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December 17, 2013 3:59 PM The Obama = Bush Meme

By Ed Kilgore

One of the easy-breezy memes that have been circulating in Washington the last few months has been that Barack Obama’s second term is a lot like George W. Bush’s. The meme has a predictive quality too, of course: it suggests that Obama’s declining public approval ratings are irretrievable, as the public “tunes him out” and Republicans win a second big mid-term victory a la 2006.

It’s fitting that National Journal’s Ron Fournier, the reigning champion of false equivalency arguments about the two major parties, has lifted the Obama = Bush idea to new heights in his latest column. Its basic thrust is that both Obama and Bush overreached after a second electoral victory in ways that made compromise with the opposition party impossible, and then lost their credibility by lying about their signature initiatives (Iraq for Bush, the ACA for Obama).

I won’t go through a complete point-by-point refutation of Fournier’s semi-listicle. Some of it—such as the damage to Obama’s personal credibility done by the Obamacare rollout—is far too contingent on future events to judge. But his three big equivalencies—Iraq = Obamacare, Bush’s post-2004-election SocSec and Iraq initiatives equal Obama’s post-2008-election “fiscal cliff” proposal, and Bush-era Democrats = Obama-era Republicans—are all so wrong that they need to be knocked down.

Comparing a war fought on false presences against a country that wasn’t actually a threat to the United States with legislation to expand health care coverage is bad enough. But the Iraq War became an end in itself, with the only “victory” available being a non-calamitous end to U.S. involvement. The Affordable Care Act is probably going to look better, not worse, as time goes on, and it will definitely enroll millions of the previously uninsured in Medicaid, even if the exchanges fail, while providing protections against insurance company abuses Americans are already enjoying. I think it’s also safe to say that whatever happens with Obamacare, it will be very difficult for its opponents to strike down the ACA’s ban on preexisting condition exclusions, making this large and crucial form of discrimination a thing of the past.

Bad as the Iraq = Obamacare identification undoubtedly is, it’s nothing when compared to Fournier’s argument that Obama came arrogantly out of his November victory and humiliated the poor Republican Party with a “fiscal cliff” proposal that was as hubristic as Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme, thus foreclosing any GOP cooperation with the White House.

Shortly after his reelection, at the height of his powers, Obama faced a choice in the 2012 lame-duck session of Congress: Lead with humility and seek compromise with the GOP on a long-term budget deal, or rub Republican faces in defeat. Obama forced his rivals to accept higher taxes on the wealthy. It was his prerogative; he won the election. And he set the tone for a harsh and humiliating 2013.

Wow, how quickly pundits forget. The “fiscal cliff” deal was indeed a compromise on taxes—letting the upper-middle-class (or depending how you define it, the lower-upper-class) earning between $200k and $400k keep the Bush tax cuts. Obama made that concession even though he had campaigned on and polls strongly supported his original proposal, and even though Obama was under pressure from important elements of his party to do nothing and let the Bush tax cuts expire entirely. No “compromise” on a big budget bill was possible without Republicans accepting some “humiliating” tax cuts, by the way. The route Fournier is retroactively endorsing was one of pure surrender by Obama and his party.

Bush, meanwhile, having said virtually nothing about Social Security during the 2004 campaign, rolled out a privatization proposal early in 2005 that was very unpopular, to say the least. And it wasn’t Democratic obstruction that led him to drop it; it was a panic-stricken retreat by Republicans who could read polls and were blind-sided by the whole thing. And indeed, the Bush proposal was toxic enough that after Obama took office, Paul Ryan decided to give the whole subject a pass in his otherwise audacious budget proposals, even though he had been one of SocSec privatization’s big champions and architects.

But it’s the idea that Obama has now reaped the whirlwind of Democratic ultra-partisanship aimed at Bush that’s the biggest howler. Here’s Fournier’s argument:

Writing of Bush’s ill-fated effort to overhaul the Social Security system, [Peter] Baker said, “Democrats had seized on the issue to attack Bush, calculating it was a way of weakening a newly reelected president.” The Obama White House and its apologists seem to forget the zero-sum game tactics of Bush-era Democrats when they criticize congressional Republicans (accurately) for making presidential destruction a singular goal.

Let’s look at the two parties’ records on “partisanship.” In Bush’s first term, he got sizable and crucial help from Democrats on his two biggest domestic initiatives (aside from tax cuts, where a few Senate Democrats gave him a lot of help, too), No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Rx Drug Benefit. Democrats notoriously gave Bush the power to wage the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. There were no government shutdowns or big crises over the budget. And all that’s after Bush won a contested election via a Supreme Court intervention, having lost a plurality of the popular vote, and then proceeded to put together a highly partisan administration as though his accession to the White House was the most normal thing in the world.

Yes, most Democrats came to oppose the Iraq War before or during Bush’s second term, as did the public. And of course they opposed Bush’s Social Security proposal, as they had always opposed such proposals. But there was nothing, nothing like the right-from-the-beginning GOP obstructionism Obama faced, as best evidenced by the refusal of the GOP to offer even a single vote in either House for a health care plan modeled explicitly on Republican precedents in the Senate and in Massachusetts.

As for what happened at the beginning of the two presidents’ second terms, here’s how Fournier describes Obama’s 2013 agenda by way of arguing that he fell prey to post-election “hubris” just like Bush:

Obama unleashed an aggressively liberal agenda in his second Inaugural Address, promising to combat climate change, loosen immigration restrictions, curb gun violence, and expand human and civil rights.

Climate change was part of Obama’s first-term agenda. So, too, was immigration reform, which had, of course, been a Bush priority until his own party thwarted legislation. On guns, Obama was pushing very modest back-ground check provisions of the sort that the NRA had once supported as a weak-tea alternative to real gun control. And yes, Obama endorsed same-sex marriage, but much later than did most Democrats, and at a time when public opinion was rapidly moving in that direction. Anyone looking at Obama’s 2013 agenda and seeing some sort of hubristic liberal assault on the GOP is using GOP definitions of liberalism, which is clearly Fournier’s habit.

Fournier’s not very clear about what he thinks Obama should do to reclaim his second term, but there’s this:

Bush ended his fifth year in office giving a national address on Iraq in which he showed an unusual amount of contrition and accountability. Acknowledging the war had been “more difficult than we expected,” Bush offered an olive branch to war opponents.
“We will continue to listen to honest criticism and make every change that will help us complete the mission,” Bush said. He was rewarded with an 8-point bump in his approval rating to 47 percent, Baker wrote, “suggesting the public was still willing to listen.”
That is the one ray of light for Obama. If after the events and mistakes of 2005 Americans were still willing to listen to Bush, there may still be hope for Obama. His presidency might recover.

What Bush actually did after “listening” on Iraq (and suffering a subsequent midterm disaster) was to launch the “surge,” an escalation of the war that certainly did nothing to placate war opponents. But never mind. Given Fournier’s Iraq = Obamacare equation, he seems to be advising Obama to give up on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a surrender of unimaginable magnitude.

The funny thing is Fournier probably thinks this was an entirely even-handed column—you know, one Bush criticism for every Obama criticism. But to the extent that he explains away Republican obstruction of Obama as retaliation, and blames every impasse on Obama, it’s hard to view this sort of “analysis” as anything other than GOP agitprop.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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