POLITICS APRIL 16, 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 devolving 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 media would routinely describe him as “polarizing.” Obama retains approval ratings around 60 percent, where they have held stable for the last month, with high approval among independents. His 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 2004.
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 implication. 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 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 prophesy coming true, his blogging for Commentary has become a gleeful chronicle of Obama’s imagined descent into dysfunction and popular repudiation. A very partial sample:
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: Right now our President looks to be over-matched by events
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.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.