12 August 2010

Lessons learned? Not quite

Two days before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, Bob Woodward wrote an excellent opinion piece in the Washington Post, setting out ten lessons that he believed Obama could learn from the Bush presidency. I've had Woodward's column bookmarked for a year and a half, and pulled it up yesterday evening and ran through it. Why has the Obama presidency been an abject failure thus far? Look no further than some of the ten lessons Woodward said Obama should take away from Bush:

1. Presidents set the tone. Don't be passive or tolerate virulent divisions.

FAIL. Obama has been nothing if not passive. On the biggest-ticket issues of his presidency -- the size and scope of the stimulus package, Afghanistan, the health care bill, the oil spill response and on the now-thankfully-dead cap and trade issue -- Obama has reprised his Senate role as a back-bencher. He refuses to lead from the front -- one of the more admirable traits of Bush -- and hems and haws like a think-tanker. Chris Matthews observed that Obama often looks like the liberal Democratic senator from Illinois. Who is in charge here? I think this attitude (or perhaps it's a personality trait) has been as responsible for the nosedive in his approval ratings as any policy position he's taken.

5. Presidents need to foster a culture of skepticism and doubt.

There is no such thing here. Does anyone in this White House disagree about anything, outside of Afghanistan? This was an easy target, even before Robert Gibbs' absurd claim that liberals who equate Obama with Bush should be drug tested. If the Obama White House isn't able to see how it's reprising some of the exact policies that made Bush so unpopular, perhaps the president's advisers are the ones who should be looking for the nearest cup to pee in.

Just off the top of my head, I don't know ...

Outrageous deficits.


Almost every civil liberties issue.

Attempting to shred the Fourth Amendment.

7. Presidents must tell the public the hard truth, even if that means delivering very bad news.

It would truly be "change" if the president tackled entitlement reform. Instead, he has largely ignored what is the most potentially disastrous issue and kicked the can down the road -- to be fair, just like his predecessors did -- for another administration to handle. Obama could have done anything he wanted in those first 12 months, when the Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. He chose to pass an abysmally wasteful "stimulus" package that was largely targeted at building infrastructure instead of permanent job creation in the private sector, and then focused on health care legislation at the expense of a jobs bill or entitlement reform. Obama continues to ignore the one issue that very well might destroy America fiscally -- reform of Medicare and Social Security. The clock is ticking. Taking on this issue would have been truly transformative. Obama is held to a higher standard because of what he said while he campaigned for the presidency.

10. The president should embrace transparency. Some version of the behind-the-scenes story of what happened in his White House will always make it out to the public -- and everyone will be better off if that version is as accurate as possible.

I didn't think an administration could be any less transparent than the last one. This the area where I thought Obama had the easiest chance to improve upon Bush. Instead, they've headed in the other direction, almost brazenly so.

Obama has denied even more Freedom of Information Requests than Bush did -- many of the denials based on the state secrets privilege.

Speaking of state secrets, Obama's DOJ has not only continued pressing the state secrets privilege in federal court, but taken it to another level. See Glenn Greenwald's analysis here.

In June, just so those journalists covering the White House would feel even less comfortable asking the tough questions, the Bidens invited most of the press corps out for a day of BBQ and Super Soakers. John Stewart's hilarious excoriation of same can be found here. There's plenty more. That was just in three minutes of copying and pasting bookmarks that were already on my computer.

This is an administration on the fast-track to historical irrelevance. I have no doubt that, as the years pass and dust settles, Barack Obama will rank among the worst presidents of America's modern era. It is actually quite ironic that Obama has spent so much time blaming Bush for his troubles, because in many areas, he is repeating many of the same mistakes Woodward warned against just days before he took office.

The Obama administration has been a terrible combination of Bushian/Carteresque ineptitude and NIxonian self-love -- a White House that really has no idea what it's doing, but is so convinced of its own brilliance that it can't possibly change course.

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