By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Washington has spent the past couple of weeks debating whether Barack Obama's ambitious agenda and political strategy are more comparable to those of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Oddly, hardly anyone is talking about the ways in which Obama is beginning to resemble the man who just vacated the White House.
Most Americans are eager to forget about George W. Bush. But just over seven years ago, Bush found himself in much the same position as the new president today -- leading the country through what was universally considered a national emergency. In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's approval rating soared above 80 percent at home. London, Berlin and even Moscow rallied behind him. A front-page analysis in The Post in late November said that "President Bush [has] a dominance over American government . . . rivaling even Franklin D. Roosevelt's command."
Then, according to today's established wisdom, Bush squandered his chance to lead. Three cardinal errors are commonly cited: The president failed to ask a willing nation for sacrifice, instead inviting consumers to shop and heaping on more tax cuts. Rather than forge a bipartisan response to the crisis, he used it to ram through big, polarizing pieces of the Republican Party's ideological agenda -- from asserting presidential powers to breach treaties to eliminating protections for federal workers. Worst, he chose to launch a war of choice in Iraq, thereby shredding what remained of post-Sept. 11 national unity and diverting attention and resources from the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
That brings us to the first weeks of the Obama administration, set against the background of a scary and steadily deepening global economic crisis. Last month, in his first address to Congress, Obama warned the country that fixing the huge problems in the financial markets and housing and auto industries would require a historic effort. "None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy," he said. "But this is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what is necessary to move this country forward."
Minutes later, Obama spelled out what he proposes this to mean for 98 percent of Americans: "You will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut . . . and these checks are on the way."
So much for summoning the country to sacrifice. Obama has been no more willing to ask average Americans to pitch in, even once the recession is over, than Bush.
What about bipartisanship? Like Bush, Obama offered a few early gestures. And like Bush, he has been unapologetic about using emergency measures like the stimulus bill to press polarizing Democratic priorities, such as the expansion of Medicaid benefits to the unemployed and union-friendly contracting provisions.
The Bush administration pushed through the USA Patriot Act in October 2001 by suggesting that opponents didn't want to stop another al-Qaeda attack. In his first news conference, Obama suggested that congressional opponents of the stimulus package "believe that we should do nothing" about the economic emergency. Last week his political team launched a concerted and ugly campaign to portray Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party and "I want the president to fail" as its slogan. Republicans who have taken the crisis seriously, offered their own solutions and even supported the president on occasion -- Sen. John McCain comes to mind -- have been ignored.
So Obama hasn't strayed far from Karl Rove's playbook for routing the opposition. But surely, you say, he's planning nothing as divisive or as risky as the Iraq war? Well, that's where the health-care plan comes in: a $634 billion (to begin) "historic commitment," as Obama calls it, that (like the removal of Saddam Hussein) has lurked in the background of the national agenda for years. We know from the Clinton administration that any attempt to create a national health-care system will touch off an enormous domestic battle, inside and outside Congress. If anything, Obama has raised the stakes by proposing no funding source other than higher taxes on wealthy Americans, allowing Republicans to raise the cries of "socialism" and "class warfare."
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. Yet as he convened his "health care summit" at the White House on Thursday, the stock market was hitting another 12-year-low; General Motors was again teetering on the brink of insolvency and the country was still waiting to hear the details of the Treasury's proposal to bail out banks. George W. Bush might well be asking: Is the president taking his eye off the ball?
The writer is deputy editor of The Post's editorial page.