This is a presidency that has wobbled between those two poles — overweening arrogance and paralytic incompetence.
The latter has held sway these past few months as the economy has crumbled. It is too early to rate the performance of Bush's economic team, but we have more than enough evidence to say, definitively, that at a moment when there was a vast national need for reassurance, the President himself was a cipher. Yes, he's a lame duck with an Antarctic approval rating — but can you imagine Bill Clinton going so gently into the night? There are substantive gestures available to a President that do not involve the use of force or photo ops. For example, Bush could have boosted the public spirit — and the auto industry — by announcing that he was scrapping the entire federal automotive fleet, including the presidential limousine, and replacing it with hybrids made in Detroit. He could have jump-started — and he still could — the Obama plan by releasing funds for a green-jobs program to insulate public buildings. He could start funding the transit projects already approved by Congress.
In the end, though, it will not be the creative paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. Bush never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and regulation that was necessary to make markets work. He never understood, or cared about, the delicate balance between freedom and equity that was necessary to maintain the strong middle class required for both prosperity and democracy. He never considered the complexities of the cultures he was invading. He never understood that faith, unaccompanied by rigorous skepticism, is a recipe for myopia and foolishness. He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one.