‘This Is the End of the Presidency’

Tracking the same horrible second-term path as Bush, can Obama learn from the past?

President Barack Obama, former president George W. Bush with First Lady Michelle Obama (R) and former First Lady Laura Bush arrive for the unveiling of the Bush's portraits May 31, 2012.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Dec. 17, 2013, midnight

Claim­ing a man­date he nev­er had, the newly reelec­ted pres­id­ent fois­ted a bold agenda upon Con­gress and the pub­lic, then watched it col­lapse with­in months — a vic­tim of scan­dal, cyn­ic­al op­pon­ents, and his own hubris. One des­pair­ing ad­viser de­clared, “This is the end of the pres­id­ency.”

That was George W. Bush in 2005. Or was it Barack Obama this past year? Read­ing Peter Baker’s ex­traordin­ary ac­count of the Bush-Cheney era, Days of Fire, I found a strik­ing num­ber of par­al­lels between Bush’s fifth year in of­fice and the at­ro­cious first 12 months of Pres­id­ent Obama’s second term.

My takeaway: Obama needs to shat­ter the cycle of dys­func­tion (his and his­tory’s) or risk leav­ing of­fice like Bush, un­pop­u­lar and re­l­at­ively un­ac­com­plished.

Here are nine ana­logues between Bush’s 2005 and Obama’s 2013, start­ing with “¦

1. As­sum­ing vic­tory came with spoils. Bush wasted no time plot­ting an ex­pans­ive vis­ion for his second term, or­der­ing speech­writers to pro­duce an In­aug­ur­al Ad­dress that made “end­ing tyranny in our world” of­fi­cial U.S. policy. His do­mest­ic agenda in­cluded changes to So­cial Se­cur­ity, im­mig­ra­tion, the tax code, and court-clog­ging lit­ig­a­tion rules. Obama un­leashed an ag­gress­ively lib­er­al agenda in his second In­aug­ur­al Ad­dress, prom­ising to com­bat cli­mate change, loosen im­mig­ra­tion re­stric­tions, curb gun vi­ol­ence, and ex­pand hu­man and civil rights.

Bush and Obama made the same mis­take. Both men con­vinced them­selves that they were reelec­ted be­cause of their agen­das, rather than be­cause of neg­at­ive cam­paign strategies that es­sen­tially dis­qual­i­fied their rivals — Demo­crat John Kerry and Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney. In fact, many of the is­sues claimed as pres­id­en­tial man­dates in 2005 and 2013 ac­tu­ally re­ceived re­l­at­ively little at­ten­tion from the can­did­ates and from the me­dia in 2004 and 2012. On the night of Obama’s elec­tion, I wrote:

Barack Obama won a second term but no man­date. Thanks in part to his own small-bore and bru­tish cam­paign, vic­tory guar­an­tees the pres­id­ent noth­ing more than the head­ache of build­ing con­sensus in a grid­locked cap­it­al on be­half of a po­lar­ized pub­lic.

If the pres­id­ent be­gins his second term un­der any de­lu­sion that voters rub­ber-stamped his agenda on Tues­day night, he is doomed to fail.

Man­dates are rarely won on elec­tion night. They are earned after In­aug­ur­a­tion Day by lead­ers who spend their polit­ic­al cap­it­al wisely, tak­ing ad­vant­age of events without over­reach­ing.

Obama’s ad­visers mocked the column and oth­ers like it, a sign of “¦

2. In­sti­tu­tion­al ar­rog­ance and over­reach. Early in his second term, Bush brushed aside ques­tions about Bern­ard Kerik’s back­ground and nom­in­ated the former New York po­lice com­mis­sion­er to head the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment. Baker con­cluded the move “demon­strated that a pres­id­ent at the peak of his power and in­flu­ence thought he could dis­miss such is­sues and the rest of Wash­ing­ton would go along.” A short time later, Bush awar­ded Pres­id­en­tial Medals of Free­dom to George Ten­et, Jerry Bremer, and Tommy Franks, three ar­chi­tects of the Ir­aq War. “It was the act of a pres­id­ent fresh off reelec­tion feel­ing em­powered and a little de­fi­ant,” Baker wrote.Bush walks off stage after present­ing the Medal of Free­dom to (from left) Ten­et, Franks, and Bremer. (Mark Wilson/Getty Im­ages)

Shortly after his reelec­tion, at the height of his powers, Obama faced a choice in the 2012 lame-duck ses­sion of Con­gress: Lead with hu­mil­ity and seek com­prom­ise with the GOP on a long-term budget deal, or rub Re­pub­lic­an faces in de­feat. Obama forced his rivals to ac­cept high­er taxes on the wealthy. It was his prerog­at­ive; he won the elec­tion. And he set the tone for a harsh and hu­mi­li­at­ing 2013. Mean­while “¦

3. First-term suc­cess haunted the second term. The in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar Ir­aq war Was an is­sue in 2004, even after Sad­dam Hus­sein’s cap­ture, but Bush had man­aged to fin­esse it for reelec­tion. Obama’s white whale was the Af­ford­able Care Act. In both cases, luck ran out after Elec­tion Day. The death toll rose in Ir­aq dur­ing Bush’s fifth year. For Obama, the fed­er­al health in­sur­ance web­site didn’t work, and mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans lost their in­sur­ance policies des­pite his prom­ises to the con­trary.

