- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
As the Twain-attributed cliché goes, history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. The parallels between Obama and Bush’s policies are a staple (some might say a tiresome obsession) of my posts. Well, here I go again…
The eerie parallels between the way the politics of President Obama’s first year of his second term played out and the political dynamics of President Bush’s first year of his second term are what prompted me to make the Katrina analogy in a recent discussion with a New York Times reporter (which I gather produced "an email and Twitter explosion" — my apologies to the intrepid reporter at the center of the explosion).
Of course, I am hardly the only or the first to see the Katrina-Obamacare parallels (see another careful discussion here), but it is one that is particularly vivid for me because I lived through that crucial period in the Bush administration.
The parallel just got a bit more apt: According to the most recent CBS poll, Obama’s approval rating at this point in his tenure is right where Bush’s rating (in the separate Gallup poll) was at the same point. Of course, the mix of issues that brought each president to this political point is not an exact repeat, but the mixes sure rhyme: questions of competence, questions of candor, questions of how a White House could take its eye off the ball on an issue it had identified as central, etc. This last parallel points to the Iraq comparative, which I think is an even more apt one than Katrina.
I wonder if there are additional insights to be gleaned from the parallel. President Bush’s approval rating recovered a bit a few weeks after it hit this low, following on a major communications push the White House undertook. The push included the release of the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq and a series of major speeches outlining the president’s strategy in Iraq. (Full disclosure: At the time, I got more credit than I deserved for this initiative.)
This initiative worked (as I and my co-authors explain here on pp. 232-233) when the Bush administration was able to couple the communications push with some real progress on the ground in the form of the peaceful Iraqi parliamentary election in December 2005. But it only worked temporarily, because the problems ran much deeper than the election could fix. A few months later, President Bush’s approval rating lost all of the ground it had regained in in the winter. There are several reasons for this, but one I would highlight here: During the Fall 2005 decline, the White House, myself included, thought that we had the right policy in Iraq and primarily had a communications problem. We were wrong. We had a policy problem. A year later we realized that and changed the policy, but by then it was too late to undo the political damage.
Right now, the Obama White House believes it has a communications problem, not a policy problem. Yes, the White House acknowledges that the website is a problem, but mainly because it is making it hard for people to get the full benefit of the policy. So while the president tinkers around the edges of the policy, his effort has mainly been in the area of communications: selling harder the original policy. And if the administration couples the communications push with some improvement in the form of getting the website up and running — or if intense spinning designed to make the Iranian nuclear deal seem better than it really is gives the administration a tactical success that offers a respite from the drumbeat of criticism — it could reverse the public approval slide much the way President Bush’s big push on Iraq reversed his slide in late 2005.
But if the critics are right and the real problem with Obamacare is the policy, specifically the internal contradictions of the policy and the intrinsic unpopularity of a massively complex redistributionist policy, then Obama might experience only a short-lived respite on the political front.
One further lesson: As the Iraq surge proved, even a politically strapped president still can do some very consequential things, particularly on foreign policy. So it is too soon to write Obama’s obituary. It is entirely possible that one or more of his most important policy decisions will be made in the months and years to come. In other words, perhaps President Obama has in him another "surge," defined as the pursuit of a controversial but consequential foreign policy gambit. We may even be seeing the outlines of that now with the Iran nuclear issue — whether it yields a lasting diplomatic solution, failed negotiations leading to war, or failed negotiations leading to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
I wonder if the Obama White House realizes all of this right now. I don’t think we did when we were in their shoes.