Obama's Great Gift — to Bush
Obama’s gift — it just keeps giving to Bush.
Barack Obama has oddly done a great service to George W. Bush. Almost every issue about which the media and our elite culture once faulted Bush for has been even more applicable to Obama himself.
Bush and the Press? Obama has given far fewer press conferences; he is accessible, if the media agrees to fluff interviews and photo-ops. For Scott McClellan, substitute Robert Gibbs (Obama has of yet no pro like Tony Snow). Authentic imprecision in a president is perhaps preferable to teleprompted glibness.
Karl Rove hardballers? Trumped again by Chicagoans like Axelrod, Emanuel, and Jarret. I don’t think Mark Foley ever accused a shouting Karl Rove of approaching him naked in the congressional showers.
Tired expressions? Try “let me be perfectly clear” and “make no mistake about it” ad nauseam.
Bush crassness? For “Yo Blair” and a back rub for Angie Merkel, imagine cheap gifts for the British, bows to the Saudis, and lies about Islamic primacy in science and discovery.
We could go on.
Bush the rude boor abroad? A poll of Europe’s leaders (privately, of course) would perhaps find German, British, Italian, and French prime ministers and presidents more favorable to the folksy dependable Bush than the aloof diffident Obama.
NATO friends in Afghanistan? The transnational Obama is no more successful in keeping Europeans at the front than was the supposedly unilateral Bush. Indeed, the Dutch are leaving and the French not sending any new help.
American popularity abroad? Polls show that Americans, at least, feel our national prestige has declined, not grown since 2009. Most worry more that allies like Merkel, Sarkozy and the Brits now doubt America’s resolve than whether we are liked by the crowds in Bali or Zimbabwe.
Is Obama on some sort of mission to rehabilitate George Bush? Each time he starts in with “reset” and “Bush did it” and “we inherited this mess,” he is achieving the opposite effect of what was intended — sympathy for the prior president.
Obama as Bush 2.0
But all this is just fluff and PR: the real Obama gift to Bush has been on foreign policy and the economy.
By December 2008, a multiyear narrative had been long established among global elites that George Bush had essentially shredded the U.S. Constitution. By enacting a series of post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures such as the Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, Predator-targeted assassinations, and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as conducting two unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush was supposed nearly on par with the terrorists themselves.
State legislator, Senator, and then presidential candidate Obama perhaps best both played on, and helped to advance, this narrative of Bush the anti-civil libertarian, by serial criticism of almost all of the Bush protocols. Indeed, Obama was on record on everything from demanding combat troops out of Iraq by March 2008 to labeling air attacks in Afghanistan as a sort of airborne terrorism.
For every Bush protocol, one can adduce a demagogic Obama slur, as he derided tribunals, Iraq, renditions, and Guantanamo. Such posturing was relatively easy — given that an unexpectedly safe America years later had the luxury to second guess the earlier protocols that had kept it secure. Partisan cheap rhetoric, of course, was far easier than responsible governance.
But then a funny thing happened. A now President Obama, responsible for the safety of 300 million Americans, adopted almost all of the Bush measures, and in some cases even augmented them (such as quadrupling the number of targeted assassinations.)
Yes, yes, I know: Obama said that he rejected some protocols, but only virtually so — thus Guantanamo was virtually closed; KSM was virtually tried in a civilian court in New York; and CIA interrogators were virtually subject to trials and inquisition.
In the most cynical fashion imaginable, apparently Obama reasoned (if I may) something like the following: "My hard left base is nuts and yet hardly principled at all. In fact, it has no ideology other than loudly ranting to get its domestic agenda and its operatives back in power. So I don’t take seriously any of its puerile rhetoric about Bush’s supposedly illegal methods. In fact, I’ll adopt them all because they work. All I have to do is offer a few rhetoric bones like supposedly closing Guantanamo or trying KSM to shut them up. Those shams will give them enough wiggle room to fight charges of hypocrisy, while I keep reassuring them that their leftwing domestic agenda is mine as well."
Obama went into the presidency as an ACLU caterpillar and came out of his chrysalis as a Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism moth. The result is that the once demonic Bush has now transmogrified into the father of the Obama “reasonable” anti-terrorism agenda. And craziest of all, “Bring ‘em on” Bush is responsible for one of the “greatest achievements” (according to Vice President Joe Biden) of the Obama administration — nothing less than the "Bush lied, thousands died" / "no blood for oil" war in Iraq.
A Fraud of the Highest Order
Two more observations.
Within a year Obama has demonstrated two elemental truths: the opposition to Bush on all matters of anti-terror was never principled, but wholly partisan, which explains why all these issues are no longer the subjects of rallies, protests, Hollywood outbursts, etc. (Where is Code Pink or Cindy Sheehan on the network news?)
