Why Obamacare May Be Obama’s Katrina, Iraq

The crises don’t compare, but their causes and effects certainly do.

President George W. Bush and president-elect Barack Obama walk through the colonnade November 10, 2008 to the Oval Office at the White House.
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
Nov. 20, 2013, 10:24 a.m.

We’ve been meas­ur­ing pres­id­ents against each oth­er since John Adams failed in com­par­is­on with the sainted George Wash­ing­ton. His­tor­ic­al ana­logues are nev­er per­fect — no two pres­id­ents or pres­id­en­tial cir­cum­stances are ex­actly the same — but they are in­struct­ive, which is why most lead­ers are stu­dents of his­tory.

Im­per­fect but in­struct­ive — so, too, are com­par­is­ons between Pres­id­ents Bush and Obama, and spe­cific­ally, the causes and ef­fects of their polit­ic­al crises, Kat­rina and Ir­aq for No. 43, Obama­care for No. 44.

In a well-ar­gued ana­lys­is last week, Mi­chael Shear of The New York Times wrote: “The dis­astrous rol­lout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises ques­tions about his com­pet­ence in the same way that the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s botched re­sponse to Hur­ricane Kat­rina un­der­mined any semb­lance of Re­pub­lic­an ef­fi­ciency.”

Many oth­ers have made the same point (in­clud­ing me here and here). “There’s a qual­it­at­ive dif­fer­ence between people dy­ing in New Or­leans and people not able to get health care,” said former Bush strategist and poll­ster Mat­thew Dowd on ABC’s This Week. “But from a polit­ic­al stand­point, it’s eer­ily sim­il­ar to Pres­id­ent Bush in the fall of 2005.”

Dowd makes two im­port­ant points. First, there is ob­vi­ously no (“qual­it­at­ive”) com­par­is­on between the crises. Hur­ricane Kat­rina killed at least 1,833 people and dam­aged more than $80 bil­lion worth of prop­erty. It was an act of God, not a res­ult of gov­ern­ment in­com­pet­ence to­ward the noble goal of ex­pand­ing health in­sur­ance. The Ir­aq War claimed as many as 500,000 lives and cost hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars. It was fought un­der false pre­tenses: the Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion’s claims that Sad­dam Hus­sein har­bored weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Second, there are in­es­cap­able sim­il­ar­it­ies in the ways that Bush and Obama handled their crises, and those ac­tions changed the pub­lic’s view of their pres­id­en­cies. Spe­cific­ally:

  • Their mis­man­age­ment raised ques­tions about com­pet­ence, com­poun­ded by de­cept­ive and tone-deaf re­sponses that un­der­mined their cred­ib­il­ity.
  • The crises came after a series of un­re­lated events that had already caused doubt among voters about the pres­id­ents. To bor­row a cliché, Kat­rina was the last straw.
  • Their per­son­al and job-ap­prov­al rat­ings tanked.
  • Their dwind­ling polit­ic­al cap­it­al was squandered by de­fens­ive, in­su­lar ad­visers who re­fused to re­cog­nize the dangers.
  • They both ran reelec­tion cam­paigns without a pos­it­ive for­ward-look­ing mes­sage and made the races primar­ily about their op­pon­ent. That left them little polit­ic­al cap­it­al go­ing in­to their second term.

Bush nev­er re­covered. Obama might still have time to learn his­tory’s hard les­sons.

In a book I cowrote with Dowd and Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Doug Sosnik, we ar­gued: “This we learned from Pres­id­ent Bush in 2005: When a politi­cian loses his cred­ib­il­ity, voters start to ques­tion his oth­er val­ues and even­tu­ally start look­ing at his policies dif­fer­ently. In polit­ics, this can be doom.”

Sound fa­mil­i­ar? So too will these open­ing para­graphs from stor­ies I wrote for the As­so­ci­ated Press dur­ing the Bush pres­id­ency:

Sept. 2, 2005: WASH­ING­TON (AP) — The Ir­aqi in­sur­gency is in its last throes. The eco­nomy is boom­ing. Any­body who leaks a CIA agent’s iden­tity will be fired. Add an­oth­er piece of White House rhet­or­ic that doesn’t match the pub­lic’s view of real­ity: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.

Sept. 12, 2005: WASH­ING­TON (AP) — The fatally slow re­sponse to Hur­ricane Kat­rina un­leashed a wave of an­ger that could trans­form people’s ex­pect­a­tions of gov­ern­ment, the qual­it­ies they seek in polit­ic­al lead­ers and their views of Amer­ica’s class and ra­cial di­vides. It’s a huge op­por­tun­ity that neither party seems poised to ex­ploit.

Nov. 9, 2005: WASH­ING­TON (AP) — Ir­aq, Kat­rina, CIA leak, Har­riet Miers. Things couldn’t pos­sibly get any worse for Pres­id­ent Bush. Wait, they just did.

March 3, 2006: WASH­ING­TON (AP) — Pres­id­ent Bush vowed, “We are fully pre­pared.” Mike Brown barked or­ders. Weath­er ex­perts warned of a killer storm. The be­hind-the-scenes drama, cap­tured on video­tape as Hur­ricane Kat­rina roared ashore, con­firmed Amer­ic­ans’ sus­pi­cions of gov­ern­ment lead­ers: They can run a good meet­ing, but little else.

Or this one from Janu­ary 2007 after I had left AP: “Pres­id­ent Bush has lost the greatest com­mod­ity a pres­id­ent can pos­sess: The pub­lic’s trust. Scattered with Kat­rina’s winds and bur­ied in the bloody bat­tle­fields of Ir­aq, his cred­ib­il­ity is likely gone forever, which means there will be no polit­ic­al comeback for Bush. His die is cast.”

The Bush White House an­grily ob­jec­ted to these and oth­er stor­ies that pounced on his fail­ures and con­sequences. Most con­ser­vat­ive writers and some me­dia crit­ics ob­jec­ted to the stor­ies, which were part of the AP’s at­tempt to move away from false-equi­val­ence ana­lyses to edgy pieces of “ac­count­ab­il­ity journ­al­ism.”  

The Obama White House is angry and, like the Bush team in 2005, mock­ing and pun­ish­ing re­port­ers who dare to ques­tion their tac­tics or their boss. Obama has his own hosanna chor­us in the me­dia to ri­dicule any com­par­is­ons — just as Bush did.

Once again, a man twice elec­ted to change the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton is a cap­tive of it. Wait … you could say the same of Bush.