Writing on CNN Opinion on Wednesday, David Rothkopf, “CEO and editor of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,” told us “what Obama could learn from Bush.”
The very premise is flawed, assuming as it does, a priori, that President Barack Obama has anything to learn from President George W. Bush. I would argue, on the contrary, that there is little, if anything Obama could learn from Bush, except how not to be president.
Yet Rothkopft tells us,
Since 9/11, the United States has swung unsettlingly from one set of flawed policies to another. First, the unilateralist excess of the first term of the Bush administration; its signature error was the invasion of Iraq. Then, the reactive swing of Barack Obama, toward disengagement and dithering. In a tragic irony, a war in Iraq may someday also be seen as the enduring symbol of his errors.
The specifics offered by Rothkopf to bolster his assertion are also of dubious merit, at best. According to Rothkopf, “Obama finds himself at the end of a string of errors of judgment and execution.”
What precisely are those errors of judgment and execution? He does not elaborate. Instead, he offers only that,
These have contributed to damaged relations or crises ranging from those in Syria and Iraq to Libya to Egypt and Israel, from Ukraine to Afghanistan to Africa. They include crises at our own borders and strained relations with our allies over NSA eavesdropping.
Sound like Rothkopft has been watching too much Fox News? Sure does. We need more detail than vague assurances that Obama screwed up, leading to unexplained “damage,” also not elaborated.
Yet Obama needs to recognize, Rothkopf says, that he has made mistakes. This would probably be easier for Obama to do if he knew what, precisely, those mistakes were. But neither we nor Obama are told.
“Who to turn to as a model?” he asks.
The best example may well be George W. Bush himself. Because whatever mistakes Bush made in office — and they were many — in his second term, Bush recognized the urgent need for change and instituted a sweeping reordering of his administration, its policies and priorities.
How true is this? Well, let’s take a look at Bush’s second term, which began at noon on January 20, 2005.
Just a few months into his second term, on May 19, 2005, the Pew Research Center informed us, tellingly:
Americans are critical of President Bush’s job performance in many policy areas, but negative opinions of his handling of the economy and Iraq are doing the most damage to his overall approval rating, which now stands at 43 percent. Just 35 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy, down from 43 percent in February and 45 percent in January.
You can see what the White House wanted Americans to believe about the Bush presidency as of August 2005, by looking at the White House archives. Needless to say, these reveal a complete disregard for reality, reporting as they do a “growing economy” and a “decreasing deficit” that was to be erased, and then some, by 2007. They no more match reality than they do the public’s perception, either then or now.
If Bush’s second term was so successful, we might ask Mr. Rothkopf why it ended in even greater disarray and disapproval, with the economy in complete shambles as we sank into what is now known as the Great Recession, the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In 2007, the Brookings Institute told us that, “veteran conservative columnist Robert Novak now says that in fifty years of following politics he has never seen a president as isolated from his own party in Congress.”
The year 2007 was, of course, two years into the second term Rothkopf holds out to be so full of answers. As Philip H. Gordon wrote, presciently as it turned out, “I don’t know anyone, Republicans included, who thinks Bush’s problems are temporary, and that recovery may be around the corner.”
Looking back in retrospect in 2012, Bloomberg related some very specific episodes of continued Bush bumbling:
The former Republican president’s problems date back to the first year after his 2004 re-election. Miscalculating, the White House decided to focus on an overhaul of Social Security, without gathering any Democratic support. The proposal went nowhere and the political damage was considerable.
He then rushed to sign legislation allowing the federal government to prevent a Florida man from removing the feeding tubes keeping alive his wife, who was in a persistent vegetative state. Ultimately, that too was thwarted and an autopsy showed she was severely brain damaged.
Finally, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush was AWOL.
And we all know how it ended, with a crashed economy and two unnecessary, ongoing, and ruinous wars that had not and could not be paid for.
Rothkopft himself admits to the “in some cases historically significant, errors of the Bush years,” and though he tells us that Bush became “a kind of coach-in-chief,” it is not clear that any of the changes Bush made in his second term improved upon his performance in the first, or that being a coach-in-chief is better than being the president you are elected to be. The buck stops with the president, who must take ultimate responsibility for the decisions made.
Rothkopft tells us of a troubled Bush economic aid experiencing a crisis of doubt, and of how national security advisor James Jeffrey “listened as Bush bucked up his aide, restoring his confidence, telling him he was the best person for the job, letting him know he would back him on key decisions.”
You remember, of course, a more infamous occasion when Bush used the same approach, and that was in New Orleans, when he bucked up FEMA Director Michael Brown, exclaiming for all the world to hear, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 – they’re working 24 hours a day.”
It doesn’t matter that you work 24 hours a day if you don’t know what you’re doing for any of them. If you could somehow work 36 hours a day, you would still accomplish nothing, which is exactly what the inexperienced Mike Brown accomplished.
Ultimately, of course, Bush himself was to blame, because he not only appointed someone without emergency management experience to the FEMA position, but he limited his control over federal agencies until a critical 36 hours had passed.
And just as Bush had been warned of an impending al Qaeda attack in 2001, he was also warned in 2005 that New Orleans levees would break. Apparently, he learned nothing from one term to the next.
In the final analysis, not only can Rothkopf not tell us what Obama has done wrong, but he cannot tell us what Bush did right. That is, other than a reshuffling of his cabinet which, from the evidence, seems to have accomplished exactly nothing. After all, if this was a good move, and one to be emulated, why did the performance of his administration not improve from 2005 until 2008?
Rothkopf’s final claim is staggering in its complete contradiction of the facts:
But what he may see is that at a moment of comparable foreign policy strains and dysfunctions, Bush was not content to give up or to punt to the future or play the blame game.
Comparable? Comparable? O where to begin?
Show us, please, where they are at all comparable. You cannot, because they are not. Obama did not invade a country innocent of attacking the United States (Iraq), and he did not bumble the invasion of another where enemies were actually to be found (Afghanistan), letting the guy he was supposed to be after, Osama bin Laden, escape in the process. No, Obama nailed bin Laden. Killed him dead. Nor were 3,000 innocent Americans killed in the attack that precipitated those invasions, unless you are going to equate four deaths in Benghazi to 9/11?
In that case, you have indeed watched too much Fox News.
Nor has Obama destroyed the economy, but rather, in the face of all obstruction that could be mustered, restored it; not only has he lowered the jobless rate but he has shrunk the deficit to historic lows. How, in any universe you can imagine, can the presidencies of Barack H. Obama and George W. Bush said to be comparable?
Unless Bush out-performed Obama, there is nothing Obama can learn from Bush, and the historical record is clear in damning Bush, while, as Paul Krugman has recently said, Obama is the most consequential president since Reagan.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.