Back in August, White House press chief Robert Gibbs voiced frustration with liberal Obama critics, telling the Hill newspaper that the “professional left” would “be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.” These comments unleashed a tsunami of blogger outrage, prompting Gibbs to reproach himself for speaking “inartfully” and clarify his remarks. But his original statements were plain enough. Obama conveyed similar exasperation in last week’s Daily Show interview with Jon Stewart.
This got me thinking about what presidents 44 and 43 have in common. To the Howard Dean–MoveOn faithful, George W. Bush was a right-wing abomination: a Texas oilman who wanted to cut taxes for CEOs, let Wall Street gamble with granny’s Social Security, overthrow foreign governments, use the Patriot Act to squash civil liberties, drive the caribou out of ANWR, and put more arsenic in the water supply. His positions on stem-cell research and climate change were part of a broader “war on science.” By endorsing the Federal Marriage Amendment, he was pandering to bigots. In 2003, prominent liberal journalist Harold Meyerson declared that Bush was “incomparably more dangerous than Reagan or any other president in this nation’s history.” (Indeed, said Meyerson, “The American president — though not of the United States — whom George W. Bush most nearly resembles is the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis.”)
Meanwhile, conservatives had their own litany of grievances with Bush. He signed campaign-finance legislation that, in his own words, raised “serious constitutional concerns.” (NR called it “a cynical and opportunistic act unworthy of his young presidency.”) He authorized a massive new entitlement (Medicare Part D), which only became law after an unseemly spectacle of GOP intimidation. He collaborated with Ted Kennedy and George Miller on No Child Left Behind. He (temporarily) slapped tariffs on imported steel. He championed immigration reforms that included a conditional amnesty for those residing in the U.S. illegally. His overall spending habits made him a veritable “LBJ Republican.”
Just like Obama, Bush inspired ferocious rage among his opponents and profound disappointment among plenty of his supporters. After the 2006 election, many conservatives — too many — peddled the argument that Republicans had been punished for, essentially, “not being conservative enough.” Likewise, many liberals seem inclined to interpret yesterday’s Democratic losses as proof that Obama should’ve pushed harder for a bigger stimulus, a more left-wing health-care bill (with a “public option”), tougher financial regulations, cap-and-trade, an immigration overhaul, a congressional repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” etc.
Such is the current state of U.S. politics: Conservatives denounce Obama as an ideological leftist seeking to transform America into a “European-style social democracy,” while liberals paint him as excessively “timid” (the word used by Jon Stewart). Obama is experiencing the downside of Great Expectations. Though I doubt he spends much time comparing himself to GWB, each president managed the curious feat of exacerbating political polarization while simultaneously alienating the base of his own party. Funny, that.