Obama Should Own His Continuities with the Bush White House





Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is revising and updating the multivolume classic originally edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Fred Israel, A History of Presidential Elections, to be published this fall. His website is giltroy.com.

HNN Roundtable: Do Democrats Have a Double Standard for Obama?


Do the Democrats have a double standard for Obama?

Of course they do.

So did the Republicans for George W. Bush—who tolerated much more idealistic national building and budget-busting spending than they would have from a Democrat.  And so did the Democrats for Bill Clinton—who would have pilloried a Republican president for establishing the kind of sexist atmosphere Clinton created in his White House.  This inconsistency is a fact of partisan life.  As long as most partisans build their party-affiliations into an identity rather than simply a series of policy positions, they will view their leader’s compromises as statesmanlike, not hypocritical, given how confident they are in their opponents’ shortcomings.  

Still, the Democratic turnaround this time is particularly whiplash-inducing.  At the heart of the Bushophobia that consumed many Democrats since 2003 lay their disgust for George W. Bush’s national security policies.  Moreover, Barack Obama’s own political identity and great success in defeating Hillary Clinton stemmed from his opposition to the Iraq War—which raised expectations among at least some Democrats that he would be a pacifist, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.

President Obama’s behavior in prosecuting the war on terror suggests we should rethink our understanding of presidential performance.  Most of us, historians, voters, and especially journalists, focus too much on the Three Ps of partisanship, personality, and promises.  As a result, we expect a revolution when there is a party turnover in the White House, and a fresh, young politician calls for “Change We Can Believe In.”  We forget the constitutional checks and balances which fragment power, making dramatic change more difficult in the American system.  And we forget that the world looks very different when you sit in the Oval Office as opposed to when you dream about winning the keys to it.

My uncle learned during half a century in the advertising business that, in America, “the one constant is change.”  But as citizens and observers, we should spend more time examining the presidency through a lens emphasizing convergence not divergence among administrations.  The many cosmetic changes sometimes mask the necessary—and unfortunate—continuities.  In Ronald Reagan’s administration, David Stockman was the most famous cabinet member frustrated by this convergence.  In Bill Clinton’s administration, Robert Reich played that role.  And under George W. Bush, the mantle was seized by Donald Rumsfeld, who could not impose on the military the sweeping changes he championed.

I confess, one of the best compliments I can give Barack Obama is that he responded to the challenges America faced, rather than sticking to the script he and his fans devised.  His muscular approach to fighting the war on terror does partially vindicate George W. Bush.  But, more importantly, Obama’s actions acknowledge the complicated challenges America faces abroad.  When Obama has approached this tough situation ideologically rather than pragmatically—contemplating  trying Khlalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, or treating the Ford Hood terrorist as a mere criminal—he has stumbled.  Obama’s use of unmanned drones to hunt down terrorists, his successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and his support for some of the aggressive Bush-era initiatives to eliminate domestic threats all reflect realistic judgment.  That’s leadership.  That’s good governance.

Obama’s challenge, our psychologist friends would suggest, is to “own” this convergence with Bush-era policies, rather than deny it.  By acknowledging the continuities, Obama can then also show how he has put his own, Democratic, civil libertarian, more engagement-oriented, stamp on the policy, thus offering what he believes to be a mature alternative to George Bush and John McCain—while still imposing a reality-check on the too-pacifist, pie-in-the-sky idealists in his own party.



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