The president has been perhaps unfairly criticized in various quarters for his deliberate response to the latest domestic terror attempt. That said, it seems an odd defense for Democrats feeling wrong-footed by that criticism to defend Hope ‘n Change with, well: That’s the way Bush did it.
It was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.
That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.
Democrats have seized on the disparity and are making it a centerpiece of their efforts to counter GOP attacks on the White House. “This hypocrisy demonstrates Republicans are playing politics with issues of national security and terrorism,” DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said. “That they would use this incident as an opportunity to fan partisan flames…tells you all you need to know about how far the Republican party has fallen and how out of step with the American people they have become.”
Comparisons are inherently invidious, and for my own part, I think it appropriate that the Chief Executive wait until the facts are in before jumping to any rash conclusions that he may have to walk back later. Nor is it dignified for the leader of the free world to jump to conclusions the podium each time some nutter goes on a binge. But I do think it’s useful to compare and contrast both the personalities in play and the environment they were operating in.
In December of 2001, the hole at Ground Zero had but recently stopped smoking, we were still looking for the source of the anthrax mail-outs that had occurred more or less contemporaneously with the 9/11 attack, we had just concluded a successful military effort to dislodge the Taliban government from power in Kabul and the big event itself was scarcely three months past. Having pushed through ground breaking legislation that restructured civil, military and intelligence roles, and having launched full scale military assault on a land-locked South Asian country, no one was wondering whether Bush lacked decisiveness but some were beginning to doubt his judgment. His political popularity soared to 86% in the autumn of 2001 – an amazing figure, given the razor thin and hotly contested margin of his election just one year past. Eying those poll numbers, some among the disaffected 14% with different priorities were busily laboring away to reverse the trend. Michael Moore got to work and soon made quite a name for himself documenting “My Pet Goat“.
The rest is, as they say, history.
But until this Christmas we had gone almost exactly eight years without coming quite so close to a successful terror attack in this country. And President Obama – so much the “anti-Bush” that he ran against the lame duck president in 2008 – was supposed to be all that Bush was not. Where 43 was rash and acted from his gut, 44 would be cool and deliberate. Yale grad and Harvard MBA Bush was cast by his critics as anti-intellectual, while Obama – a Columbia grad with a Harvard law degree – was to be welcomingly cerebral.
The country was suffering from a severe case of Bush Fatigue in the fall of 2008, and voted in large numbers for the person who was “Not Bush,” despite the fact that the candidate who best personified that role had the thinnest public record of any man ever to occupy the Oval Office. And while being Not Bush got President Obama the keys to the White House, it will not in itself be sufficient to define his legacy as a president nor ensure his re-election. The people are now forming opinions as to who the president is, not who he is not. With that in mind, it’s probably getting close to the time when they no longer want to hear about how many of his the current president’s misfortunes are the fault of his predecessor, nor to have his minions inexplicably pivot around and wave away criticism with “Bush did the same thing.” For the vast majority of us this is too clever by half.
The people are all about deliberation when they feel the hand of government rifling through their pocketbook, which was why the president’s ill-fated push to get a health care bill signed last August cost him so much good will. But they tend to be a little more appreciative of someone who is willing to act decisively in a national security context, even if later on they want to ride the brakes or wake up with a hangover. In that respect, at least, President Obama has a higher hill to climb.
So many of the qualities that President Obama brings to the table – his cool, cerebral style, his tendency towards deliberation, the whole “No drama Obama” thing – can become a liability if instead it becomes seen as aloofness, indecision and a lack of passion, which is what his critics – on both sides of the political spectrum – are responding to. For those on the right to criticize is not “hypocrisy,” pace wounded Democratic Party spokesmen Hari Sevugan. It’s politics, at least as it’s played in the 21st Century.
The times have changed as much as the men that seek to change them. The toxic combination of “it’s Bush’s fault” and “I’m just doing what Bush did” may not last President Obama much longer.