Both pres­id­ents de­ceived the pub­lic about their sig­na­ture policies, and their cred­ib­il­ity crumbled. In­su­lar­ity hurt both teams. Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney fam­ously said the Ir­aq in­sur­gency was in its “last throes.” Obama and his ad­visers char­ac­ter­ized cata­stroph­ic flaws with the ACA web­site as “glitches.” Mak­ing mat­ters worse “¦

4. Nobody took re­spons­ib­il­ity. Faced with fail­ure, Bush and Obama re­luct­antly ac­know­ledged the pub­lic’s frus­tra­tion. “Like most Amer­ic­ans,” Bush said of Ir­aq in mid-2005, “I see the im­ages of vi­ol­ence and blood­shed. Every pic­ture is hor­ri­fy­ing, and the suf­fer­ing is real. Amid all this vi­ol­ence, I know Amer­ic­ans ask the ques­tion: Is the sac­ri­fice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vi­tal to the fu­ture se­cur­ity of our coun­try.”

Eight years later, a chastened Obama ad­dressed his broken prom­ises on health care. “I com­pletely get how up­set­ting this can be for a lot of Amer­ic­ans, par­tic­u­larly after as­sur­ances they heard from me,” Obama said in Novem­ber. “To those Amer­ic­ans, I hear you loud and clear.”

As I wrote last week, the pres­id­ents also shared an al­lergy to fir­ing people. Their re­luct­ance may have something to do with the fact that they “¦

5. Dragged their feet in re­sponse to crises. In his chapter on Hur­ricane Kat­rina, Baker wrote, “Now deep in the fight year of a pres­id­ency already marked by one crisis after an­oth­er, Bush was slow to re­cog­nize the scale of the dis­aster.” By the time he did, it was too late. Steve Schmidt, the vice pres­id­ent’s coun­selor, wrote in an email to a col­league, “This is the end of the pres­id­ency.” Mo­ve­On PAC mem­bers and sup­port­ers march in protest of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of Hur­ricane Kat­rina. (Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages)

Des­pite warn­ings that the health care web­site wasn’t ready, the White House went ahead with the rol­lout and then min­im­ized the ex­tent of the prob­lems, even in­tern­ally, for weeks.

In fair­ness, the pres­id­ents had to deal with “¦.

6. An op­pos­i­tion party that took par­tis­an­ship to new levels. Writ­ing of Bush’s ill-fated ef­fort to over­haul the So­cial Se­cur­ity sys­tem, Baker said, “Demo­crats had seized on the is­sue to at­tack Bush, cal­cu­lat­ing it was a way of weak­en­ing a newly reelec­ted pres­id­ent.” The Obama White House and its apo­lo­gists seem to for­get the zero-sum game tac­tics of Bush-era Demo­crats when they cri­ti­cize con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans (ac­cur­ately) for mak­ing pres­id­en­tial de­struc­tion a sin­gu­lar goal. Like Bush, Obama also had an op­pos­ite prob­lem “¦

7. Pres­sure from the base. Bush got beat up by fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans over his choice of Har­riet Miers to serve on the Su­preme Court. Con­ser­vat­ives be­lieved she was pro­fes­sion­ally and ideo­lo­gic­ally un­suited. “He was mad at his aides, ag­grav­ated that they had let this hap­pen,” Baker wrote of the Miers nom­in­a­tion, which was with­drawn. “But he real­ized he was the one who had put his friend in the situ­ation and it was time to find a way out.”

Op­pos­i­tion from lib­er­als didn’t stop Obama from pro­pos­ing en­ti­tle­ment re­form in pub­lic, but the protests had the in­ten­ded ef­fect in private. The pres­id­ent felt hemmed in by the Left dur­ing budget ne­go­ti­ations, ac­cord­ing to White House of­fi­cials in­volved in the talks.

And, of course, there were the big dis­trac­tions “¦

8. Scan­dals. For Bush, it was the in­vest­ig­a­tion of a leak the led to ex­pos­ure of an un­der­cov­er CIA agent. The in­quiry di­vided the White House staff and cast a pall over the ad­min­is­tra­tion. For Obama, it was the IRS’s re­view of polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, the Justice De­part­ment’s seizure of As­so­ci­ated Press tele­phone re­cords, and wide­spread sur­veil­lance by the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency. The con­tro­ver­sies, along with the 2012 at­tack in Benghazi, Libya, were ex­acer­bated by the way the White House handled them — with shift­ing ex­plan­a­tions and, in some cases, out­right dis­tor­tions.(Photo by Man­del Ngan/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

All of this led to a miser­able fifth year and “¦

9. Failed agen­das. “Of the four do­mest­ic goals he had set for 2005,” Baker wrote of Bush, “three were dead.” Only tort re­form had been par­tially ac­com­plished. Obama had a sim­il­ar re­cord, fail­ing on guns, im­mig­ra­tion, and the long-term budget. Through fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions, he made par­tial pro­gress on cli­mate change.

Bush ended his fifth year in of­fice giv­ing a na­tion­al ad­dress on Ir­aq in which he showed an un­usu­al amount of con­tri­tion and ac­count­ab­il­ity. Ac­know­ledging the war had been “more dif­fi­cult than we ex­pec­ted,” Bush offered an olive branch to war op­pon­ents.

“We will con­tin­ue to listen to hon­est cri­ti­cism and make every change that will help us com­plete the mis­sion,” Bush said. He was re­war­ded with an 8-point bump in his ap­prov­al rat­ing to 47 per­cent, Baker wrote, “sug­gest­ing the pub­lic was still will­ing to listen.”

That is the one ray of light for Obama. If after the events and mis­takes of 2005 Amer­ic­ans were still will­ing to listen to Bush, there may still be hope for Obama. His pres­id­ency might re­cov­er.

Of course, the next year brought a spate of worse news for Bush, primar­ily a grim and un­re­lent­ing es­cal­a­tion of war in Ir­aq — his white whale, the is­sue that even­tu­ally swal­lowed a pres­id­ency.

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