We won’t see a new movie called Rendition II or Redacted—Again, or any more Oscar ceremonies with foaming celebrities damning the president for keeping open Guantanamo or blowing up a wife or child of a suspected terrorist. Harry Reid won’t declare Iraq lost; and Joe Biden won’t demand a trisection of Iraq. Nor will civil libertarians disrupt appearances of David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel in the manner they once heckled Bush operatives.
I say that not out of partisanship, but simply emphasize empirically that we have not seen loud protests against the Obama anti-terrorism agenda that in substance (forget the rhetoric) is increasingly identical to Bush’s. (I guess this is sort of like the Right’s silence when Reagan helped run up deficits and signed the worst amnesty possible in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act.)
Euros on the Bandwagon
Second, Obama’s Bush 2.0 policies revealed anti-Americanism abroad to be an even greater fraud. All those European protests, the UN showboating aimed at Bush’s Guantanamo and Iraq, or the Spanish threats to try Americans dissipated when Obama was inaugurated. Indeed, Obama as Bush 2.0 received the Nobel Peace Prize (rather than fighting off a Spanish or Hague summons for blowing up hundreds in Predator attacks in Waziristan.) This revelation of European hypocrisy also has been a great gift to Bush and the American people at large — exposing anti-Americanism abroad as a boutique rage among opportunistic elites, but otherwise having little if anything to do with facts or truth.
There are Deficits — and Then There are Deficits
Many of us severely criticized the Bush deficits. When a conservative submits a budget of $500 million in the red, he discredits the entire notion of both fiscal responsibility (“who will police the police?”), and the idea that tax cuts bring in greater aggregate revenue (what did it matter to the public that such cuts created more income after 2004, when spending increases gobbled up the additional revenue?).
But now? Obama is on schedule to run up more debt than all previous presidents combined, with record deficits each year of his presidency. (Note how pundits who decried Bush's fiscal recklessness now talk about exaggerated worries over deficit spending). Obama claimed that such borrowing was necessary to stop another Depression, but by late January 2009 the financial panic of September 2008 had in the four subsequent Bush months already subsided, and the additional stimuli did little to create anything other than additional government workers, larger programs, short-term spending, and a need for higher taxes. Bush’s deficits, in other words, are dwarfed by Obama’s — almost as if the inexperienced president thought “I’d better copy my predecessor, but trump him wherever possible.”
The 2008 Hypnosis
As the Obama trance subsides, we will only in retrospect come to appreciate the collective derangement that swept America in the summer of 2008, when a sophisticated electorate fell for “hope and change” bromides and talk of healing non-partisanship from a Chicago pro and the most partisan member of the Senate.
But just as interestingly, George Bush will not be seen any longer as the caricature of the New York Times, but as a figure whose foreign policy his successor emulated. Better yet for Bush, to the degree that Obama has been successful in keeping us safe, it is because he copied the Bush antecedents; to the degree he has endangered or embarrassed us (e.g., the false promises on Guantanamo, the talk of trials in New York for KSM, the reach out to Iran and Venezuela, being snookered by Russia, the China rebuff, the failed Mideast "breakthrough," the serial bows and apologies, etc.), it is because of Obama’s utopian arrogance that is all his own.
The career of Harry Truman is again instructive, since he too left the presidency with an abysmal standing in the polls. It is no surprise that George Bush is the first president since Truman in 1952 to have suffered an orphaned lame-duck election, in which neither the president nor vice president was up for reelection, and thus no presidential candidate was vested in defending an incumbent record. Instead, John McCain, like Adlai Stevenson, ran as much against his own party’s incumbents as he did the opposition. We forget that both the unpopular Truman and Bush shared this artifact and it surely helps to explain much of the hostility that each garnered in their last years in office.
But there is also a difference. Dwight Eisenhower achieved a popular presidency, and thus made it difficult for Truman’s foreign policy achievements to earn appreciation, especially as the icon Ike adopted most of Truman’s prior initiatives from containment to keeping south of the 38th Parallel.
But Bush is succeeded by no Eisenhower so far. Obama has suffered the most dramatic decline in approval ratings of a first year presidency in recorded polling history. That allows Bush to be reexamined favorably far more quickly than was Truman, whose stature was not acknowledged until the 1960s.
Reagan ensured Carter’s continued unpopularity by being both successful and rejecting almost the entire Carter foreign and domestic agenda. Obama has done the opposite so far for Bush — creating a “miss me yet?” feeling by sanctioning the Bush war on terror, while turning Bush’s domestic misdemeanors into real felonies.
And perhaps given a bad/worse choice, Americans will always prefer in their commanders-in-chief authentic awkwardness to counterfeit charm.
A modest prediction. In six months Bush will poll better than Obama, and liberal Bush-hating columnists (most of whom were for the Iraq war in 2003) will oh so insidiously begin to triangulate and show appreciation for the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, and our relations with Europe overseas — and this is a best case scenario for Obama if he avoids a real blowup with Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela, etc. in 1979 Jimmy Carter fashion.
In short, Barack Obama has been George Bush’s greatest gift — and he has not finished giving quite yet.