"The sincerest form of flattery: Barack Obama is following in George Bush's footsteps" (Charles Krauthammer):
Richard Nixon, no President since Harry Truman leaves office more unloved than George W. Bush. Truman's rehabilitation took decades. Bush's will come sooner. Indeed, it has already begun. The chief revisionist? Barack Obama.
Vindication is being expressed not in words but in deeds - the tacit endorsement conveyed by the Obama continuity-we-can-believe-in transition. It's not just the retention of such key figures as Secretary of Defense Bob Gates or Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, who, as president of the New York Fed, has been instrumental in guiding the Bush financial rescue over the last year. It's the continuity of policy.
It is the repeated pledge to conduct a withdrawal from Iraq that does not destabilize its new democracy and that, as Vice President-elect Joe Biden said just this week in Baghdad, adheres to the Bush-negotiated status of forces agreement that envisions a U.S. withdrawal over three years, not the 16-month timetable on which Obama campaigned.
It is the great care Obama is taking in not preemptively abandoning the anti-terror infrastructure that the Bush administration leaves behind. While still a candidate, Obama voted for the expanded presidential wiretapping (FISA) powers that Bush had fervently pursued. And while Obama opposes waterboarding (already banned, by the way, by Bush's CIA in 2006), he declined George Stephanopoulos' invitation (on ABC's "This Week") to outlaw all interrogation not permitted by the Army Field Manual. Explained Obama: "Dick Cheney's advice was good, which is let's make sure we know everything that's being done," i.e., before throwing out methods simply because Obama campaigned against them.
Obama still disagrees with Cheney's view of the acceptability of some of these techniques. But citing as sage the advice offered by "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history" (according to Joe Biden) - advice paraphrased by Obama as "we shouldn't be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric" - is a startlingly early sign of a newly respectful consideration of the Bush-Cheney legacy.
Not from any change of heart. But from simple reality. The beauty of democratic rotations of power is that when the opposition takes office, cheap criticism and calumny will no longer do. The Democrats now own Iraq. They own the war on Al Qaeda. And they own the panoply of anti-terror measures with which the Bush administration kept us safe these last seven years.
But we always knew that "change" was a travesty, didn't we? The more continuity the better, given the direction that Obama and the Democrats will take us in. It would have been nice to elect McCain though, and get change in the sense of reform, not just change in the sense of drift.
Well put. About Bush's being "unloved," though. This is said all the time, mainly, I think, based on poll numbers showing low job approval. But to read a job-approval statistic as evidence about whether or not a president is popular is problematic. Take an example. Suppose there are two issues, the Iraq War, and immigration reform. One-half of the population supports each of these, one-half opposes them. Issue positions are statistically independent, so that one-quarter are pro-Iraq War, anti-immigration reform, one-half pro-Iraq War, pro-immigration reform, and so on. People give the president job approval if and only if the president agrees with them on both issues. In that case, the maximum approval a president could have is 25%.
Unless, of course, the president can take both sides of every issue and, with the help of a friendly press, and make everyone think he agrees with them. Thus, Clinton was a weasel words man who brushed the controversial issues under the rug. By some accounts the Iraqi sanctions killed more than the war, but they weren't in the news. Illegal immigration was as much as now, but somehow people didn't talk about it. What did Clinton do? What did Clinton believe in? Nobody knows: he gets credit for welfare reform, which was more the House GOP but whatever, other than that it's kind of blank. He's unobjectionable. High job approval.
Bush, by contrast, is a forthright guy who makes plans and takes stands and does stuff, who gives people reasons to disagree with him and object to him, and as those people accumulate, he becomes "unpopular" in terms of job-approval ratings. And that unpopularity becomes self-reinforcing: people think, "Hmm... I dislike Bush for a couple of reasons, not sure whether those reasons are important enough to... but wow, he's so unpopular, so I guess a lot of people agree with me." And of course there's enough BDS around that it's dangerous to take a pro-Bush line at parties. Pretty soon that adds up to "public opinion."
But the fact that Obama can come into office signaling that he'll basically continue Bush's policies and get a 73% favorable rating shows how spurious, at bottom, Bush's unpopularity is. There's nothing like a national repudiation of his legacy. There's no wage of popular feeling against his domestic policies or his foreign policy doctrines. Of course we'd always prefer not to have to fight wars, and to the extent that people think we didn't have to fight the Iraq War, there's a lot of opposition to that, but even that is a bit phony, since people don't usually want to say they wish Saddam was back in power, or advocate a foreign policy doctrine that would guarantee immunity to future Saddams. It's a sort of wouldn't-it-be-nice-if-there-were-no-wars sentiment dressed up in clothes of policy analysis to whose accuracy and cogency the wearers are indifferent, because the real point is that they don't like people like Bush who remind them of unpleasant facts of life.
Well, Obama probably, so he may be more popular than Bush was. But as the "change" slogan looks more and more like a joke, it's worth noting that it's a revealing joke. The vacuity of the slogan reflects the lack of any general, rational idea or argument underlying Bush's unpopularity. Politicians usually want changes, in particular; but in this election year, the best way to plug into the nebulous and nonsensical animus against Bush was to talk about change, in general. Specifics would have made people think.