Barack Obama remains fixated on George W. Bush. For nearly two years, President Obama and his team have prefaced their explanations for the tough economy, the tough finances, and the tough situation abroad with a “Bush did it” chorus. Apparently, they believed that most of our problems, here and abroad, either started with George W. Bush, or at least would not transcend him.
At first, it was an easy enough habit to fall into. Things were not in great shape in January 2009 when Obama took over. More important, Obama started out with a nearly 70 percent approval rating. By contrast, Bush, like the punching bag Harry Truman, left office with an approval rating in the low 30s.
Obama’s serial fixation on his predecessor made little sense when he first took office — and it has now become a disastrous misreading of political realities.
Recent polls reflect that Bush and Obama are now just about even in popularity. Obama’s supporters in the House have suffered the worst shellacking since 1938. The president got out of Washington on a foreign tour immediately after the election — only to be cold-shouldered by fair-weather foreign leaders who sensed weakness. Bush, meanwhile, is basking in endless media exposure as he expounds on his best-selling memoir — appearing above the partisan fray, past and present.
Voters two years ago elected Obama for a variety of reasons — from unhappiness with Bush and Iraq to the landmark novelty of seeing our first black president. The financial meltdown of September 2008 ended for good John McCain’s small lead in the polls. That panic also reminded voters of their unease with the Bush deficits and his expansion of government.
Unfortunately, Obama misread all that, and ended up trumping many of the things that Bush did to alienate voters.
Deficits of $500 billion soared to $1.4 trillion. Vast but unfunded Bush programs like Medicare prescription-drug benefits and No Child Left Behind soon were overshadowed by even bigger ones like Obamacare. An initial Bush bailout evolved into a gargantuan stimulus and serial government takeovers.
The result, fair or not, was that Bush’s financial felonies began to look like misdemeanors in comparison. Tea Party voters saw the Obama medicine as worse than the original Bush disease.
There was the same obsession with — and misreading of — Bush in foreign affairs. The public was turned off by the violence and costs in Iraq — but otherwise not especially concerned about Bush’s largely traditional foreign policy or his anti-terrorism protocols. Too bad a Bush-obsessed Obama was again blind to that simple fact. So when Iraq became largely quiet as Obama entered office, the entire “Bush did it” refrain was rendered obsolete and should have been dropped.
The anti-war Obama had campaigned on closing Guantanamo, ending tribunals and renditions, and critiquing the Patriot Act and Predator-drone attacks. But once Iraq was taken out of the equation, Obama quickly discovered that these old bogeymen Bush policies were both useful and relatively popular. So he was forced to keep or expand them. Obama’s flip-flop only confused Americans: Why, in hypocritical fashion, was he now embracing the Bush legacy that he used to demonize constantly?
When Obama tried to chart a new and much-heralded “reset-button” foreign policy in loud opposition to Bush’s, the irony continued. Most Americans did not want to try the accused architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian court replete with legal gymnastics. They did not think that announcing artificial deadlines for troop withdrawals in wartime was an especially bright idea.
They also did not expect that the much-heralded antidote to Bush’s swagger and “Dead or Alive” Texanisms would include bowing to Saudi princes and Chinese dictators, apologizing abroad for America’s purported sins, or spreading mythologies about the Islamic world’s contribution to the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Just because Bush turned off Europe over Iraq did not mean that an “I’m not Bush” Obama could not turn it off even more by printing billions of dollars, urging European countries to borrow more in reckless American style, and downplaying old alliances with everyone from Britain to Poland.
So here is a polite suggestion for President Obama: After nearly two years of governance, free up your policies to either succeed or fail on their own merits without chaining them to the Bush past. In a word: Let go of a now-smiling and relatively rehabilitated Bush — before such a fixation consumes you and your presidency.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.