During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama ran more against lame-duck President Bush than against his Republican opponent, John McCain. The campaign is now long over, and yet President Obama still seems haunted by the ghost of his predecessor. Last week, for example, he was railing at the Bush phantom, whom he blamed for his received economic mess. In the world of Barack Obama everything he inherited was someone else’s fault — unless he believes past policies offer him some advantage and thus are to be claimed as entirely his own.
The stock market is sliding. Gas and food prices are soaring. The housing market is as bad as it has been for the last three years. Unemployment is back over 9 percent. Economic growth is anemic. The national debt has risen $5 trillion in just three years. This year’s $1.6 trillion budget deficit is not stimulating anything but uncertainty and despair. Medicare and Social Security are not sustainable at present rates of payouts. Record numbers of Americans draw food stamps and unemployment insurance. An unpopular Obamacare has not even been implemented yet, and the administration has already granted 1,400 exemptions from it.
In other words, much as Jimmy Carter took the hard times of 1975–76 and turned them into the mess of high interest, high inflation, high unemployment, and high gas prices — while blaming the American people for their malaise — so too Barack Obama has made almost everything worse and is getting angrier at other people and events (the European meltdown, the Japanese tsunami, the Middle Eastern unrest) in the process.
The administration’s massive borrowing, new regulations, promised higher taxes, opposition to new oil leases and pipelines, takeovers (from GM and Chrysler to health care), and rhetorical assault on the successful in private enterprise have turned a bottoming-out recession into a near-permanent slump. Those with capital do not want to invest in new workers or equipment because they believe the president does not like them, in the sense that he will raise taxes to take away their hard-won profits, or will impose some sort of new regulation — like Obamacare or prohibitions against opening factories in right-to-work states — to make profits impossible. The result is that they have been for two years largely sitting out this “recovery,” as the economic witch-doctors — Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers — come and go.
Meanwhile, Obama serially faults the Bush policies of 2008, not his own of 2009–11 — something that becomes ever more difficult as the Bush administration’s average unemployment rate, GDP growth, deficits, and gas prices now seem not all that bad. And to the degree that economists fault Bush for the financial meltdown of 2008, they have cited his excessive federal spending, government intrusion into the housing market, and chronic budget deficits — just those areas where Obama has trumped Bush and turned his misdemeanors into felonies.
Sometimes Obama’s obsession with Bush’s ghost is more implicit. Take national security. He has quite boldly embraced and expanded all the Bush protocols he once trashed, largely because he has discovered that Guantanamo, tribunals, renditions, preventive detention, the Patriot Act, and Predator drones keep terrorists away from the United States. Yet to this day, Obama has not told the American people why renditions used to be bad and are now acceptable, or why the Bush Predator-drone program of targeted assassinations was wrong but needed to be quintupled. Instead, he makes it clear that a President Obama would have absolutely no patience with someone like a griping Senator Obama.
Obama has not changed the Bush-Petraeus plan for Iraq — but has never explained why he once denounced what he now advocates. Now the president has dropped his former multicultural reaching-out to the theocracy in Iran and the dictatorship in Syria. But again, what caused the reversion to the Bush-era distrust of these awful regimes? Has Obama matured in other areas, in the fashion that he recently confessed that his opposition to raising the debt ceiling in 2006 was the sort of irresponsible politicking that he now deplores in others?
When George Bush was president, promoting democracy was derided as an arrogant neoconservative imposition of our values onto different cultures. Now pushing democracy in the Arab world is called advocacy for human rights. Yet once more, Obama never explains why he channels the prior president’s policies without even the barest reference to his name.
Obama knows the media are invested in his success. Therefore he feels no urgency to explain to the public why policies enacted years ago deserve blame for their failures and receive no praise for their successes. It is almost as if Obama on some days claims, “Bush did it,” while on others insisting, “Bush didn’t do it.”
The young president, you see, cannot help it. He is haunted by the ghost of a president past.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.