Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Failure by numbers

When all the talking points have been retired (along with some of the people who came up with them), when the masters of spin walk off arm in arm with the masters of war, the enduring arbiter of how well or how poorly a president did while in office is a matter of numbers.

In the presidency, like in baseball and higher mathematics and the daily figures on the stock exchange, the numbers will tell the truth when the administration — any administration — tends to be, uh, accuracy-challenged. Especially when that administration is forty-one days from being history.

Not that anyone in the world is counting.

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Leave it to ProPublica, a young nonprofit Internet-based newsroom that focuses on investigative journalism, to offer several meaningful snapshots — numerical report cards, really — of the highs and lows of the administration of George W. Bush, mercifully near an end.

The whole thing deserves to be seen at the ProPublica site, but we’ve broken out some of the more compelling figures comparing the United States now and the United States when George Bush took office on Jan. 20, 2001.

For the most part, it’s not a good report. From the state of the economy to the number of unemployed Americans, from the number of Americans without health insurance, the ProPublica report points, with the agony of historical comparison, to a damaged, wounded nation with vast work to do repairing an economy in tatters, a brutalized armed forces and a national debt not likely to be retired by even our children’s children.

There are some bright spots for the beleaguered Bush White House. Example: Under the current administration, U.S. government funding for AIDS anti-retroviral drugs to African nations and other countries deeply affected by HIV/AIDS increased dramatically.

One can only guess the number of lives saved by this ongoing intervention — one of the truly principled moral stands by a government often accused of insensitivity and indifference to those beyond the water’s edge.

(But there’s tarnish even in that triumph; the administration has come under fire for withholding AIDS prevention funds from countries, pursuing a strategy of abstinence-based policies that fails to confront the problem from a less ideological perspective.)

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The Bush crew has done its level best to further its reflexive practice of message control, the manipulation of perception that will be the hallmark of the Bush White House, doing everything they can to spin the history of this administration before it’s even ended.

But ProPublica’s graphic distillation of the Bush record is the concrete of policies, and the factual consequences of those policies, that’s hardening around the feet of the brain trust at the Bush White House.

These then-and-now snapshots are the Bushies’ worst enemy, the unspinnable facts, cold and clinical and nonpartisan, a reflection of a tragically adventurous, strategically hubristic, fiscally profligate administration out of touch with the country, and the world, it presumed to lead.

Image credits: ProPublica.

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