Former president George W. Bush left office with the lowest approval ratings since Richard Nixon. So, for nearly two years, Pres. Barack Obama won easy applause by prefacing almost every speech on his economic policies with a “Bush did it” put-down.
But suddenly Bush seems okay. Last week, the president did the unthinkable: He praised Bush for his past efforts to reach out to Muslims. Vice President Joe Biden went further and blurted out, “Mr. Bush deserves a lot of credit.” Biden topped that off with, “Mr. President, thank you.”
Even liberal pundits have now called on Bush to help Obama defuse rising tensions over the so-called Ground Zero mosque and Arizona’s illegal-immigration law.
What’s going on?
For one thing, recent polls show an astounding rebound in the former president’s favorability — to the extent that in the bellwether state of Ohio, voters would rather still have Bush as president than have Obama by a 50–42 margin. Nationwide, Obama’s approval ratings continue to sink to near 40 percent — a nadir that it took years for Bush to reach. It has become better politics to praise Bush than to bury him.
Iraq seems to be on the road to success, with a growing economy and a stabilizing government. Don’t take my word on that; ask Vice President Biden. He recently claimed that the way Iraq is going, it could become one of the Obama administration’s “greatest achievements.” Obama himself seconded that when the former war critic called the American effort in Iraq “a remarkable chapter” in the history of the two countries.
Then there are the growing comparisons with Bush’s supposed past transgressions. Compared with Obama’s, they’re starting to look like traffic tickets. Take the economy and the War on Terror. Americans were angry about the Bush-era deficits. But they look small now, after Obama trumped them in less than two years.
For six years of the Bush administration, Americans enjoyed a strong economy. So far, there hasn’t been a similar month under Obama. Bush had a one-time Wall Street meltdown, but Obama’s permanent big-government medicine for it seems far worse than the original disease.
If Hurricane Katrina showed government ineptness, so did the recent BP oil spill. Maybe such problems in the Gulf were neither Bush’s nor Obama’s fault alone, but are better attributed to the inept federal bureaucracy itself — or to freak weather and human laxity.
On the War on Terror, Obama has dropped all the old campaign venom. Bush’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility, renditions, tribunals, intercepts, wiretaps, predator-drone attacks, and policies in Afghanistan and Iraq are no longer dubbed a shredding of the Constitution. All are now seen as national-security tools that must be kept, if not expanded, under Obama.
In comparison with Obama and his gaffes, Bush no longer seems the singular clod whom his opponents endlessly ridiculed. The supposedly mellifluent Obama relies on the teleprompter as if it were his umbilical cord. His occasional word-mangling (he pronounced “corpsman” as “corpse-man”) and weird outbursts (he recently complained that opponents “talk about me like a dog”) remind us that the pressures of the presidency can make a leader sometimes seem silly.
Bush now seems cool because he has played it cool. The more Obama and Biden have trashed him, the more silent and thus magnanimous he appears. Bush’s post-presidency is not like that of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — both of whom criticized their successors and hit the campaign trail — but similar to that of his father, who worked with, rather than harped about, Bill Clinton. That graciousness not only has helped George W. Bush in the polls but seems finally to have mellowed out Obama as well.
Criticism of Bush got out of hand in the last few years of his term. Writing novels or making documentaries about killing the president, or libeling him as a Nazi, is not the sort of politics that we want continued during the Obama years. So it makes sense before the general election to halt the endless blame-gaming, before what goes around comes around.
The frenzy of Bush hatred and Obama worship that crested in the summer of 2008 is over. We now better remember the Bush of Ground Zero who had a megaphone in his hand and his arm around a fireman than the Texan who pronounced “nuclear” as “nucular.” Meanwhile, hope-and-change now seems to offer little hope and less change.
America woke up from its 2008 trance and is concluding that Bush was never as bad, and Obama never as good, as advertised.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, andthe author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.©2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.