MAY 6, 2009
The depiction of Barack Obama that has emerged from some quarters of
the American right is that of a Bush-like figure. He is
irresponsibly running up deficits and covering them up with
budgetary gimmickry. Under the guise of healing rhetoric, he
ruthlessly pressures fellow partisans in Congress to toe the line.
He is "filling White House ranks with former lobbyists," and his
administration is degenerating into general incompetence. And he has
given unprecedented, Rove-like power to his political Svengali,
David Axelrod. Oddly enough, the author of all these particular
criticisms is Rove himself.A similar portrait of Obama has emerged from the pens of Michael
Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter, and Peter Wehner, Bush's
former "director of strategic initiatives," a job that essentially
entailed coordinating GOP agitprop. The Bush veterans have
systematically discovered that every flaw associated in the public
mind with their hero turns out to be a defining trait of Obama. I
am not a trained psychologist, but some form of projection seems to
be at work.
A couple of weeks ago, a Pew poll found that the partisan gap in
President Obama's approval rating had reached a historic high. Rove
leaped to point to this scrap of data ("no president in the past 40
years has done more to polarize America"), as did Gerson and
Wehner. The concept of a polarized electorate assumes some rough
parity between the two parties and a president hovering around 50
percent approval--as was the case with Bush around the time of his
reelection, when the press would routinely describe him as
"polarizing." Obama's low approval rating among Republicans is
mostly a function of the fact that the party has shrunk to a
pungent, highly conservative core. Pew found that about a quarter
of the population identifies as Republican, down from one- third in
Yet the fine points of public opinion are not what interested the
Bush veterans. What mattered was that another of the smears against
their great leader had, seemingly, been turned on its head. The
Bushies greeted Obama with the expectation that he would realize at
last how well the 43rd president served his country. ("The closer
you come to the Oval Office," writes Gerson, "the wiser your
predecessors appear.") Obama's failure to arrive at this conclusion
infuriates them. (Rove: "The new president's jabs at Mr. Bush have
been unceasing, unfair and unhelpful.")
But, in the present climate of public opinion, direct defenses of
Bush have limited appeal, so the Bushies mainly argue by
Rove, as one would imagine, goes about his task in the bluntest
manner, elevating shamelessness to a kind of performance art. He
clucks disapprovingly that "senior White House staff meet for two
hours each Wednesday evening to digest their latest polling and
focus-group research." The man who described the liberal reaction
to September 11 as "offer[ing] therapy and understanding for our
attackers" now sadly says that Obama "routinely ascribes to others'
views they don't espouse." There's nothing unusual about political
hacks becoming hack pundits, but you didn't find, say, James
Carville on CNN accusing George W. Bush of sexually exploiting
White House interns.
Gerson, the former speechwriter, takes a more subtle tack. In his
Washington Post column, he has carved out a persona as a hopeful
but inevitably disappointed friend of the Obama administration. In
Gerson's rather idiosyncratic telling, the public voted him into
office in the hope that he would govern as a status quo caretaker.
"Obama," he wrote, "appealed to a nation weary of large national
exertions--a nation longing for a normality beyond the wars,
hurricanes, floods, and assorted plagues of the Bush years." And
yet, despite the fact that the public liked everything about the
Bush years except the weather, Obama has insisted on changing
things. "It is a sad, unnecessary shame," Gerson laments, "that
Barack Obama, the candidate of unity, has so quickly become another
source of division."
One of the lessons the Bush veterans took away from the previous
eight years is that governing is hard. Wehner is particularly fond
of warning his successors of the task before them. "If Obama and
the Democrats do sweep to victory on Tuesday," he wrote before the
election, "they will discover that running a campaign is a lot
easier than running a country." Wehner has made this same
governing-is-hard point at least a half-dozen times since. After
all, if the challenges of governing could best a giant like George
W. Bush, they could best anybody.
In anticipation of his prophecy coming true, his blogging for
Commentary has become a gleeful chronicle of Obama's imagined
descent into dysfunction and popular repudiation. A very partial
January 7: So Barack Obama has not yet been sworn in and the 111th
Congress has been in power for all of a day, and both are beginning
to slip on banana peels. ...
February 3: The famously smooth running, No-Drama-Obama Team is
rapidly becoming an Abbott and Costello routine. ...
February 11: Right now President Obama and his team look at times
amateurish and somewhat overmatched by events. ...
February 20: Obama has sent of jolt of energy through the GOP, which
is in far stronger shape than anyone could have imagined just a
month ago. ...
March 3: And one can start to feel the country's perception of Obama
beginning to shift, day-by-day, a few degrees at a time. Hope and
joy are being replaced by fear and uncertainty. ...
March 4: It's amazing how quickly a formidable political figure, in
the midst of a crisis he (so far) seems unable to confront, can go
tone deaf. ...
March 9: [R]ight now our President looks to be over-matched by
March 13: His support, rather than congealing, is weakening.
In actual reality, Obama's approval rating has held steady at around
60 percent for more than a month, and the public trusts Democrats
over Republicans by massive margins. Perhaps Obama is benefitting
from the contrast with his predecessor. Governing is hard. But
governing better than George W. Bush is actually pretty easy.