The Cassandra syndrome
In politics, to discuss the possibility of disaster is often to be accused of secretly wishing for it. But predictions cannot so easily be blamed for outcomes in the case of George W. Bush. If he has demonstrated any quality of mind during the first two years of his presidency, it is a determination to have his own way regardless of potential consequences. As he prepares his State of the Union address, most of the remaining obstacles to his will have been removed by his party's narrow victory in the midterm elections.
So should things turn out badly during the months ahead -- in the war zones of Iraq and the Mideast, in the stunted national economy and the beggared states, in the threatened global environment and the precarious status of women and minorities -- the president may eventually be obliged to follow his own advice and accept personal responsibility.
While prudently hedged and qualified, the doomsday scenarios sketched out by Salon's writers and editors are no less plausible than the uplifting vistas painted by White House publicists. The suffering in America's states and cities is already beginning and bound to get worse. The economy is on the edge of a second descent into recession, with the administration finally confessing to future deficits that will surely be much larger than it has acknowledged. The Pentagon's war plans may or may not march smoothly, but the aftermath is most unlikely to fulfill utopian expectations of a region transformed.
Soothsaying has always been one of the world's most treacherous enterprises, as perplexing as fate and as irresistible as gambling. Political prophecy is a particularly fallible category, with results that usually aren't pleasant for the would-be prophets to recall.
As the president's father led an international coalition to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait a decade ago, his victory was accompanied by triumphal predictions about the global future. The burgeoning threat of Islamist terror and the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons were probably not what Bush had in mind when he advertised the coming of the "new world order." At the time, however, his unprecedented approval ratings made him appear unbeatable. After Bill Clinton's first budget passed by a single vote, his congressional opponents warned of ruin. What ensued instead were years of prosperity, full employment and improving social indicators. Those same opponents marked Clinton for destruction, told everyone he couldn't possibly be reelected, and then lost another election to him by a much larger margin. They were assured of his wife's indictment and his conviction and instead were forced to remove not one but two of their own leaders in disgrace. They had anticipated no such problems when they set out to take Clinton's scalp.
When George W. Bush promoted his first round of regressive tax cuts, the upside was supposed to be renewed economic growth without another plunge into deficit and debt. Reality has since demanded severe revision of that happy prognosis. And speaking of September 11, what about the President's swaggering decree that Osama bin Laden would be brought to justice, dead or alive? Five hundred days later, the al-Qaida leader remains at large.
With the President's approval ratings in decline, yet another prediction is looking less robust these days. It no longer seems quite so preordained that he will be returned to the Oval Office for more of the same.
[7:52 a.m. PST, Jan. 22, 2003]