No, Matt Bai, it's not all Bush's fault

In an expansive essay published on Thursday, Yahoo News’ national political columnist Matt Bai dubbed George W. Bush the most influential president in decades. The imprint the former president left on domestic and geopolitics is so expansive that his shadow still looms over virtually every major issue dominating the headlines more than a half-decade after he left office.

Bai’s assessment of Bush’s sizable impact on the world was no compliment, though. It was submitted as more of an attempt to absolve Barack Obama of blame for what Americans increasingly view as his failed presidency.

“After a month that saw Iraq unravel and job growth continue to plod along, while the stock market soared, the central paradox of the Obama years, as historians will undoubtedly view it, has never been clearer,” Bai wrote. “It’s Obama’s presidency, but he’s still governing in Bush’s world.”

“Obama’s critics will no doubt hear in this an excuse for his stymied agenda and limp approval ratings, but that’s not the point,” he continued. Bai noted that all presidents are vexed by the conditions set by their predecessors. “But it’s hard to think of any second-term president in the past century, at least, who’s been so completely consumed by issues he inherited,” he continued.

This assertion undermines Bai’s claim that his is not an attempt to craft a set of excuses for Obama’s failures in office. Despite his claims to the contrary, Bai’s aims grow clearer as his column progresses. It reads, however, more like an indictment of Obama and his leadership of the Democratic Party than an acquittal.

The most obvious of these at the moment is the situation in Iraq, which Obama had vowed to put behind us once and for all, and which is now devolving into a morass of tribal and sectarian warfare — an outcome that should have seemed inevitable to anyone who ever visited the country or bothered to read a history book. There’s also the mess in Afghanistan and the cresting tide of Islamist militancy in Syria and throughout the region, all of which came in a package deal with Bush’s global war on Terror.

Then you have to consider security conundrums closer to home, like domestic spying (which Obama had excoriated as a candidate) and the quasi-legal prison at Guantanamo Bay (which he had vowed to shutter). Turns out that it takes an awful lot of resolve for any president to turn off the giant sucking machine of high-tech intelligence once the government has turned it on. And what do you know: There’s no good place to send the prisoners at Gitmo, after all — unless you want to unload them for an American prisoner of war, like the Marlins at the trading deadline. Obama hasn’t yet solved either problem.

The defining issue of Obama’s presidency remains an economic recovery that continues to leave behind most Americans while enriching a relative few, for which the president mostly blames Congress, almost six years after the Wall Street meltdown that helped propel him to the White House. The mounting debt Democrats derided as irresponsible in the Bush years has only intensified under Obama, with no greater clarity on how to get it under control.

Even today’s bitter partisanship is one of Bush’s legacy achievements:

“And let’s not forget the toxic, paralyzing political atmosphere Bush bequeathed his successor,” Bai continued. “Obama’s central promise as a candidate was to unstick us from all of that (hope and change, etc.), but his presidency has been swallowed by it, instead. Now he’s resorted to exactly the same type of governing by executive fiat for which Democrats assailed Bush.”

If only there was one simple chart to illustrate this bitter partisan divide fostered under Bush, preferably one that shows the seeds of this great chasm were sown amid Bush’s scorched earth 2004 reelection campaign:


Well, that can’t be right.

But it is. Bai concedes that Obama probably “underestimated” the scale of the challenges that he faced when coming into office, but the president also proceeded to handle them poorly. By nearly every metric Obama set to measure his success, he has failed.

Obama promised to change the culture of Washington and reduce the influence that corporate lobbyists have over policymakers. “Six years later, that influence is not only stronger; it’s more secretive,” wrote’s Jeremy Slevin.

The president promised to end the practice of crafting legislation behind closed doors only to be passed without sufficient time for the public to scrutinize new proposals. The Affordable Care Act stands as a monument to the efficacy of legislative secrecy and parliamentary chicanery. Obama promised a new era of transparency in government, a vow that even The New York Times editorial board scoffs at today.

The 44th president sought sweeping economic reforms only possible amid a 100 year economic crisis. He passed ineffective Keynesian stimulus projects which objectively failed to achieve their goals, but he has nevertheless continued to advocate for more of them. Obama could not even deliver on his 2008 campaign promises to index the minimum wage to inflation or enact a windfall profits tax on oil companies, even with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Overseas, Obama promised to end the Iraq war within 16 months of taking office and to withdraw American forces from that theater. For a fleeting moment, he achieved that objective. But his political commitment to withdrawal allowed no consideration for strategic concerns and, within a few years, American troops were back in Baghdad conducting advisory operations alongside Iraqi security forces. Thousands of troops and naval assets remain positioned in the Persian Gulf ready to evacuate Americans from the world’s most expensive embassy if the sad history of Saigon repeats itself in Baghdad.

Obama succeeded on his own terms in implementing a “surge” of troops into Afghanistan, an operation which was modestly successful but was terminated arbitrarily and probably prematurely. Obama may yet learn from his mistake in Afghanistan, and might negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement which allows for a permanent American presence in that country – an achievement which eluded him in Iraq. If so, Obama’s promise to “end the war” in Afghanistan will have been achieved only in the technical sense that American forces are no longer spearheading combat operations.

But the hotspots that Obama inherited from Bush have proliferated during his presidency. Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors in the post-Soviet space has only grown more brazen in the last six years. China, apparently desirous of territorial expansion, is hastening the rise of East Asian spheres of influence in a post-American global order with unforeseen alacrity. A variety of South and Central American nations are today virtual failed states, creating a virtual refugee crisis on America’s southern border.

The Syrian civil war currently spilling into Iraq was not a “package deal” with the War on Terror, but one of many conflicts to erupt during the Arab Spring of 2011. The president’s response to that tectonic geopolitical event was to reverse President Jimmy Carter’s only lasting achievement: the crafting of an alliance with Egypt’s military that had endured amid changes of government in Cairo and served as a bedrock for preventing interstate wars in the Middle East for 40 years. By nearly every conceivable measurement, the Middle East is less stable today than it was during the Bush administration.

With the theater of military operations in the global war on terror expanding rather than contracting, Obama’s promise to restore America’s reputation is a punchline today. At best, the United States is ignored by its erstwhile allies. At worst, and with increasing frequency, its interests are actively opposed by nations who do not fear the consequences associated with running afoul of the world’s lone superpower.

One of the few diplomatic advantages Obama inherited from Bush was the unwavering admiration of the Second World nations liberated from Soviet domination. What do the former Warsaw Pact states think of the value of relations with the United States today? “[It] isn’t worth anything,” said Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski candidly, representative of one of the few European countries willing to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq in service only to its alliance with the United States. “[It’s] even harmful because it creates a false sense of security.”

No matter how much the president’s benefactors would like to salvage his reputation for posterity, these are failures Obama owns. Even Bai’s thoughtful attempt at preemptively rehabilitating Obama’s legacy betrays his inadequacy. So bereft of substantive successes is this presidency that it is the natural restoration of Obama’s predecessor’s reputation which must be thwarted.

That is the strongest, albeit inadvertent, condemnation of Barack Obama anyone could make.