Hard as it seems at times to remember, Barack Obama never ran against George W. Bush. That pleasure went to Al Gore and John Kerry, who did not seem to enjoy the experience. Obama ran in 2008, and won the election, but in 2010, into his second year as president, he still thinks he is running, and against the now-retired (and quiet) 43rd president. “He says, ‘the buck stops with me,’ but nearly a year into office President Barack Obama is still blaming a lot of the nation’s troubles—the economy, terrorism, health care—on George W. Bush,” wrote Ben Feller of the Associated Press a few weeks ago. “A sharper, give-me-some-credit tone has emerged in his language as he bemoans people’s fleeting memory about what life was like. . . . ‘I don’t need to remind any of you about the situation we found ourselves in at the beginning of this year,’ Obama told people at a Home Depot stop last month. And then he reminded them anyway.” Someone should tell him he won the election, and that people will judge him not on what Bush did, but on what he is doing. And what he’s been doing hasn’t been all that good.
In some ways, his reaction to the near-catastrophe on Christmas Day, when a terrorist almost blew a hole in a plane over Detroit, seemed less involved with the war against terror than with the ongoing war against Bush. Trying hard not to seem too warlike or macho, he took three days before speaking, making time after tennis for what Toby Harnden of the Daily Telegraph called a “tepid address” in which he referred to the “alleged suspect” as an “isolated extremist” (which he was not). Then Obama went snorkeling. Only days later, when it was clear he was facing a public relations disaster, did he begin to edge by stages into a more forceful reaction, which wasn’t fully unveiled until January 7, almost two weeks after the attempted attack had occurred.
Meanwhile, the Bush-blaming project had gone on apace. The American Spectator cited a staffer in the White House Counsel’s office saying that White House aides were doing research to “show that the Bush administration had had far worse missteps than we ever could.” The New York Post commented, “It speaks eloquently to the Obama administration’s priorities that it took the White House four days to acknowledge the ‘catastrophic breach of security’ that led to the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound jet on Christmas Day—but a scant four hours to accuse Dick Cheney of coddling terrorists.” If anything galvanizes the Obama team more than the silent George Bush, it is his vocal vice president, who has been engaging the administration in a debate about terrorism since last March. Any appearance of Cheney’s brings about a quick, extended, and insult-laden rebuttal, and is good for a half-hour rant from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, in which he compares the former vice president to a “troll” known as “Cheeney” (rhymes with meanie), who crawls out of his bolt hole to blink in the light and hiss venom-filled curses at Obama.
So eager is the Obama team to cast blame upon Bush that it blames him for sins he never committed, as even reporters friendly to Obama have been forced to make clear. “Taking a decidedly different tack from his predecessor . . . Obama on Thursday took the blame for shortcomings that led to a failed Christmas Day bombing plot,” Politico reported. “Aides to Obama signaled that he was consciously seeking to be the anti-Bush . . . quick, transparent, willing to take the blame—all things Obama has said President George W. Bush was not.” Alas, a few paragraphs later, the reporters themselves blew the whistle, reminding us of all the times Bush had taken the blame for errors—on his response to Katrina, and the reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction—in words like those used by Obama himself. “To the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” he said 18 days after Katrina. “I want to know what went right and what went wrong.”
To Obama, the blame-shifting appears justified, as he claims he walked into a set of disasters—two wars, plus a financial implosion—worse than what confronted Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or anyone in the story of man. But of these two wars, one had been won (thanks to the surge, which Obama opposed), and the other had a blueprint in place based on the surge (which was opposed by most of Obama’s own party), while the financial collapse was caused by both parties, and the key steps that averted disaster had already been taken by Bush. The mess was large, but not without precedent, as messes are what presidents deal with.