What would W do?: Do the opposite and Obama and America can recover

Barack Obama would be vastly more successful as president and the United States would have substantially better prospects to regain its international leadership if someone would remind the president just why he was elected. By 2008, the American people wanted a change. George W. Bush had put in place reckless and expensive international policies that ...

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Barack Obama would be vastly more successful as president and the United States would have substantially better prospects to regain its international leadership if someone would remind the president just why he was elected.

By 2008, the American people wanted a change. George W. Bush had put in place reckless and expensive international policies that made Americans feel dirty and did not make us appreciably safer. At home, he had advanced an imprudent domestic agenda that catered to the few, undercut our competitiveness, failed to address our energy dependency, and put America at fiscal risk. The issues he did not address effectively -- from climate change to effectively countering unfair trading practices from overseas -- compounded the problem. 

Barack Obama ran against these policies and was clearly elected to offer an alternative to them. While he does seem to be making good on one dimension of his promise of change-getting us out of Iraq -- on the vast panoply of issues where the real risks confronted by America were related to wrong-headed Bush policies, Obama has either done little or exacerbated the problems set in motion by the preceding administration.

Barack Obama would be vastly more successful as president and the United States would have substantially better prospects to regain its international leadership if someone would remind the president just why he was elected.

By 2008, the American people wanted a change. George W. Bush had put in place reckless and expensive international policies that made Americans feel dirty and did not make us appreciably safer. At home, he had advanced an imprudent domestic agenda that catered to the few, undercut our competitiveness, failed to address our energy dependency, and put America at fiscal risk. The issues he did not address effectively — from climate change to effectively countering unfair trading practices from overseas — compounded the problem. 

Barack Obama ran against these policies and was clearly elected to offer an alternative to them. While he does seem to be making good on one dimension of his promise of change-getting us out of Iraq — on the vast panoply of issues where the real risks confronted by America were related to wrong-headed Bush policies, Obama has either done little or exacerbated the problems set in motion by the preceding administration.

Have we been wrong? Was George W. Bush such a powerful intellectual force, such a giant of American politics and global statesmanship, that Obama is doomed to labor in his shadows, trapped and dictated to by his titanic example?

On the issue of the day, for example, fixing America’s huge fiscal problems let’s be clear, the fastest, best, simplest way to make the most headway remedying our imbalances is to simply repeal the Bush tax cuts. But not only has Obama not done so but when the cuts were set to expire he collaborated to extend them and claimed it as a victory. The Republicans argue these tax cuts are essential for American growth. But the reality is that the decade since they were instituted was the first in American history in which we saw virtually no job growth and it was one in which we saw America go from a healthy fiscal situation to one in which the country is seriously at risk.

Want to make another major step forward fiscally … and at the same time enhance America’s safety and leadership … reverse Bush’s policies of intervention in the Middle East and of the so-called and ill-considered "war on terror." America remade its national security policy after 9/11 more sweepingly that at any time since the end of World War II. The difference is that after World War II, the changes were designed to adapt to a new world order and to implement the lessons of the global conflict just concluded. The Bush administration’s reaction to the terror attack of 9/11 will go down in history as a national panic, a misunderstanding and grotesque overstatement of a limited threat leading to a perverse reordering of our priorities and compromising of our values. 

The Bush policies have cost trillions. Stepping away from them and refocusing our military on true strategic threats would save similar amounts over the next decade. But to do so will require not only getting out of Iraq but getting out of the war that Obama wrongly doubled-down on in Afghanistan. It will also involve putting the terror threat back in perspective — addressing it, but not allowing it to remain the central organizing principle of our national security policy. 

Similarly, to enhance America’s ability to create jobs, to grow our economy and to compete in the world, would require that President Obama made good on his promise to chart a different course from Bush on climate policy, creating enduring conditions for cultivating a new more self-sufficient, cleaner energy paradigm rather than the spasmodic, inadequate mechanism of green stimulus. That means setting a price for carbon. It also means working to undo wrong Bush policies on visas, doing more to open America to the best brains of the world and to foreign investment. It also means standing up far more effectively to foreign nations who use unfair means to compete and thus undercut America’s ability to create jobs. It also means really and truly fixing our health care and financial services sectors — neither of which has been done yet during this administration. Today we have more banks that are "too big to fail" than we did when Obama came into office, many of the same risks that arose during the Bush years and we have had health care "reform" that was far too special-interest driven and, for all the benefits of the additional coverage it brought, shied away from the moves toward a single-payer model that the rest of the world has rightly recognized is the only way to effectively manage costs.

The president might say he is just getting started or that he has been forced to compromise to get anything done at all. There is some truth to this. But, as he tackles his agenda going forward-from balancing the budget to shaping U.S. foreign policy — there is one simple rule to which he should adhere: Undo the wrongs of George W. Bush — his actions and his misguided core beliefs on the issues described above. Go in the opposite direction. Not only will this work as policy, it is also likely to work better as politics, reconnecting the president with those who voted for him as well as those who simply have the best interests of the United States at heart.

Perhaps someone should make the president a bracelet that says "WWWD?" on it. Because if he simply asks himself "what would W do?" and then does the opposite, he and we will all be better off.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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