Is Bush still relevant?
Andie Coller Andie Coller Fri Aug 7, 5:17 am ET
President Barack Obama may “own” the economy now — but he’s not ready to let anyone forget who left it to him.
Supporters and defenders of George W. Bush have been waiting for the shot clock to run out on Bush’s critics since before the 43rd president left office; a headline on a Washington Times opinion piece in December trumpeted, somewhat over-optimistically, “Only 26 days left for Bush bashing.” But with six months in the Oval Office behind him and Congress off for its milestone summer recess, Obama shows no sign of letting the prior administration or its advocates off the hook.
At a recent town hall in Raleigh, N.C., Obama ripped his detractors thusly: “You hand me a $1.3 trillion bill, and then you’re complaining six months later because we haven’t paid it all back.” And last weekend, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers flooded the TV talk shows with reminders that they had “inherited” a $1.3 trillion deficit and an economy “in free fall.”
“The battle for the history is always an essential part of winning the future,” says Republican strategist John Feehery. “From that perspective, I think that is what Obama is trying to do.”
To those who contend that the administration’s regular references to the provenance of its woes is nothing more than a blame game, Democratic strategist Phil Singer replies that the president would have to engage in advanced yoga not to refer to the policies of his home’s prior resident.
“Obama has to talk about it, because it helps explain the agenda that he’s advancing every day,” Singer says. “The legacy of the Bush administration is driving the agenda of the Obama administration.”
If that’s the case, then the task for Team Obama is to walk the line between explaining and complaining, says former Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney. She agrees that the administration has to put its efforts in perspective, but she notes that it also must be cautious, particularly while people are still suffering from the effects of the economic crisis and unlikely to have much sympathy for anything perceived as whining from the top.
“I think it is very fair to make that point, but I think you have to do a way that acknowledges people’s pain and frustration,” she says. “It is a delicate balance, and I think that’s why it has to be done in a very pragmatic way and not in a way that sounds like an excuse.”
And indeed, lately most administration references to the previous management have been carefully calibrated to convey the message that Obama is taking responsibility for the economy without being responsible for it. Officials don’t speak of “having” problems but of having “inherited” them — and always in the context of what they are doing to try to solve them. And although he alludes to Bush and his impact often, the president has mentioned his predecessor by name only a handful of times in his prepared remarks since taking office.
Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia have been less circumspect. As POLITICO reported last month, both N.J. Gov. Jon Corzine and Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds kicked off their candidacies with broadsides against Bush — a strategy that, if effective, will likely encourage other Democrats to follow suit.
Which leaves those who have long chafed at Bush bashing to ask: How much longer can it possibly last?
With respect to Obama, at least, reasonable minds may disagree.
It’s already over, says Feehery — at least in terms of its effectiveness: “My own personal opinion is that six months is an eternity in politics, and it’s never about what happened six months ago — it’s about what’s happening right now.”
It might last another month or two, but that’s it, opines Republican strategist Ed Rollins: “I think you may have a little bit more time, but certainly by September, October, that story’s not going to fly. It’ll be Obama’s war in Afghanistan, Obama’s economy,” he says. “Whether it’s legitimate or not, that’s the way it works.”
The public is already holding Obama responsible, says Democratic strategist Douglas Schoen, who stamps a fall sell-by date on the tactic. “When asked the question, 'Who’s more to blame?' the American people say, ‘Bush is more to blame than Obama — but we’re looking to Obama for solutions.’” Schoen says the strategy may still be useful now, but it won’t be indefinitely: “Do I think they can get through the midterms with that? No, I don’t.”
Not so fast, counters Democratic pollster Paul Maslin; it all depends on what happens between now and then.
“If, next year, as we head into the midterm elections, the economy really starts to turn around, then he’s got a story line that begins with 'We inherited this' that works for him, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t take it all the way through the midterms and even through reelection.”
Or perhaps even longer. Muses Maslin: “Ronald Reagan ran against Washington pretty much the whole eight years, and he was in D.C. the whole time, as the head of our government.”
On the flip side, notes Singer, the political risk to the president is relatively low. “One of the ironies about the Obama administration is, for all of the accusations that it’s all rhetoric and talk, a lot of its success will be determined on nuts and bolts metrics,” he says. “If the economy is stagnant in 2012, people aren’t going to be saying, ‘I’m not going to vote for the president because he only wants to bash Bush.’ They’re going to say, ‘I’m not voting for the president because the economy is stagnant.’”
The main caveat, says Maslin, is that even if the president can safely continue to score points off the previous administration, he should be aware that the buzzer on Bush himself has sounded.
“I’m a partisan Democrat, but even I don’t want to kick him anymore,” he says.