Academic journal article International Social Science Review

What's the Problem, Mr. President? Bush's Shifting Definitions of the 2008 Financial Crisis

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

What's the Problem, Mr. President? Bush's Shifting Definitions of the 2008 Financial Crisis

Article excerpt

Introduction

On September 15, 2008, the 150-year-old global financial services firm, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., declared bankruptcy after the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department denied its pleas for a federal bailout. The firm, which had generated more than $3.1 billion in profits during the previous year, saw its stock price drop ninety percent in a single day. Dragged down by Lehman Brothers, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell over 500 points, its largest single-day loss since the immediate wake of 9/11. The Wall Street Journal declared: "Crisis on Wall Street as Lehman Totters"; (1) the Times of London reported: "Lehman Brothers Collapse Sends Shockwave Round World"; (2) and the Washington Post read: "Stocks Plunge as Crisis Intensifies." (3) Over the course of the day, the dominant media narrative that emerged was characterized by crisis, complexity, uncertainty, and panic.

President George W. Bush defined the situation in far different terms. Rather than shifting into crisis mode by adjusting his schedule and aggressively engaging with the unfolding events on Wall Street, as might be expected, he offered only a brief statement on the matter during a prearranged joint appearance with the visiting President of Ghana. Bush acknowledged that "Americans are concerned about the adjustments that are taking place in our financial markets," but then offered reassurance: "At the White House and throughout my administration, we're focused on them--and we're working to reduce disruptions and minimize the impact of these financial market developments on the broader economy." (4) The president provided no explanation of why the events of the day were "adjustments," rather than signs of a financial crisis as described by media, why they were occurring, or what they meant. And he gave no indication of what his administration was doing to ameliorate the situation or what actions might be taken in the future. Instead, Bush sanguinely declared: "In the long run, I'm confident that our capital markets are flexible and resilient, and can deal with these adjustments." (5)

With these brief comments, Bush offered what policy scholars refer to as a "problem definition"--an interpretation of conditions and events that is constructed "to explain, to describe, to recommend, and above all, to persuade." (6) This study examines the development of Bush's problem definition of the financial turmoil during a five-day period between September 15 and September 19, 2008. Specifically, it explores how Bush's interpretation of events shifted over time in an effort to rhetorically justify his inaction during the first days of the crisis and then, after reversing course, to defend taking aggressive action just days later. In doing so, this interpretive analysis focuses on Bush's rhetorical choices in which he acted. These included decisions to speak or not speak, and when; identification of causes of the crisis; the framing of this causal story and its implicit or explicit attributions of blame; justifications of past policy decisions and administrative actions; characterizations of risk; and the framing of solutions and their merits. These choices are examined within a political context marked by an adversarial Congress; Bush's lame-duck status and low public approval ratings; the ongoing political campaigns, including a presidential campaign in which the Republican nominee had distanced himself from the sitting president; Bush's rhetorical and ideological commitments to the free market; and considerations of his legacy. On a more general level, the purpose of this study is to illuminate an example of how presidents try to shape the public understanding of reality and, by doing so, attempt to influence the political and policy-making environment through problem definition.

This study introduces the notions of the social construction of public problems and presidential definitions of reality with a review and discussion of the seminal literature in these areas. …

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