A good column from the New Republic

Why Obama Should Copy Bush (Really!) 

By Jonathon Cohn

You hear lots of talk about which former president Barack Obama should use as a model. Bill Clinton comes up regularly. Franklin Roosevelt, too. But what about the guy in the White House now?

I know, President Bushs approval ratings are hovering around 30 percent. This election was in many ways a referendum on his tenure and the verdict could not have been more unambiguous. The voters didn’t like it. Saturday Night Live got an entire skit (and a pretty funny one) out of John McCain trying to escape the stigma of his failure.

But was Bush really a failure? That depends on how you define it.

Consider what Bush has accomplished. He has overhauled the tax code, tilting it towards the wealthy and significantly reducing federal revenues. He signed a landmark education reform that changed the curriculum in virtually ever public school. He gutted the regulatory state and hollowed out the bureaucracy. He added a drug benefit to Medicare, thereby enacting the largest single entitlement expansion since the 1960s. He tipped the Supreme Courts ideological balance with two strongly conservative appointees.

And thats just what he did on domestic policy. Bush also sponsored a massive program to help treat AIDS in under-developed countries. He rewrote long-standing doctrine on foreign policy and human rights. And, oh yeah, he engineered–and then prosecuted–a war that overthrew a dictator, destabilized a region, and committed the U.S. to an occupation whose end is still unknown.

Thats quite a tally–arguably, one that no president since Lyndon Johnson can match. (Before that, you’d have to go back to FDR.) And with the exception of the Medicare drug program, every single one of those accomplishments represent a realization of goals that he, his fellow travelers in the conservative movement, or both had sought for years or even decades.

America today looks radically different than it did in January, 2001. And it looks that way because Bush made it so.

Now, for the most part, the country doesnt seem to think Bushs changes have left us better off. And Id agree, with a few key exceptions. (High on the list would be that AIDS program, for which I believe Bush deserves more credit than he’s received.) But he still achieved quite a lot. And, simply in terms of leadership style, President-elect Obama could do worse than to take a page or two from Bushs playbook.

One of Bushs most remarkable qualities–and one, I admit, that I frequently admired–was his stubborn focus on goals and willingness to push political boundaries aggressively. It took a president of uncommon gumption and boldness to push such a radical agenda; America, after all, is not a radical country by nature. But Bush understood political opportunity when it presented itself and he seized it. And while Id hate to see Obama systematically ignoring policy experts and manipulating intelligence–or deliberately stoking partisan division for the sake of winning elections–I wouldnt mind if, like Bush, Obama showed the same sort of singular focus.

Like Bush, Obama is pursuing an ambitious agenda: Re-organizing the countrys economy and infrastructure to fight climate change and achieve energy independence; overhauling its massive health care system; undoing all of the tax changes Bush signed into law and, in the process, addressing the countrys long-term fiscal crisis; beginning unprecedented levels of investment in young childrens education and well-being; repairing Americas image in the world and, in the process, finishing the fight against Islamic extremism.

Already, the opinion class is tut-tutting. Its too expensive, they say, and too radical. But its not all that different from what Bush tried. The difference is that Obama would be pushing in the opposite ideological direction and, if the polls are to be believed, in a direction that the country happens to favor.

Not only does that mean Obama should, if anything, have an easier time achieving it. It also means that, if he accomplishes those goals, he can leave with his partys majority intact–and his approval ratings higher than 30 percent.

Fortunately, Obama seems to get this. He hasn’t given up the talk of “changing Washington” and bipartisanship; I imagine he believes it, too. But he’s also made it clear he’s not about to back away from goals just because they’ll encounter initial resistance.

When asked repeatedly in the final weeks which of his legislative goals he planned to discard, because of the financial crisis, he refused to play along, insisting his agenda remained the same. Just today, incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said something similar on ABC’s “This Week.” After making the case for energy independence and health care reform, even in the midst of an economic calamity, Emanuel said “This opportunity, this crisis, provides–as the president-elect has said repatedly–the opportunity to do things Americans have pushed off for years.” President Bush couldn’t have said it better.

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15 years ago

I am bemused by the regular praise of Bush’s AIDS initiative in Africa, as if people are desparate to find one, just one, thing he did that they can say was good out of all his Presidency. But from what I can gather, his policy has actually resulted in an overall increase in AIDS in Africa. His policy supports abstinence to control the spread of AIDS and refuses funds to organisations which are not anti-abortion.

From the St Petersburg Times:

USAID is the single largest donor of condoms in the developing world, providing $75-million worth annually, or about a third of all donations. Yet, according to the PAI report, 16 poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East have been cut off from USAID condom shipments because their family planning groups are associated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which refuses to sign the antiabortion pledge.

In another 13 countries, including Ethiopia and Zambia, the nations’ leading providers of reproductive health services also no longer receive USAID condom supplies.

and Phillip Adams:

I was, however, puzzled that the most indecent and unethical of issues wasnt raised: the quasi-genocidal impact of the Vaticans policy on condoms in Africa. Vast numbers have died, are dying and will die because of this insane and utterly reprehensible prohibition.

Aided and abetted by the Bush administrations faith-based approach to social, medical and scientific issues, the Vaticans condemnation of the condom is on the short list of the cruellest, most appalling pieces of public policy in human history.

George Bush’s policy goes hand in glove with the Vatican’s and as far as I can tell it is not a policy which ought to be congratulated.

15 years ago

He was pretty down on Bush. But he said his homelessness policy had been very good.

And here was me thinking that Bush never planned ahead.

Tony Harris
15 years ago

Two points, one serious and the other not.
Very few critics are prepared to be even-handed, to give out praise and blame in fair measure, or to apply the same standards to friends and enemies. That has severely damaged the credibility of the commentariat.
I don’t have time to check but I have seen commentators who are not notably friendly to Bush give him credit on AIDS.

Less seriously, on planning ahead, this is a piece on the outsourcing of the Presidency and what could happen when Bush completed his term.

15 years ago

A fascinating column. One thing is for sure, pronouncing on any administration should be adjourned for at least 5 or so years after its end date. Truman left the White House in 1952 with a 25% approval rating. His administration was seen as bumbling, uncouth and scandal prone. And it had its fair share of problems. Kennedy, the next Democrat incumbent, kept his distance from Truman because he was perceived a failure. But Truman’s administration achieved more than Kennedy (whose policy accomplishments were modest) and had a far more positive impact on the country than Johnston. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan is America at its finest. Reagan’s departure was far from “clean.” On the foreign policy side of things he gets more kudos with the passing years. With time I think Bush will be well remembered in East Europe and the Balkans. He saw Russia as it is and not as we would like it to be ( the “EU delusion”) and should be forever praised for what he did for Albania and Kosovo. I still think it was an ordinary administration. I just think the simplistic anti American drivel that passes for analysis is puerile. Life and politics are way too complicated for “good” v “evil” analysis.

15 years ago

…I have seen commentators who are not notably friendly to Bush give him credit on AIDS.

You aren’t in any position to judge, and as say, you haven’t even bothered to check.

Even-handedness isn’t a virtue in and of itself. It’s quite possible that the truth is that Bush didn’t do anything worthwhile, and that libertarians really, really, really are complete idiots.

15 years ago

Nick, my target was Rafe, not you.