How much of a mess for Obama?

Today’s topic: How has President Bush set up the Obama administration’s early months for either failure or success (or something in between)? Previously, Greenwald and Antle discussed presidential pardons and the dozens of late-term regulatory decisions made by the Bush administration.

Bush goofed, but don’t expect too much better from Obama
Point: W. James Antle III


While I’ve argued that President Bush has, with some exceptions, generally conducted himself graciously and honorably during the transition period, it is impossible to claim that Barack Obama has been set up to succeed. The circumstances under which he is taking office are dire.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who got to campaign against a recession that had actually ended in March 1991, Obama will inherit an economy that has probably not yet reached bottom. The federal budget deficit stands at $1.2 trillion. Just a few years ago, the entire budget was “only” $1.7 trillion. Obama will also have to deal with two foreign wars, both of which have now gone on longer than our country’s involvement in World War II.

We can go back and forth over Bush’s last-minute regulations or pardons, many of which can reasonably be second-guessed. From a purely political perspective, Obama is better off challenging Bush’s decision to allow mining in the Grand Canyon than Bush was suspending Clinton’s (cynically adopted) standards for the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water. I think the logistics of closing Guantanamo Bay will prove difficult less because of Bush’s last-minute maneuvers than the not-in-my-backyard difficulty of what to do with the detainees.

But nothing Bush has done or will do in the waning days of his presidency will have as much effect as the things he did while his administration was in full swing. While there are aspects of the Bush record I would certainly defend -- the majority of his judicial appointments, his controversial efforts to prod stem cell research to proceed along more ethical lines and his reductions in taxation of dividends and capital gains -- there are some areas where this president failed.

The Medicare prescription drug benefit, enacted without significant reforms and without regard to the beneficiaries’ ability to pay, has added trillions in unfunded liabilities to a program already teetering on the brink of insolvency. Bush offered a more serious proposal to reform Social Security, but he was foolish to think that could be done in a single term. The groundwork needed to be laid well before his reelection. His failure there is a missed opportunity that will cost future generations dearly.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons that he turned out not to have shattered the political coalition -- both domestically and internationally -- we needed to properly wage the post-9/11 war on terror. I don’t think Bush’s Democratic critics, who supported the war when it was popular and have politicized it ever since the polls have shifted, have acquitted themselves well either. But the Iraq war will likely be remembered as a mistake, even after the surge, and budgeting methods used to finance it border on criminal.

Finally, Bush failed to end a bipartisan policy of encouraging reckless borrowing, bad investing strategies and artificially low interest rates, which have resulted in the bubbles that have now so painfully burst. He compounded this error by opening a Pandora’s box of bailouts we cannot afford. Who will bail out the American taxpayer? The Chinese?

Obama hasn’t had much luck in terms of when he gets to go to the White House. But in politics, like so much of life, you have to make your own luck. And unfortunately, Obama does not seem likely to break with Bush in the areas that matter most. His distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan made sense in late 2001 but probably doesn’t anymore. Obama has signed off on bailout nation and was never a critic of reckless monetary policies that led to our current financial crisis. And Obama is already flooding the country with red ink before he even takes the oath of office.

We agree, probably more than most liberal-conservative pairs, on many of the things that Bush has done wrong in office. Where we part company, I think, is that you seem to regard Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as uniquely malevolent actors. I regard them as symptoms of a political culture that has ceded too much power to government and expects too much from Washington.

I am particularly in agreement with you about the folly of many Bush policies adopted after 9/11. But I do think Bush’s team reacted much the same way any comparable Democratic team would have responded if they were faced with the deaths of thousands of their countrymen and the sight of the Twin Towers collapsing. That doesn’t justify all their actions, but it does place them in a context many of the president’s critics refuse to provide. It also makes me less than sanguine about whether the next administration will deliver anything more than change partisans can believe in.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.

