Obama as the Anti-Bush

By Dan Froomkin
1:35 PM ET, 03/ 9/2009

In a column headlined "George W. Obama," Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl writes on Sunday that Obama is behaving like George W. Bush in trying to take advantage of a crisis to ram through his ideological agenda.

Also in Sunday's Post, White House correspondent Michael D. Shear writes in an opinion piece that Obama's constant use of the word "responsibility" creates a risk "that the word -- and the president who deploys it -- may suffer from its overuse, especially if 'responsibility' moves from reassuring to lecturing, from calming to hectoring, turning this young new president into the father-knows-best figure that kids tune out."

But what both essays overlook is how much the Obama presidency has turned out to be, at heart, all about fixing the mistakes of the Bush years and addressing the issues he overlooked -- and how Obama stresses "responsibility" to telegraph an agenda that is the antithesis of the Bush approach.

Redressing the errors of the last eight years has become so central to the Obama presidency that, despite his efforts to foster bipartisanship, he hasn't shied away from blistering critiques of his predecessor's legacy at the key moments of his presidency.

Remember, for instance, his inaugural address, in which he said it was time "to set aside childish things," and called on Americans to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

And the main theme of Obama's address to Congress last month was, as I wrote at the time, Exorcising Bush's Ghost.

"[W]e have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election," he said. "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations -- regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here."

Diehl supports his argument with several analogies such as this one: "Just as Bush promoted tax cuts as a remedy for surplus and then later as essential in a time of deficits, so Obama has come up with strained arguments as to why health-care reform, which he supported before the economic collapse, turns out to be essential to recovery."

But when it comes to their substance, Bush's tax cuts really don't have a lot in common with Obama's health care plan. Indeed, Bush's tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy, were arguably never appropriate, while health reform has been an urgent need for decades, and certainly no less so during an economic crisis. It's nearly impossible to find any serious thinker who supports the status quo for health care; and it's only slightly easier to find one who will argue that Bush's tax cuts were a good idea, ever.

Examples of Bush's irresponsibility -- and that's exactly the right word -- are legion, starting with those tax cuts but, of course, also including the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, the occupation of Iraq based on faulty assumptions, the sanctioning of anti-terror policies that inspired rather than deterred terrorism, the punting on such key issues as climate change and health care -- and a complete failure to anticipate the financial crisis born of massive deregulation. Obama is taking a dramatically different course in all those arenas.

By contrast, it's precisely in the places where Obama really is acting like Bush -- such as his vague bank bailout strategy, his slowed-down Iraq pullout and his assertion of some specious executive powers -- that he seems on the shakiest ground, responsibility-wise.

The Obama as Bush metaphor gets another backer this morning in The Post, with opinion columnist Robert Kagan writing: "President Obama's foreign policy team has been working hard to present its policies to the world as constituting a radical break from the Bush years....

"When it comes to actual policies, however, selling the pretense of radical change has required some sleight of hand -- and a helpful press corps."

But the facts generally demonstrate that -- with a few exceptions -- Obama has already taken, as Bridget Johnson conveniently writes for The Hill this morning, a "sharp turn on foreign policy."

Consider how in just seven weeks, Obama has renounced torture, is reaching out to Iran and Syria, and has made it clear that he may abandon Bush's proposed missile-defense bases in Eastern Europe -- just for starters.

Meanwhile, Washington Post opinion columnist Robert Samuelson has harsh words for Obama, primarily because he won't raise taxes enough.

"Obama is a great pretender. He repeatedly says he is doing things that he isn't, trusting his powerful rhetoric to obscure the difference. He has made 'responsibility' a personal theme; the budget's cover line is 'A New Era of Responsibility.' He says the budget begins 'making the tough choices necessary to restore fiscal discipline.' It doesn't."

Samuelson's biggest concern is the looming deficit, and he is upset that Obama isn't raising taxes, eliminating all farm subsidies, and cutting Social Security and Medicare for the wealthy, for starters.

"Like many smart people, he believes he can talk his way around problems. Maybe. He's helped by much of the media, which seem so enthralled with him that they don't see glaring contradictions. During the campaign, Obama said he would change Washington's petty partisanship; he also advocated a highly partisan agenda. Both claims could not be true. The media barely noticed; the same obliviousness persists. But Obama still runs a risk: that his overworked rhetoric loses its power and boomerangs on him."

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