism (whatever the hell that is) to a minimum. And I was pleased to hear him refer to America as an experiment instead of an exception.
Most importantly, he did not overpromise.
There was no clarion call on January 20, 2001, such as what we heard back on that icy cold morning in 1961. No talk of torches being passed to a new generation who would go anywhere, do anything and pay any price in defense of freedom; no calls to ask not what your country can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your country.
Perhaps Bush understands that as inspiring as Kennedy was, his rhetoric had a downside. Henry Fairlie wrote some years later in his book The Kennedy Promise, that JFK raised expectations higher than could possibly ever be met, and, when things didn't work out, when vigor yielded to tragedy, all hell broke loose.
While Bush was, I think, wise not to set expectations too high, there nonetheless remains for him that rather obvious bar -- one that he will have to clear. I doubt it will prove an easy task.
In any case, as my father often put it, we shall now see what we shall see.