There are a lot of things that, whether we like it or not, the president of the United States cant do: wave a hand and fix major economic problems quickly; force Congress to pass his/her favorite bills; make Sarah Palin shut up. But in the area of foreign policy and our relations with friends and foes around the globe, who we have placed in the Oval Office can make all the difference in the world.
Take John Kennedy and George W. Bush, for example. Today is the anniversary of the day JFK announced an air and naval blockade (or quarantine, as he called it) of Cuba, following the detection of Soviet missile bases there. A mile-high-or-so stack of books has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but one thing sticks out as having been of ultimate importance and by that I mean human civilization survived. Pres. Kennedy, who was a decorated veteran of World War II, managed the most intensely dangerous and stressful foreign relations crisis in U.S. history world history, actually in a way that avoided the nuclear catastrophe everyone feared was inevitable. On the other side of the world was Nikita Khrushchev, who had seen first-hand the vast loss of life and destruction of cities brought by Hitlers militaristic folly; Khrushchev, like JFK, understood that if he unleashed nuclear weaponry, that would be all she wrote for humankind as we know it. One thing both of those leaders did in October 1962 was to refuse to cave in to military commanders who were telling them their nations had to go launch military attacks. Make no mistake: any clear reading of what happened in 62 shows that if we are here today in the lovely 21st century, we have John Kennedy to thank for it.
Contrast that White House performance with George W. Bushs. Bush, who got out of going to Vietnam by taking the National Guard route, recklessly pushed the U.S. into a horrendous, unnecessary war in Iraq, upon the advice of his equally inexperienced-in-war, but bomb-happy, advisers like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. You know the results. Yesterday, Bush told a crowd that his biggest mistake as president was not privatizing Social Security. Not the trillion bucks and thousands of lives wasted overseas, but Social Security. Not the bottomless debt incurred by simultaneously fighting two wars and handing huge tax breaks to multi-millionaires. Social Security. In a way, its good to see that Dubya is still as clueless as we knew he was back in the day. But the point of all this is: Two presidents, two completely different mindsets, one led us away from nuclear catastrophe, the other led us into a couple of foreign quagmires weve yet to get out of. It does make a difference who's in the White House.