Saturday, March 28, 2009

Another accidental polarizer, another crisis-exploiting presidency, another well-intentioned overreach…

I’ve argued repeatedly since the Democratic primary that Barack Obama would follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush. Today, the National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch asks the question: Is Obama Repeating Bush's Mistakes?

Rauch reminds us:

In 2000, Bush defined his candidacy with three overarching promises: to restore dignity to the Oval Office, to be a compassionate (that is, centrist) conservative, and to be a uniter, not a divider. He kept the first promise, but it was the least important. He broke the second by becoming, in the public's mind, a hard-edged ideologue. He broke the third and most important promise most spectacularly, by emerging as the most divisive president in at least a generation. The public felt betrayed and angry. Along came Obama.

At least until the economic crisis emerged late in the campaign, Obama, too, was defined by three overarching promises: to restore America's prestige abroad, to bring change to Washington, and above all, to be a uniter, not a divider. In effect, he would redeem the promise that Bush had broken.

Bush never set out to break that promise; indeed, many Republicans believe that he kept it. After all, Bush joined with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to reform education; sought and received congressional support (bipartisan in the Senate) for the Iraq invasion; rejected conservative advice that he bypass the United Nations; and championed the biggest entitlement expansion (of Medicare) since LBJ. To the dismay of his own party, he favored moderate immigration reform and spent freely. What was so radical about any of that? Bushies will tell you that the Democrats were the ones who first drew the long knives.

In his determination to be not just a policy-changer but a game-changer, Bush polarized.

It was true that Bush was no conservative purist (some conservatives say that he was no conservative at all). True, but beside the point. In his determination to be not just a policy-changer but a game-changer, Bush polarized. Speaking contemptuously of "small ball," he saw himself as having four short years, eight if he was lucky, to achieve "transformational" standing. In 2002, with the ruins of the twin towers still smoldering, he saw an opportunity for regime change, in Washington as well as in Baghdad.

He declared a quasi-permanent state of war; made startling claims of presidential power; sought to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an "axis of evil"; attempted to refashion the Middle East; and portrayed the Democrats as too weak to govern. Far from promising a path back to normalcy, he seemed to relish upsetting equilibriums. Far from putting his pre-9/11 agenda on hold or modifying it in search of Democratic support, he stiffened his positions and pushed all the harder. The result was to inspire adulation among Republicans and raise alarm among Democrats.

Obama, too, promised to be a uniter, to reach out, to rise above partisanship. His sincerity deserves the benefit of the doubt; and, like Bush, he probably sees himself as trying his best despite fiercely partisan opposition. Still, not three months into his term, the bottom is already falling off his standing with Republicans. According to Gallup, his approval among Republicans fell 15 points, from 41 percent to 26 percent, from January to March. He is beginning to inspire adulation among Democrats and raise alarm among Republicans.

Like Bush, he may think this is not his fault. But he outsourced his stimulus package to congressional Democrats, who did things their way after concluding that Republicans were in no mood to compromise. They may have been right, but Obama could have tested Republicans by convening a bipartisan summit at the White House and asking both parties to make a deal.

Then came his budget. Republicans, including thoughtful ones, reacted with shock. "He is casting his lot with collectivists and statists; his intent is to put us on a glide path to European-style socialism," wrote Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House official who is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The administration pointed out that the budget merely kept Obama's promises. Nothing in it was radical or hard-left. Sympathetic commentators noted that Obama's departures from his campaign pledges were generally to the center, not the left.

Another accidental polarizer, another crisis-exploiting presidency, another well-intentioned overreach -- all, perhaps, to be followed by another public backlash.

All true, but, again, beside the point. Republicans have reason to fear that the net result of adopting Obama's budget will be to expand federal spending from 21 percent of gross domestic product, its set point for 40 years, to more like 25 percent by 2019 (a recent estimate by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation).

Demographics and health costs are bound to increase government spending anyway; but, from Republicans' point of view, there was more, much more. Obama is proposing a cap-and-trade system that will entwine regulation with the financial and revenue systems as never before. His winner-picking energy subsidies may cause economic distortions and inefficiencies that will last for decades. His health care plan might turn the whole health insurance system into a giant version of Medicare.

Republicans' fears about Obama's policies may well be overwrought, as Democrats insist. Talk of impending socialism seems hysterical. But given that Obama wants to do all of these things simultaneously, and that he wants to do them all this year, how could Republicans be anything but frightened?

Obama, like Bush, set out with an agenda of his own devising, only to have another, crisis-driven agenda imposed upon him. Like Bush, he chose not to decouple the two agendas but to portray them as inextricably linked and drive them both forward. Like Bush, he seemed to decide that the crisis made a handy sledgehammer. Unlike Bush, he let his people say so.

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