White House on June 19, 2014 in …
Believe it or not, it was 10 years ago this month that Barack Obama, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, introduced himself to America with a speech that shook the Fleet Center in Boston. The main theme of that Democratic convention was the litany of George W. Bush’s failures — an unpopular and unending war in Iraq, a faltering image abroad, a stagnating middle class. Obama gave eloquent voice to those frustrations, arguing that all of them could be addressed if only we reunited the electorate.
Probably Obama himself would not have guessed then that he would ascend to the White House just four years later. But he certainly wouldn’t have imagined that a full decade on, nearing the halfway point in his second term, he would find himself dragged down by precisely the same set of issues that vexed his predecessor.
After a month that saw Iraq unravel and job growth continue to plod along, while the stock market soared, the central paradox of the Obama years, as historians will undoubtedly view it, has never been clearer. It’s Obama’s presidency, but he’s still governing in Bush’s world.
Obama’s critics will no doubt hear in this an excuse for his stymied agenda and limp approval ratings, but that’s not the point. The fact is that it’s always hard to assign credit or blame for conditions in the country to any president at any one time; the lines demarcating one presidency from the next are like arbitrary and porous borders, freely traversed by longer-term trends that don’t neatly conform to the timelines of our elections.
Did the fault in Vietnam lie with John F. Kennedy (who committed troops in the first place), or with Lyndon B. Johnson (who escalated the war), or with Richard Nixon (who failed to end it)? Did we owe the ’90s economic expansion to Bill Clinton, or did the recovery take root under George H.W. Bush?
The political reality is that a president has to own whatever happens on his watch, for better or worse, and without any whining. Polls show the voters now blame Obama more than George W. Bush for the painfully slow economic recovery, and after enduring five and a half years of constantly shifting rhetoric and strategy and White House staff, you really can’t blame them.
But it’s hard to think of any second-term president in the past century, at least, who’s been so completely consumed by issues he inherited. With the notable exception of the health care law, which will stand as his signature initiative, Obama’s agenda has been dominated by crises that predated his tenure and have eluded his grasp.
The most obvious of these at the moment is the situation in Iraq, which Obama had vowed to put behind us once and for all, and which is now devolving into a morass of tribal and sectarian warfare — an outcome that should have seemed inevitable to anyone who ever visited the country or bothered to read a history book. There’s also the mess in Afghanistan and the cresting tide of Islamist militancy in Syria and throughout the region, all of which came in a package deal with Bush’s global war on Terror.
Then you have to consider security conundrums closer to home, like domestic spying (which Obama had excoriated as a candidate) and the quasi-legal prison at Guantanamo Bay (which he had vowed to shutter). Turns out that it takes an awful lot of resolve for any president to turn off the giant sucking machine of high-tech intelligence once the government has turned it on. And what do you know: There’s no good place to send the prisoners at Gitmo, after all — unless you want to unload them for an American prisoner of war, like the Marlins at the trading deadline. Obama hasn’t yet solved either problem.
The defining issue of Obama’s presidency remains an economic recovery that continues to leave behind most Americans while enriching a relative few, for which the president mostly blames Congress, almost six years after the Wall Street meltdown that helped propel him to the White House. The mounting debt Democrats derided as irresponsible in the Bush years has only intensified under Obama, with no greater clarity on how to get it under control.
And let’s not forget the toxic, paralyzing political atmosphere Bush bequeathed his successor. Obama’s central promise as a candidate was to unstick us from all of that (hope and change, etc.), but his presidency has been swallowed by it, instead. Now he’s resorted to exactly the same type of governing by executive fiat for which Democrats assailed Bush.
The question great thinkers will long debate, of course, is exactly why Obama has remained so imprisoned by his predecessor’s choices. Will history treat Obama as a victim of the dire circumstance? Or was he too little prepared for what his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once described to me as the “shit sandwich” he inherited?
You’d have a hard time arguing that Obama didn’t underestimate or mishandle a lot of the challenges that have shaped his presidency. His economic policies may well have averted the worst-case scenario, which seemed very real and very scary in 2009, but it’s also clear that the administration managed to do very little to change the long-term trajectories in housing and education, where rising costs are changing what it means to be middle class.
It was nice to talk about rebuilding America’s tarnished image in the world, and when Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for no other reason than having succeeded Bush, it seemed imminently achievable. But whatever moral standing Obama had to work with was probably squandered by his own inconstancy in foreign crises and revelations that he has expanded America’s spying apparatus around the world, rather than reining it in.
But the larger miscalculation here, and Obama’s advisers were hardly alone in making it, was to see the destabilization of the Bush years as just another political cycle, the result of policy choices that could be readily reversed by some other set of policy choices. The mistake was in seeing the period before Obama as a moment that would pass, rather than as the onset of an entirely new era of governance, beyond any one president’s control.
Bush didn’t create the uncorking of religious and nationalist extremism, or the rise of borderless capital and the decline of American industry, or the retirement of the boomers, or the steadily rising temperatures in the Arctic. It’s true he didn’t seem very well-equipped to deal with any of them, and his policy solutions — democratization by force, bottomless tax cuts, the deregulation of industry — mostly made things worse. But we were going to have to reckon with these challenges no matter what, and no set of simple, short-term solutions exist.
Just as the end of World War II ushered in both the Cold War and the industrial boom that would define American politics for the better part of 50 years, so too did the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent economic crisis mark the arrival of what you might call the era of globalization — an era of often agonizing transformation that will span several presidencies and demand some very fundamental reforms before it’s through.
Ultimately, history will likely record both Bush and Obama as presidents grappling in different ways with the same array of overarching change, at the dawn of a long period of readjustment. We may yet find some national consensus about how to confront it. In the meantime, we might as well settle in.