Who would have thought that one of Barack Obama’s biggest missteps as President would be repeating some of the bad habits of George W. Bush? No single factor was more instrumental in Obama’s 2008 victory than his pledge to completely reverse the nation’s course once in the White House. Instead, over the past year, Obama has mimicked some of Bush’s most egregious blunders, leading to much of the political predicament in which the present decider finds himself today.
This is not to say that Obama has maintained Bush’s policies, although his Administration’s continuity on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Wall Street has alienated the left. And he certainly hasn’t done himself any favors by failing to inspire the general public to rally around his agenda. But Obama’s stumbles atop the high wire of running the federal government have created perhaps the greatest danger to his presidency, and they are oddly reminiscent of the misguided practices that tripped up his predecessor. (See pictures of Obama’s first year in the White House.)
Consider all the ways in which the current occupant of the Oval Office has — inadvertently or otherwise — repeated the errors of the recent past:
No Chief Economic Spokesperson. Quick: Name all three of Bush’s Treasury Secretaries. Hard to do, isn’t it? Like Bush, Obama has failed to install an economics commander in chief who can serve as the public face and the in-house honcho of the Administration’s financial team. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, National Economic Council chief Larry Summers and Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer all bring strengths to their positions, but none is especially effective at conveying either a consistent message or a sufficient urgency, and none stands out symbolically or practically as America’s economics czar. It is not practical for the President himself to serve as the daily go-to guy on any one issue, and given the short- and long-term consequences of the financial and unemployment crises, Obama desperately needs a distinct leader to handle this vital job. Bush needed a Robert Rubin figure, and so does Obama.
Failure to Integrate Policy, Politics and Communication. By the end of Bush’s two terms, even some of his supporters were disappointed (and, at times, horrified) by how much of the decisionmaking at the highest levels of government were more a result of political machinations than rigorous, substantive policymaking. From its earliest days, Obama’s White House has failed to put in place the necessary procedures and personnel to move strong, serious ideas along the conveyor belt from the minds of wonky experts cloistered in the Old Executive Office Building chambers to the President’s lips as he introduces new initiatives at dramatic public events.
Tying the Administration’s Fate Too Closely to His Party’s Congressional Leadership. Republican leaders in Congress effectively persuaded Bush in almost every year of his presidency to marry his fate to theirs — and all too frequently, to subordinate his vision of right and wrong to their short-term political demands. This problem was particularly pronounced in the area of spending, from a mammoth farm bill to an expensive entitlement in the form of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit to colossal business-as-usual earmark spending. Bush also tarnished his personal image by staying largely silent in the face of ethics flaps involving Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff and other scandal-plagued Republicans. (Obama should take note, as he continues to sidestep meaningful comment on the long-running travails of Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel.) When Bush ran for President, he, like Obama, suggested he would regularly cross his party’s congressional wing when he thought they were dead wrong. And Obama, like Bush, has lashed himself many times over to the political fortunes of the Capitol Hill portion of his party, allowing the agenda and vision of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, majority leader Harry Reid and a covey of mostly liberal committee chairs to define the public image of the Democratic Party and determine what his Administration can accomplish.
Failing to Empower Cabinet Members on Domestic Policy. Obama has put numerous talented people in his Cabinet, from a Nobel Prize winner to several successful governors, but like his predecessor, he has no system to get the most out of them. Cabinet members in the domestic-policy cluster have less input, and less of a platform, in determining and selling Administration policies than their counterparts at State and Defense. Finding the right balance — giving the domestic Cabinet enough influence, but not too much — is tough, but Obama, like Bush, has placed too little weight on the side of the Secretaries. Potent and active Education Secretary Arne Duncan is an exception that illustrates what the President could be doing with the rest of the team.
The good news for Obama is that each one of these errors is fixable, and there are signs that the President and his staff are working to address at least some of them — for instance, by adding new policy heft to the chief of staff’s office. The more cautionary note, however, is that Bush never solved these problems, which plagued him from his earliest months in the White House until the day he left. Candidate Obama’s repudiation of Bush’s eight-year presidency was focused on his predecessor’s ideology. He should have taken stock of Bush’s executive process as well.