Obama's Role Model Is... Bush?

Despite the Clintonites in the cabinet, Obama’s opening act looks a lot more like Dubya’s.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Who says George W. Bush doesn’t have a positive legacy? Sure, his record on health care, education, the environment, the deficit, financial oversight, human rights, disaster response, judicial appointments, counterterrorism, governmental transparency and basic syntax leaves something to be desired. But politically, there’s a lot to admire. And one of the admirers, it appears, is his successor, the guy who will take office in a couple of weeks.

Think about Barack Obama’s moves since winning the presidency: Rick Warren is doing the inaugural invocation, Bush holdover Robert Gates is staying put at Defense, McCain buddy James Jones is taking over at the NSC, netroots scourge Hillary Clinton is in charge at State, Reaganite hero Paul Volcker has a big economic job. On inauguration night, Obama will host a ball for members of the military, to be broadcast to bases around the world. When the G-20 came to town last November, Obama sent a Republican as one of his emissaries. At every turn, he is attaching himself to symbols of moderation and bipartisanship.

Bush surrounded himself with centrist props, all the while pushing a brazen right-wing agenda.

All this is straight out of the Bush playbook. It’s hard to remember now, but when Bush took office in 2001, he did a lot of ideological cross-dressing. In his first two weeks, he invited Ted Kennedy to the White House five times, including for a movie night. He brought then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt a surprise birthday cake. He became fast friends with House Democratic Congressman George Miller, who he began calling “Big George.” He spoke frequently about his commitment to fighting poverty and helping minorities. And the press commented on the moderation of many of his cabinet choices, including EPA Head Christine Whitman, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It was, of course, a sham. Bush surrounded himself with centrist props, all the while pushing a brazen right-wing agenda. He immediately declared a moratorium on Bill Clinton’s last-minute environmental, health and food safety regulations, crafted a national energy policy essentially written by oil and gas industry, and pushed through $1.35 trillion tax cut geared towards the rich. The White House trumpeted the bill as a triumph of bipartisanship. But in fact, Bush had merely siphoned off a few conservative Democrats, while making barely any compromises on substance. While the Washington press corps—which often privileges political theater over policy detail—was still dutifully covering Bush’s “uniter, not a divider” head fake, he was driving his conservative agenda down the field.

Terrible? Dishonest? Unfair? Obama doesn’t think so. He’s doing the same thing, except from the liberal side. While the press and even some of his own lefty supporters focus on symbolism and personnel, he’s pushing ahead with a breathtakingly ambitious stimulus package. All indications are that he’ll follow it up with a big push on health care, and perhaps climate change after that. Jones, Gates and Clinton have centrist reputations, but so far it looks like they’ll be providing political cover for a withdrawal from Iraq, the closing of Gitmo and a major diplomatic push with Iran, exactly the kind of game-changing, anti-militarist foreign policy moves the left has long desired.

In fact, Obama’s opening act looks a lot more like Bush’s than like Bill Clinton’s, even though Clintonites populate his administration. If Obama is feinting right and governing left, Clinton did the opposite. Early in his tenure, Bubba got himself caught up in cultural imbroglios—from gays in the military to the assault weapons ban to a scrape over his assistant attorney general for civil rights (who conservatives dubbed the “quota queen”)—that made him look like a ‘60s radical. The irony was that on the central policy decision of his first year: whether to cut the budget deficit or try to stimulate the economy by spending big on infrastructure, Clinton chose the moderate option. Symbolically, he looked liberal, while substantively, he governed from the center.

The public mood, the economic landscape and the composition of congress all give Obama a better chance than Clinton had to achieve fundamental change, the kind liberals desperately want. But the lesson of both Clinton and Bush is that the more radical you want to be in substance, the more moderate you must be in style. Let conservatives swoon over Rick Warren. He’ll be blessing an agenda liberals can love.

Peter Beinart, a Daily Beast columnist, is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.