Roosevelt inherited a mess and then faced an existential threat to the world and the country. Truman inherited a mess, as Roosevelt had been unable to keep the Soviet Union from taking over Eastern Europe, and he was forced to make the decision to drop the first atom bomb. Truman passed a mess on to Eisenhower, who passed a mess on to Kennedy, who passed a mess on to Johnson, who passed a catastrophe on to Richard M. Nixon, as none of them had a clue what to do about the Communist threat to corrupt countries in Asia, a problem to which no workable answers would ever be found.
Even in times when the world seemed more or less peaceful—as in the Bush 41 transition to Clinton, and the Clinton transition to Bush 43—there were mild messes due to cyclical recessions, and hidden messes just waiting to surface. Clinton had problems in Bosnia and with Saddam Hussein (either leaving Saddam in power or ousting him would have turned out to be messy), and Bush 43 would be in office less than nine months when he was faced with an explosion of Islamic terrorism, a problem which prior presidents had been aware of, but of whose scope and ferocity no one could have dreamed. Obama inherited a similar mess, but the war in Iraq had been won, and Bush had developed a series of tools for meeting the terrorist threat that had prevented further attacks on U.S soil after 9/11. Iran was still there, but Saddam Hussein was no longer a problem. It was a mixed bag, but not the worst ever bequeathed a newly elected president—which the public, given time and perspective, now is beginning to see.
And so as a tactic, the Blaming Bush mantra is starting to fade in effectiveness. It was one thing early on when it was the real Bush being weighed against the ideal Obama, who had never been tried, and so never failed at anything, and who one could dream would do everything perfectly. The real Bush against the real Obama is a whole other story, as the problems that stymied the 43rd president show no signs of yielding to the 44th’s charms. The terrorists hate us, and still want to kill us. Unemployment is high, stimuli notwithstanding. Closing Guantánamo Bay isn’t that easy. Iran and North Korea haven’t unclenched their fists.
Bush’s presidency was consumed by terror, and he became as one with its problems: the car bombs, the head-hackers, the terrible choices, the terrorist plots. Bush was associated with them, and some people came to believe that he caused them. Obama was supposed to make all this go away. He hasn’t. It won’t. Some of his choices now seem downright stupid: like bypassing jobs to focus on health care, and creating a bloated monstrosity of a reform that is very unpopular. There were other diversions of dubious merit that over time chipped away at and eroded his image and gravitas: the war on Rush Limbaugh. The war on James Crowley, the white policeman from Cambridge, Mass., who arrested Obama’s friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The war on Fox News.
Early on, while Obama was still overwhelmingly popular, his team was delighted to see Cheney confront him head-on on issues involving national security, thrilled to have a grumpy old white man emerge as the face of the opposition. Surprise. The public tended to side on the issues with Cheney, whose approval ratings, though still less than healthy, started to rouse, and to rise from the depths. Meanwhile, Obama’s own numbers—those of the real man, and not of the fantasy figure—started to wilt.
Obama’s approval ratings are in the mid-40s, while almost equal numbers say they strongly disliked him. Half of the country think him a failure. When asked if the country would have been better off had John McCain won the election, 35 percent of voters say yes and only 37 percent say no. Worst, when asked to compare Obama with Bush, only 43 percent think Obama is better, as opposed to the 23 percent who see no real difference, and the 30 percent who think he is worse.