It’s hard to understate how bad Bush was
Counterpoint: Glenn Greenwald


It’s not particularly surprising that we find ourselves in far more agreement than disagreement regarding the Bush years. One could say that Bush’s vow to be a “uniter” was one of the few significant pledges he fulfilled, as he leaves office with almost three out of every four Americans believing that his presidency was a failure and an even higher percentage believing that the country is fundamentally off track. Given that the U.S. still has a roughly even partisan split (though now tilting toward the Democrats), large numbers of Republicans and even conservatives disapprove of the Bush years.

In that regard, the way in which Bush’s actions will most help Obama succeed is that Obama is almost certain to look good, competent and in charge by comparison. Bush has raised the bar for presidential failure so high that it is hard to envision Obama -- or any other Oval Office occupant during the next several decades -- coming anywhere close to it. Many historians and pundits have concluded that Bush may be the worst president of the modern era, if not the worst ever. The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin this week summarized the reasons why this is so, relying on purely objective metrics:

“He took the nation to a war of choice under false pretenses -- and left troops in harm’s way on two fields of battle. He embraced torture as an interrogation tactic and turned the world’s champion of human dignity into an outlaw nation and international pariah. He watched with detachment as a major American city went under water. He was ostensibly at the helm as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression took hold. He went from being the most popular to the most disappointing president, having squandered a unique opportunity to unite the country and even the world behind a shared agenda after Sept. 11. He set a new precedent for avoiding the general public in favor of screened audiences and seemed to occupy an alternate reality. He took his own political party from seeming permanent majority status to where it is today. And he deliberately politicized the federal government, circumvented the traditional policymaking process, ignored expert advice and suppressed dissent, leaving behind a broken government.”

One can quibble with some of those individual items, but it’s hard to imagine many people objecting to the overall picture -- and that picture is quite ugly by any measure. That the country is so severely deficient in so many realms means that it would be hard for Obama to do any worse. Put another way, it’s hard to imagine an easier act to follow than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Beyond that expectation benefit, the primary factor determining whether Obama will succeed is illuminated by one of the disagreements you believe we have, Jim. You write, “Where we part company, I think, is that you seem to regard Bush and Dick Cheney as uniquely malevolent actors. I regard them as symptoms of a political culture that has ceded too much power to government and expects too much from Washington.”

Of course, it’s possible (and I’d say almost certainly so) that both are true; that is, Bush and Cheney are uniquely malevolent actors and they are symptoms (severe ones) of our power-inflated, bloated, imperial federal government. Indeed, I see that duo and their various forms of extremism as a particularly virulent outgrowth of the citizenry’s view of the president as an all-purpose, omnipotent protector rather than (as the Constitution intended and explicitly proscribed) a public servant with extremely limited duties and powers.

Either way, it’s undeniably the case that, wholly separate from Bush and Cheney, there are permanent and systemic attributes of our political culture that are partly responsible (at least) for many of the Bush administration’s controversies and failures, and those aren’t going anywhere simply because Barack Obama starts occupying the Oval Office. Most of the Washington establishment, including the leadership of the Democratic Party, supported what was done by the administration. The establishment press either cheered it on or, at best, turned a blissfully blind eye toward it. And the permanent Beltway power structure -- in the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the bureaucracy -- wants to see the power of the government, and especially the executive, grow continuously. Bush and Cheney seized on and manipulated the preexisting biases of those factions to massively increase their own power and diminish other checks and limits, but they really just exploited the intrinsic pro-power ideology of the political class.

Obama will be working within that same system, with the same mores, pressures and limits. Whether Bush’s relentless expansion of executive power will end up helping or hindering Obama depends very much on what Obama intends to do. If, as you suggest, his departures from Bush-Cheney policy in the areas of civil liberties and national security will be more cosmetic than real, then Obama will likely be happy to have that power at his disposal. But if he intends to depart meaningfully from what has been done over the past eight years, then the expectations and entitlements of the permanent Washington class that have become further entrenched over the last eight years will likely be his most significant impediment.

Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional lawyer, contributing writer at and author of two books on the Bush administration.