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It's Obama's White House, but it's still Bush's world

By Julian E. Zelizer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; B01

When conservatives brand President Obama a socialist or a foreigner, his aides laugh it off. When critics disparage him as arrogant or aloof, they roll their eyes. But if liberals dare compare Obama to his predecessor in the Oval Office, the gloves come off.

"I hear these people saying he's like George Bush," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told the Hill newspaper last week. "Those people ought to be drug-tested. I mean, it's crazy." Gibbs went on to deride such critics as the "professional left," who will be content only "when we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon."

Even though Gibbs later semi-apologized, saying he had spoken "inartfully," it's not hard to see why the comparison stings. As the midterm elections approach, Democrats have made George W. Bush a focus of their fall campaign. Speaking at a Texas fundraiser Monday, Obama asked: "The policies that crashed the economy, that undercut the middle class, that mortgaged our future -- do we really want to go back to that, or do we keep moving our country forward?" Their message is clear: Republicans still embody the Bush agenda, and only with a Democratic White House and Congress will the nation be able to truly break from the past.

The president is correct in part. Just look at the health-care overhaul, Wall Street reform and the new emphasis on diplomacy in American foreign policy to see the difference that one election can make. Yet the break between Bush and Obama should not be exaggerated. Dismantling the past is extraordinarily difficult. In a host of arenas, Obama is holding on to the Bush administration's policies and practices, even some that he decried during his presidential campaign and vowed to undo. From the wars we fight to the oil we drill for, we're still living in the Bush era -- like it or not.

First, consider the strengthening of presidential power. Every president since Richard Nixon has fought to restore the authority of the executive branch that was diminished as a result of Watergate. No chief executive was as successful as Bush, especially since he had the help of Vice President Dick Cheney, who had dedicated much of his career to criticizing the 1970s reforms that he thought had emasculated the White House. Bush relied on signing statements and executive orders to implement initiatives such as warrantless wiretapping without having to get approval from Congress.

Obama has not done much to reverse the trend. While he has worked harder to court Congress, allowing legislators to craft the details of the health-care legislation, for example, he has not stepped back from Bush's robust use of executive power. He has relied on it to strengthen environmental programs and agencies that had been weakened since the 1980s. On national security, the pattern is more striking. Obama's Justice Department has turned to Bush's sweeping interpretation of the "state secrets" privilege to battle lawsuits involving the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects, and the president has defended the right of the government to conduct intrusive domestic wiretapping programs.

The second enduring legacy of the Bush presidency is the sprawling counterterrorism infrastructure created after Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration vastly strengthened the government's ability to fight terrorist networks by collecting information, tracking and closing down financial and nonprofit organizations, and interrogating detainees. Although Obama was a critic of this program on the campaign trail, much of it remains in place -- most notably, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Early in the Obama presidency, Jack Goldsmith, a former lawyer for the Bush administration who had become a vocal critic of its counterterrorism policies, criticized Cheney for exaggerating the differences between the two White Houses. "The new administration," Goldsmith wrote in the New Republic, "has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit."

And in a blistering report on the administration's national security record released last month, the American Civil Liberties Union warned of the "very real danger that the Obama administration will enshrine permanently within the law policies and practices that were widely considered extreme and unlawful during the Bush administration. There is a real danger, in other words, that the Obama administration will preside over the creation of a 'new normal.' "

The report praised Obama's decisions to release the Bush administration's "torture memos" and to outlaw secret CIA prisons overseas, as well as his prohibition of torture, but criticized the administration for, among other things, failing to eliminate military commission trials and targeted killings of terrorism suspects. ACLU Director Anthony Romero declared himself "disgusted" with the president's policies.

Nor, in a practical sense, has the Obama administration distanced itself from the Bush administration's third legacy, its wars for regime change. After the 2001 attacks, Bush defended a vision of foreign policy that sought to remove terrorist-friendly governments from power and rebuild their countries' civilian and security institutions. These principles underpinned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To the frustration of many liberals, Obama has not changed course. While following through with Bush's withdrawal schedule for Iraq, Obama has expanded Bush's mission in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 more troops into the conflict. He is now relying on Gen. David H. Petraeus, who Bush used to clean up the problems in Iraq, to strengthen the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. And Obama's withdrawal dates remain fuzzy. At the end of this month, 50,000 U.S troops will still be in Iraq, while the July 2011 deadline for leaving Afghanistan remains far from solid (in fact, many administration officials backed off that date almost as soon as it was announced).

The Bush administration also rejected strong regulatory oversight of offshore oil drilling -- a fourth critical legacy. In keeping with their long-held position that oil companies should be free from government restrictions in order to help end American dependence on foreign oil, Bush officials allowed agencies responsible for oversight to be weakened, staffing them with administrators who were skeptical of climate change and other scientific arguments about the environment.

Although many Democrats initially decried Bush's deregulatory policies on offshore drilling after the BP oil spill in the gulf, it soon became clear that blame also rested with the Obama administration. In a series of penetrating articles for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson revealed how the Obama White House had not done much to repair the broken Minerals Management Service and had been willing to trade support for offshore drilling in exchange for votes on climate-change legislation. Ignoring the advice of scientific experts, the administration authorized an aggressive round of drilling in the gulf without adequate environmental review.

After the spill, the Obama administration did impose a moratorium on drilling and stuck with it despite enormous political fallout; when a federal judge struck down the first ban, Obama imposed another. Yet the moratorium has been far from airtight, with loopholes allowing several kinds of drilling to continue.

Fiscal policy is the final area where Bush's legacy still looms. The tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 provided substantial tax relief for middle- and upper-income Americans, with the benefits weighted toward the wealthiest citizens. Building on Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics, the Bush administration pushed for big cuts based on the notion that they would propel economic growth. Moreover, during the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, the administration proposed the Troubled Assets Relief Program -- with Democratic support -- which offered a massive bailout to the nation's financial sector.

These policies remain intact. Obama, as a senator and presidential candidate, helped push the TARP through Congress, and as president he extended and defended the bailout. On the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire this year, the verdict is still out. Here, Obama and the Democrats have made an aggressive push to overturn part of the Bush legacy: They have rallied support to allow the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire -- in order to reduce the deficits they helped create -- while extending the cuts for Americans earning less than $250,000 a year. It's not clear whether they will succeed; after all, many Democrats are nervous about being tagged as members of the party that raises taxes.

Almost since before he took office, Bush was written off by many as an intellectual and policy lightweight, an accidental commander in chief. Nonetheless, it soon became clear that his would be a very serious presidency -- one with long-term consequences for the nation and the world, far beyond his two terms in office.

Obama, who won the presidency on a platform of change, is now seeking to recycle that anti-Bush magic for the midterm vote. Yet, he is learning the hard way that it is easier to campaign against the Texan's legacy than to actually govern against it. It is Bush who, despite avoiding the post-presidential limelight (at least until his memoir is published in November), has continued setting the terms of the debate, so much so that his successor and opponents must adopt many of his ideas, however reluctantly.

We may live in the age of Obama, as many call it, but it's still Bush's world.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the editor of the essay collection "The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment," forthcoming this fall, and the author of the forthcoming "Jimmy Carter."

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