Former President George W. Bush might be out of sight this campaign season, but he is certainly not out of mind for either Mitt Romney or President Obama.
The nation’s 43rd president was a nonfactor during the Republican presidential primary and he has been almost completely absent from the public eye since leaving office. But he still figured prominently in the last two elections: His deep unpopularity at the end of his second term laid a path for Obama to win the presidency in 2008. Two years later, Democrats tried in vain to link the GOP to Bush’s policies and instead suffered an historic landslide loss in the midterm elections.
That leaves Obama’s campaign strategists with a difficult decision: Do they invoke the former president this time around, arguing that Republicans want to return to policies that they say failed to work for eight years? Or would the move make the president look as though he is more eager to assign blame than to propose solutions?
Bush is still paying political dividends for Obama, at least implicitly. The current White House occupant is campaigning for reelection at a time of historically high unemployment and rock-bottom public confidence in government. The one bright spot for Obama is that many voters still blame that state of affairs on his predecessor.
A Quinnipiac University poll taken in late February found that 51 percent of registered voters, including 55 percent of independents, said Bush was responsible for the country’s sputtering job growth. Just 31 percent blamed Obama. It’s a built-in advantage for the president — one that may not give him the boost it did four years ago, but still potentially valuable to him.
Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said “2008 was fundamentally about Bush in important ways.” He said this year “is less about Bush, but he still casts a stark shadow over the Republican Party.”
Obama has focused mainly on tarring the GOP’s economic agenda as a regurgitation of failed Bush-era policies. But this year could feature a new wrinkle -- connecting Romney to Bush's foreign policy.
The former president’s international legacy — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is unpopular with the public. Voters overwhelmingly approved of Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, and they’ve turned increasingly pessimistic about the prospects in Afghanistan. A poll published on Wednesday by the Pew Research Center showed that 60 percent of respondents support removing troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while only 32 percent want to keep the military involved until the country is stabilized. The numbers are a new low in support for the conflict.
A war-weary public could be reluctant to back a presidential candidate with hawkish foreign-policy rhetoric, the kind Romney has used on the campaign trail. The onetime Massachusetts governor and likely Republican nominee has advocated increasing the size of the country’s Navy. He has also called Obama naive about Iran and downplays the potential for diplomacy to prevent a nuclear Iran.
“People have seen, and continue to see, Republicans as more reckless now,” said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of social policy and politics at the left-of-center group Third Way. “And that’s something they really respond negatively to.”
The president’s own record, including the killing of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, gives him credibility to bash Republicans on foreign policy. It’s a reversal of a longstanding perception that Democrats are weaker on international issues, Erickson said, and an advantage that Obama can exploit.
“I think if there’s any place in which Bush’s name can be hung around the necks of someone, it’s foreign policy,” she said. “I think it’s much easier, and in the forefront of voters’ minds, than it is on the economy or on regulation, or taxes, or anything else.”
But linking Bush’s foreign policy to Romney’s comes with drawbacks. The first is obvious: If the election hinges on the state of the economy as it seems likely to do, pushing Romney on foreign policy won’t persuade many voters to support Obama. “I just think it doesn’t play that big a role in the election,” said Jim Kolbe, a former GOP congressman from Arizona who is now senior transatlantic fellow for the German Marshall Fund. “I don’t think there’s a great deal of vulnerability” for Romney.
Kolbe also points out that Obama himself sent more troops into Afghanistan, so any voter backlash on the conflict could potentially sting him more than it does Romney.
Although some Democrats are optimistic that Bush remains an electoral asset, Republicans aren’t fretting about him. They’re confident that an attempt to make the election about the past is a recipe for Republican success.
“I think they’re going to be hard-pressed to make George Bush the centerpiece,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson.
Anytime the Obama campaign mentions Bush or blames his predecessor for the economy he inherited, Romney has a simple response, Wilson added. “The answer is, ‘You know, when I’m president, I’m going to look forward to help this country, not look backward and blame you,’ ” he said, channeling Romney admonishing Obama. Even though, Wilson added, “It would be tempting to do so.”