Whenever Barack Obama seems in danger of falling, do we have to hear that George W. Bush made the cliff?
It happened with the economy. For the president’s staunchest defenders, legitimate questions about whether the stimulus was wisely crafted and whether Obamacare was rushed took a back seat to lamentations over the damage that his predecessor had done. Obama wasn’t perfect, but at least he wasn’t Bush.
And with the Middle East, those defenders sometimes turn Bush’s epic mistakes into Obama’s hall pass. Perhaps he hasn’t figured out what’s right, but he isn’t guilty of the original wrong, which is constantly being litigated anew, as if a fresh verdict on the events of 2003 could alter the challenges and stakes of 2014.
On Tuesday there was another spasm of this. As Congress debated the escalation of airstrikes against Islamic extremists, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, digressed to inveigh against “the wholly unnecessary Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq,” a bell that was rung 11 1/2years ago and can’t be un-rung now.
And to judge from my inbox lately and the chatter I overhear, what matters to many of Obama’s most stalwart fans isn’t whether he erred in the way he spoke of those extremists, turned his attention to them quickly enough or is now confronting them with the correct dose of belligerence: not too little, not too much.
At least he’s not Bush. He didn’t hallucinate weapons of mass destruction, make a spurious case for war or condone torture. I hear so much about Bush’s failings and Bush’s sins that you’d think he were still huddled over a desk in Washington rather than dabbing at a canvas in Texas.
Enough. It’s true that Obama hasn’t replicated Bush’s offenses, and it’s consoling. But it isn’t exactly reason for a parade, and it doesn’t inoculate him. The culpability that lies elsewhere doesn’t relieve the responsibilities that are now his.
And not being as bad as someone else is hardly the same as being good. Obama can rise far above Bush and still fall short. The presidency isn’t “The Voice” (though it is a little like “Survivor”). You’re not judged only in relation to the other performers who have been onstage. You’re judged by how well you respond to the unique circumstances of your time and place — by your ability to clean up the mess, not whether you made it.
This not-as-bad-as defense is a pointless partisan tic. We’ve seen a lot of it over the course of this presidency and will no doubt see a lot of it during the next, be it Democratic or Republican.
The IRS scandal was not as bad as Watergate. (Nothing’s ever as bad as Watergate, which serves a nifty historical function as the gold standard of executive malfeasance and mendacity.)
The bungled rollout of Obamacare was not as bad as the botched response to Katrina.
It’s apples and hurricanes, but they’re put in the same basket, in a manner that recalls a child trying to evade punishment by ratting out a sibling for something worse. Don’t be mad, Mommy, about Operation Fast and Furious and all those guns that ended up with Mexican drug cartels. Ronnie traded arms for hostages as part of this whole Iran-Contra affair!
I sometimes like to imagine presidential campaigns waged along these lines and what the candidates’ not-as-bad-as bumper stickers might say.
“Fewer Lies Than Nixon.” “Fewer Sweaters Than Carter.” “Fewer Interns Than Clinton.” “Better Speller Than Quayle.”
It works in the other direction, too, and Obama has definitely suffered plenty of not-as-good-as slings. Former presidents are held up not merely as yardsticks; they’re rulers used to rap the knuckles of the Oval Office’s current inhabitant and beat him over the head.
Smack: That Teddy Roosevelt certainly understood the power of the bully pulpit! Thwack: That LBJ really knew how to schmooze! A president is like a second spouse living in the saintly shadow of a first one who perished too soon.
Edmund Burke famously said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. But are those who fixate on it blind to how peculiar the present is, and to the fact that no degree of longing for a lost hero or blaming of a departed villain is going to change what lies ahead?
If we’re determined to glance back at a figure who flatters Obama, let’s really have at it and look all the way to Warren Harding. Golf wasn’t his only distraction. He also had a thing for poker. And when it came to seeming and feeling overwhelmed, the 29th president, an Ohio Republican, reputedly confessed to friends that he was lost in the job.
By that measure Obama is a rock. But it doesn’t make him a boulder.
© 2014 New York Times News Service