Obama’s Bush hangover
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
June 16, 2014 05:00 AM EDT
Six years in, Barack Obama is still battling a Bush hangover.
The rising chaos in Iraq — and the blame game over who’s responsible — are the latest reminders that halfway through his own second term, he’s still often more consumed by dealing with the legacy of President George W. Bush than building his own.
Obama supporters see a president who found himself so deep in so many holes from his very first day in office that cleaning up the aftermath of the previous eight years was going to take at least eight of his own: getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stabilizing the housing market and repairing the larger economic collapse, all while chopping a $1.2 trillion deficit in half.
To detractors, particularly those with allegiances to Bush, that argument comes off as another excuse for a president who’s been unable to deliver much — a man they see as so driven to be different from his predecessor that he’s often blundered into catastrophe.
To them, the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq — on what they say was a politically driven timetable, not a strategic one — was the latest clear case in point.
But the ripples from the Bush years go well beyond the Islamic militants marching toward Baghdad, larger foreign policy and the economy. There’s the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay that Obama’s 5½ years late in his promise to close. There’s the National Security Agency surveillance apparatus he inherited (and bulked up significantly).
And with 2½ years left, that shows little sign of changing.
“The hangover was much, much worse than I think any president’s been left with, with the exception of Andrew Johnson,” said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman, though he notes that in that case, he doesn’t blame Abraham Lincoln. “It underlines what unbelievable damage they did in just a short eight years.”
“Barack Obama has had to clean up the mess that was left him,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ticking off the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, cutting the deficit and recovering from the recession. “On every front, he’s really moved forward for this nation.”
That kind of thinking, according to Bush’s first White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, is, in a word, “nonsense.”
“Every president gets the benefit and the burdens of all the presidents that came before them, including the most recent,” Fleischer said. “The only question is did they make things better or did they make things worse? And on almost every measure, President Barack Obama made them worse.”
“For the entire first term, Obama and his people blamed Bush for everything — which is another way of saying they felt Bush and the Bush years were the inescapable reference point for everything they were themselves doing,” said Elliott Abrams, a former top Bush National Security Council staffer. “Now in the second term, they still cannot get free of this shadow.”
The White House declined comment. But Brad Woodhouse, president of the White House-allied Americans United for Change, expressed the level of outraged disbelief that many Obama allies have been feeling the past few days.
“It takes some audacious nerve on behalf of Republicans to now — after opposing the president at every turn and after six years of putting their politics ahead of the country — to blame the president for instability in Iraq that is a direct result of a failed war started by his predecessor,” Woodhouse said. “The politics being played here by Republicans is enough to make you gag.”
Obama’s time in office hasn’t been totally dominated by responses to Bush’s — Obamacare, his largest legislative win, is the realization of a decades-old Democratic dream that long predates the last administration, and the significant environmental regulations he’s pressed forward have little to do with his predecessor.
But Obama himself has told people that he views his 2008 election as having been less about him than about the country’s rejection of Bush, and that any Democrat would have won in that environment — unlike 2012, which he views as the race that was more about people choosing him.
Still, even through that reelection campaign, Obama regularly pointed to Bush as the reason he hadn’t accomplished more. Remember how bad the economy was, he’d tell voters. Remember those two wars.
Obama wasn’t the only one thinking in those terms: Polls through the election showed that most Americans blamed Bush for the state of the economy, and as recently as February, according to a CNN/ORC poll, that number was still at 44 percent.
Though they still throw in references to the “previous administration,” Obama and his aides don’t do it as much these days, except when eagerly inviting the comparison under pressure — pointing, for instance, to how many times during Bush’s term that Congress passed the unemployment insurance benefits Republicans have refused to since January, or, faced with the uproar over the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban swap, the number of Bush signing statements or Bush prisoner releases.
Or by making clear that they’d like to distance themselves as far from the preceding administration as possible.
“I’m not relitigating why the Bush administration called people a certain thing when they got to Guantánamo,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said two weeks ago when confronted with questions about the legal status of the members of the Taliban released into the custody of Qatar. A day later, reminding reporters that the Obama administration officially supports closing the facility entirely, Harf said: “Even former President Bush said that was important.”
Abrams complained that this all leads to Obama avoiding giving Bush credit even where they agree, whether not mentioning Bush’s name in his West Point speech as he praised the AIDS and malaria programs that his predecessor started, or trumpeting the success of the more stringent Iran sanctions regime as his alone, when the initial elements of it were passed under Bush.
“Obama is like the kid brother whose only standard for judging his own achievements is the records his big brother set,” Abrams said.
On the debate over what’s happening in Iraq now, Democrats see the results of Bush’s ill-advised invasion and lack of post-Mission Accomplished plan. Republicans see the results of Obama’s determination to show he could leave the country — and before his reelection campaign — overriding deeper thinking or understanding of the work that still needed to be done there.
“He was left a stable, peaceful, increasingly successful Iraq. He really didn’t want to engage on it,” Fleischer said. “He wanted to be able to have the talking points, but he ended no war. He just brought our troops home without leaving any behind.”
Obama’s decisions on Iraq are part of a larger foreign policy framework that he said at West Point boils down to “we should not go it alone,” in contrast to how American foreign policy had been structured.
Doug Feith, a top Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, said Obama’s view of the forces that drove Bush’s foreign policy remains a caricature.
Feith said Obama should consider now sending in the residual force that he was proposing in 2011, even if some see it as a retreat from the pledges that carried him into office more than five years ago.
“If Al Qaeda ends up taking Baghdad, nobody is going to be happy with the president because he was true to the unrealistic views he was elected on,” Feith said. “Nobody is going to give him credit for consistency.”
But the idea that Obama could have changed the situation in Iraq since coming to office in 2009, Dean said, is an unrealistic view of the current situation and what lays ahead for the region.
“It took about 25 years to get over Vietnam. It’s taken 70 years and we’re still not over the damage we did in the coup of 1953 in Iran,” Dean said. “Big foreign policy messes take a very long time to clean up. Some of them are never cleaned up. To think that someone’s going to come in and clean it up after five years is crazy.”
It’s also, Boxer said, an unrealistic view of the past — from the 1,000-year war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims through the borders drawn after World War I all the way to what she said was a clear cascade of Bush bungles.
“All I know is what I know,” Boxer said. “The American people, maybe they need to be reminded about that, so I’m reminding them. These are the facts. And I think maybe this crisis will remind them exactly what happened there.”