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.
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.
One might imagine numbers like these would move the Obama team to pull the plug on the blame-fest, but one would be wrong. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne rang out the old year by urging Democrats to double down, claiming that only by painting the Bush age as a “squandered decade” that ravaged the country could Obama’s fortunes be revived. “Much of the contention surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency is simply a continuation of our argument over the effects of George W. Bush’s time in office,” he said. It isn’t: It’s about the spending, the deficits, the enormous expansion of federal power, and the incredible corruption, deal-making, and squalor surrounding the health care reform bill. Dionne contends Obama was elected as a rebuke to the Bush foreign policy, but John McCain, who was for the surge before Bush was, was close to Obama through most of the year, and led in the two-week window between his convention and the financial collapse. Dionne sees Obama’s election as a repudiation of Bush’s governing policies, but Cheney won his debates with the president, and in the past few months conservative ideas have come back. Dionne says Obama is “both the anti-Bush and the leader of the post-Bush cleanup squad,” but it’s a strange kind of cleanup that leaves in place the Bush defense secretary (Robert Gates), the Bush generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush prescription for the war in Afghanistan, not to mention Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke, the original architect in 2008 of Bush’s response to the fiscal collapse. Dionne says “we have no choice but to reach a settlement about the meaning of the last 10 years”—i.e., to agree with him they have been a catastrophe—to give Obama a chance of succeeding. But Obama’s ultimate success or failure will have very little to do with Bush’s reputation. It will rest on his own ability to hold the line in the war against terror, restore some sense of fiscal stability, and keep the country safe from further attacks. These have very little to do with the Bush reputation. They rest in the hands of fate and Obama and have nothing to do with what anyone thinks about Bush.
Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy ran to succeed a president of the opposite party whom they did not oppose in the election but whose administrations they felt obliged to critique. Once in office, however, they dropped the subject, and concentrated on governing, without further complaints about the messes they were handed: the Communists in Eastern Europe, the Communists with the H-Bomb, the conflict in Korea, the war in Vietnam and Laos, the potentially lethal flash point and mess in Berlin. Both Ike and Jack were judged in the end to be pretty good presidents, and their era—the early Cold War—as very important. They fought the enemy, not one another, at least not in public, and not once they had taken the oath of office. The crises they faced stand up to Obama’s. And back then, the buck stopped with them.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.