It has been almost 16 months since I wrote about the comparative positions of President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush as they approached their second midterm elections. Since then, the two presidents, and two administrations, have continued to resemble each other increasingly.
Many Republicans, no doubt, will take issue with the comparison, arguing that the surge in Iraq was working when Bush left office, Obama’s foreign policy has been a mess, and the current incumbent’s reliance on big government is very different from Bush’s approach. (Other Republicans will agree that Bush grew government, arguing that that is exactly the problem they are trying to address in 2016.)
Democrats will also complain about the comparison, noting that Obama’s poll numbers are much better than Bush’s were seven years into the two presidencies, and arguing that the country is better off after health care reform, same-sex marriage and Obama’s climate change initiatives. They will also point out that the U.S. economy has been growing for years and unemployment numbers have shrunk.
Yes, the economy is better, and it is undeniably true that Bush’s poll numbers seven years into his presidency were much worse than Obama’s are now.
Obama’s job approval in the Oct. 25-29, 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll stood at 45 percent, while Bush’s was only 31 percent in the Nov. 1-5, 2007, NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. And while 27 percent of respondents earlier this month said things were headed in the right direction, only 21 percent said “right direction” in that November 2007 survey.
But even with the deep division within the GOP now, Democrats were in much better shape politically in 2007 than they are today, courtesy of Obama.
In the November 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, Democrats had a substantial 9-point advantage on the question of which party registered voters wanted to control Congress (see question 9). On the other hand, in last month’s survey, the parties were even (see question 11).
While there are obvious differences between Obama and Bush, as well as between their two administrations, the two men increasingly look like two sides of the same coin.
Both men promised they would bring Americans together but instead contributed to the increased polarization and anger in the country.
Obviously, there were many factors at work, and the opposition party in each case played a role in the growing divide. But it is also true that both men ran for the White House promising to overcome the bitterness that had enveloped the nation’s capital — and both failed, giving up almost completely on trying to change the tone during their second terms.
Both Obama and Bush may well be best remembered for their foreign policy blunders and exaggerated claims of success.
Bush’s quick military success in Iraq degenerated into a costly and largely unsuccessful effort to bring stability to the country, leading to thousands of U.S. casualties and wasted dollars. America’s international reputation suffered, and the larger region has become a more dangerous place. The administration’s premature “mission accomplished” celebration made Bush look naïve and foolish.
Obama campaigned on disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he kept his promise of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But overall, the administration’s foreign policy results have been stuck somewhere between disappointing and disastrous.
Red lines in Syria have been drawn and erased. The White House had to change its Afghanistan deadlines. Obama was unable to convince a majority of either house of Congress that the Iran nuclear deal he negotiated deserved to be supported. And America’s reputation in the world doesn’t seem significantly better after the past seven years. (See this PolitiFact piece in June that examined the United States’ reputation at that time.)
Moreover, at various times Obama has minimized the threats from terrorist groups and claimed successes that subsequently looked more like failures. He clearly underestimated the threat from ISIS, for example.
Even more obvious, Bush and Obama turned stubborn and testy as their presidencies wore on.
Second terms are notoriously difficult, of course, as failures mount over eight years, enemies are made, and misstatements build over time. In the first few years of an administration, presidents can rally the country or build support for their agendas by giving a speech, blaming the previous administration or the opposition party, or merely by promising that tomorrow will be better than today. But during a president’s second term, voters tire of White House excuses and are no longer swayed by another speech.
Bush and Obama have always appeared smug, insisting that they have the right policies and approaches and dismissing critics. To some extent, this confidence is necessary, since a White House that is conflicted and uncertain is a White House that looks weak and cannot lead.
But Bush too often looked obstinate, headstrong and inflexible. All of the criticism of him and his policies produced a bunker mentality in the administration. Unfortunately, Obama has been no better, maybe even worse. He dismisses his critics and opponents even when they have expressed reasonable concerns and doubts about his policies, and increasingly sounded condescending and haughty. He has been called “petulant,” “churlish” and “self-pitying” — all by his friends.
Obama’s job performance rating isn’t likely to fall to the levels of Bush’s, in part because support from the liberal and African-American communities isn’t likely to erode. But growing disappointment with his performance among swing voters could cause his party significant problems next year.
No, Obama won’t be on the ballot again, but his party will inevitably represent continuity and incumbency. The more swing voters want change, the more of a drag he could be to Democrats running nationally. Just ask John McCain.