The Towering Legacy of George W. Bush

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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229 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    This is an amazing essay.Report

  2. Solid, dis-spiriting piece, Jason.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater says:

    From one of the links:

    President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ. In his last term in office, President Bush increased discretionary outlays by an estimated 48.6

    During his eight years in office, President Bush spent almost twice as much as his predecessor, President Clinton. Adjusted for inflation, in eight years, President Clinton increased the federal budget by 11 percent. In eight years, President Bush increased it by a whopping 104 percent.

    From another link: Obama has increased the debt at a 50% clip over his four years, right on pace with GW’s modern record.

    Depressing.

    Where is all this f***ing money going?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

      Stimulus, dude. If you don’t feel stimulated yet we’ll just have to spend some more.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

        Spend it there; no, not there, a little lower and to the left – ah, THERE. That’s where the money goes…

        Yes. Stimulating.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to James Hanley says:

        Well, yeah. The alternative is austerity, and that’s not working out too well either.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to James Hanley says:

        Stimulus? Really? According to this chart, decreased recession revenue; tax cuts; and upkeep (including wars) explains nearly all of the debt.Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to trizzlor says:

          It’s also unkind I guess to point out that even with all this debt and extra spending, we’re still turning around faster than countries that tried to cut their way back to prosperity.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

            It may also be unkind to point out that all the pre-recession spending was stimulus that didn’t keep us from recessing.

            And Jesse forgets Latvia.Report

            • Avatar ajay in reply to James Hanley says:

              It may also be unkind to point out that all the pre-recession spending was stimulus that didn’t keep us from recessing.

              Unkind, but also economically ignorant.

              And Jesse forgets Latvia.

              Latvia’s still in a terrible state, actually.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to ajay says:

                Ajay,

                Empirically wrong on Latvia.

                As to the stimulus issue, you might want to take a few moments to think it through. He cut taxes and increased spending (defense by over 100%, Medicare by over 100%, discretionary domestic by ~60%). That’s the standard Keynesian formula. Are you going to argue that this didn’t stimulate the economy? That would be a pretty anti-Keynesian argument, wouldn’t it?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Annelid Gustator says:

                Yes, really. Latvia’s economy is growing more strongly than the rest of Europe.

                But I must confess an error; I was actually thinking of Estonia. But the Balkans have this in common–they went the austerity route and are recovering better than most of Europe.Report

              • Avatar Annelid Gustator in reply to James Hanley says:

                Did you look at that link? Sure, they’re better off than at the peak of their recession, but they’re 10%pts higher unemp than before the recession began.

                so, you know, ajay wasn’t wrong.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Hanley says:

                One problem with the standard populo-Keynesianism is that it isn’t falsifiable: If “stimulus” doesn’t turn the economy around, then it’s only taken to prove that we didn’t stimulate hard enough.

                On this it’s a lot like the standard neoconservative foreign policy theory: If we didn’t get the outcomes we wanted, it’s only because we didn’t intervene hard enough.

                It ought to embarrass people how easily both sides of the political spectrum fall for what is essentially the same statist trap.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Of course it’s falsifiable. The amount of stimulus needed is an easy calculation based on the downturn in economic output. If the stimulus is large enough to bridge that gap, and the economy fails to recover, the stimulus has failed. On the other hand, if it’s too small, you haven’t learned anything.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback says:

                No, not an easy calculation. An estimate. It can only be an estimate because we don’t actually know what the multiplier effect of government spending is/will be. Lots of folks have estimates. Krugman says the multiplier is greater than 1, Barro says it is less than 1, and every economist agrees with them!

                Sure, the calculation itself is easy, once you plug in any particular estimated multiplier. But making sure the number you plug in equates to reality; that’s clearly a damn sight tougher or the econ profession would have greater unanimity on it.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback says:

                Yes, the multiplier is an estimate, but the reason there is no broad consensus on it is due to the politics, not some supposed lack of evidence.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to clawback says:

                James,
                Yeahsure, people dont’ agree on the multiplier affect.
                clawback,
                the multiplier effect differs based on what you’re doing. Obviously. Cutting a welfare check != spending on a road (which in of itself differs based on where the road is and how heavily it is/will be used)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback says:

                That’s weak sauce, Clawback, suggesting your favored multiplier is the objectively real one, and everyone else is playing politics. Especially as Krugman has been more openly partisan than most other economists and writes a regularly weekly NYT column on economics and politics. I’m not saying we can discount his estimate because he’s so political; I’m just saying that if you’re going to dismiss someone’s estimate as merely political, he might not be among the least likely targets.

                The proper place to go for an answer is the literature, but as I started working on this response I realized that it would be much too long for a comment, so I am going to submit a guest post.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback says:

                James, a reasonable estimate would have government spending having a multiplier similar to that of any other spending. The only reason anyone argues otherwise is because they’re motivated by right-wing tropes about “the government can’t create jobs” or some such. That’s what I mean when I say the debate is polluted by politics.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback says:

                Clawback,

                Actually, it’s not that simple. As Kim correctly notes, the multiplier of any particular dollar may depend on how it’s spent. If government spends as individuals spend, the multiplier should be the same. If government spends differently than individuals spend, the multiplier should be either greater or lesser than for individual spending.

                See here, for example, which suggests the multiplier for military spending is lower than the multiplier for infrastructure spending.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to clawback says:

                As Kim correctly notes, the multiplier of any particular dollar may depend on how it’s spent. If government spends as individuals spend, the multiplier should be the same. If government spends differently than individuals spend, the multiplier should be either greater or lesser than for individual spending.

                Quibble.

                If the government spends, it doesn’t really matter how the government spends, it’s just putting money into the economy.

