As the presidency of George Bush was defined by the 9/11 crisis, Barack Obama's first term will be shaped by a battered economy. Bush launched his "war" on terror and Obama will have to wage war on recession. To be successful, Obama must learn from five critical mistakes Bush made mismanaging his crisis.
Involve the American People: In the days after 9/11, George Bush made a critical error by not involving Americans in his war on terror. At the time, critics noted Bush had failed to learn from the actions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. As World War II unfolded, FDR ensured that all Americans had a role to play: some served in the military while others were part of the domestic security system; many women shed their traditional roles and became factory workers; and children were asked to collect scrap metal, newspapers, and miscellaneous refuse such as bacon fat. FDR understood an engaged citizenry is a mighty resource and harnessed our energy to galvanize the U.S. economy.
Although Americans initially supported the war on terror, Bush never involved us in his struggle to make the U.S. safe and rid the world of terrorists. Americans were dismissed - told to "go shopping" - while the fight against Al Qaeda was designed as an exclusively military campaign guided by Bush's lieutenants. Among the many mistakes resulting from this narrow vision was the failure to cut off funds to the terrorists, who were bankrolled by Middle Eastern oil wealth fueled by America's addiction to imported fossil fuel. As a consequence of Bush's shortsighted policy, the war on terror has failed; while there have been no further attacks on American soil, terrorist have regrouped in Pakistan, attracted new recruits, and launched attacks on our allies.
As a former community organizer, Barack Obama understands the importance of building a broad coalition to tackle a difficult national problem. As he struggles to turnaround a damaged economy, he will enlist support from all facets of American society: Capital Hill to Wall Street to Main Street. During his successful Presidential campaign, Obama built an impressive organization that involved ten million Americans as donors or volunteers. Since November 4th, many of these activists continue to meet, eager to help the President-elect have a successful first term. These volunteers can be enlisted not only for political action - nudging wayward Congress people to support Obama initiatives - but also for service within their communities: volunteering at soup kitchens, finding housing for those who have lost their homes due to the recession, weatherproofing public facilities, and so forth. One of the lessons of The Great Depression was that it touched every American and a unified effort was required to turn the economy around.
Ask for Sacrifice: Because George Bush never conceived of the war on terror as a campaign involving the American people, he never asked us for sacrifice. This was a stark contrast to FDR's position at the onset of World War II, when he issued a call for sacrifice. Early in 1942, Roosevelt promoted a seven-point program that touched every American: regulation of "personal and corporate profits" through tax policy; controls on prices and rents; stabilization of wages; regulation of farm prices; investment in government bonds; rationing of scarce commodities - such as oil; and encouragement of personal savings. Barack Obama would do well to study FDR's program.
Focus on Key Objectives: One of the many problems with Bush's ill-conceived war on terror was that it wasn't possible to measure progress. For example, in March of 2003, at the onset of the invasion of Iraq, most Americans couldn't tell whether the US was winning or losing the war on terror. The metrics of success were ill defined and this contributed to the public's confusion in the days leading up to the invasion.
President Obama's war on the recession should begin with a small number of understandable objectives, common-sense metrics that go beyond positive growth of GDP. These might come from alternatives to the GDP such as the "green" GDP or the triple bottom line. It's clear that some goals have to reflect conditions on Main Street, such as the number of Americans earning a living wage or the CEO-Minimum Wage Ratio -- at last report, 821 to 1. Others objectives might measure energy usage, such as our consumption of carbon-based fuel.
Communicate Progress: Finally, Bush didn't follow FDR's example and talk to the American people; he was content to scare rather than reassure. Roosevelt famously communicated by means of a series of radio addresses - the fireside chats. Since being elected President, Barack Obama has used radio and the Internet, YouTube, for weekly communication about his plans to deal with the economic crisis.
Since November 4th, Barack Obama has focused on the financial crisis gripping America and taken action to reassure Americans. Obama appears to have learned from George Bush's crisis management mistakes.