                What matters is what the recipients do with that money, right? I mean, whether the government gives money in a bigger welfare check or in a contract for a new road, the money that the government spends is immediately no longer the government’s money, it belongs to someone.

                So the only two ways that the government expenditure could be different from a private party expenditure would be (a) if it was entailed somehow – this is usually true – and that entailment has an effect on how the individual can spend it or how quickly – which is context-dependent…. or (b) if people regard a windfall contract from the government as substantively different than any other windfall contract.

                I’m inclined to think (b) is bunk, but maybe there’s something to it. (a), on the other hand, is something that can be discussed.

                If I give someone $100 million dollars and tell them to spend it in the next 30 days, that’s different from giving them $100 million dollars and telling them, eh, do whatever you want with it. In the second case, they might sock $80 million of that away in treasuries while they constructively spend $20.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback says:

                Patrick,

                No, I don’t think so. As will be (very lightly) touched on in my post (acting on the assumption it appears), different types of spending are calculated to have different multiplier values. I don’t fully understand why, beyond the argument that infrastructure spending has a higher multiplier effect because it has complementary value (i.e., others can get value from it, too).Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to James Hanley says:

                No, the standard Keynesian formula is that you cut taxes and increase spending during a recession. Doing so during a boom, as Bush did, has nothing to do with Keynes.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to clawback says:

                Close, but not quite right. Indeed that is what Keynes proposed as the proper way to use the policy, but that is different from the actual effect of the policy. The reason to not cut taxes and spending during a boom is not because doing so won’t be stimulating, but because it will still be stimulating and so will “overheat” the economy and lead to inflation.

                So to say Bush’s tax cuts and spending increases were not fiscal stimulus is to contradict Keynesian theory.

                I’m not sure if Keynes ever talked about whether fiscal stimulus would work coming on top of such a sustained period of fiscal stimulus. He assumed it would follow a period of relative austerity. I often wonder if that period of sustained fiscal stimulus actually undermined the potential for an effective jolt of further fiscal stimulus–marginal decreasing benefits being a general rule of the way the world works–but at that point I’ll willingly concede I’m out of my depth (and will go on record as stating that there are probably only two people who frequent this blog who might not be out of their depth on that question).Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to James Hanley says:

                Stimulus can work anytime the economy is operating below full potential. Attempting it then results in inflation or in the central bank counteracting it by raising interest rates. Generally, monetary policy is a better tool than stimulus as it can be implemented more quickly and is less subject to politics. But if the interest rate is already near zero fiscal policy becomes more appropriate.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Stimulus can work anytime the economy is operating at full potential, too.

                I agree with you that monetary policy is, at least generally, better.

                There is substantial disagreement among economists about whether fiscal policy is better when interest rates are zero. The Krugman/DeLong camp is confident that it is, other–just as well qualified–economists are similarly confident that it isn’t. Sumner, for example, argues that we should use strictly monetary policy and focus on hitting a certain nominal GDP number.

                Among those of us who are less accomplished than those folks, confidence in such matters is misplaced.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                James,
                the solutions to fix a solvency trap aren’t the same as what will fix a liquidity trap.
                Is it really monetary policy when the government buys overvalued mortgages, so that the banks can say “aha! now we know how much money/debt we have!”Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Kim,

                It sort of depends what part of government is doing the buying. If Congress does it, they’re using existing money, so it’s fiscal. If the Fed does it, they’re using new money, so it’s more monetary. But in truth, I think it might be a policy that straddles both and isn’t clearly just one or the other.

                And in a sense fiscal and monetary policies aren’t entirely separate anyway. Monetary policy is about putting more money in the economy. But fiscal policy is about taking money that is technically counted as being in the economy–because it’s held in liquid forms–but that is not functionally in the economy because it’s not being used for spending (either directly or indirectly through loaning it) and putting it into the economy functionally. That doesn’t mean they’re identical policies at all, but that to the extent we sharply distinguish between them–something of which I’m sure I’ve been guilty–we’re probably being less than totally coherent in our analyses.

                E.g., the famous example of a “helicopter drop,” the analogy of a helicopter flying into a community and dropping a giant bundle of cash. I had a back-and-forth with a commenter on my blog about a year ago about that. I took it as referring to monetary policy, an infusion of new cash into the economy. He took it as referring to fiscal policy, borrowing the money and infusing it into that economy. In the end, it seemed to me that it’s a decent enough analogy for either approach.Report

              • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to James Hanley says:

                Stimulus can work anytime the economy is operating at full potential, too.

                You’d have to define the words “stimulus” “can” and “work” in this context to get me fully on board with that statement. Crowding out can be a problem, and the opportunity cost of the resources used differs. The opportunity cost of government putting a bunch of unemployed construction workers to work on a road is much lower than the opportunity cost of hiring the same workers away from other work to build a road during a commercial construction boom.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                T-Frog,

                Yeah, I was thinking about that after I wrote. But if all it does is crowd out when the economy’s perking along (which seems right), then the fear of inflation doesn’t make sense, does it? Which–given my monetarist bent, particularly in regards to what causes inflation–I’m more inclined to believe.

                But assuming the claim that stimulus is supposed to be ended so as not to overheat the economy and cause inflation is true, then it would logically follow that it has to have a stimulating effect at full–or at least close to full–employment. I don’t think the claim is true, but that would be its necessary implication, I think. (Of course the truth of that claim has no bearing on the value of fiscal policy when the economy is weak, so that’s not intended as a critique of fiscal stimulus, just one part of the argument about it that I have heard).Report

              • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to James Hanley says:

                But if all it does is crowd out when the economy’s perking along (which seems right), then the fear of inflation doesn’t make sense, does it?

                The simplest way to think about it is AD/AS. An increase in government spending is a rightward shift in aggregate demand, driving up output and the price level. If you happen to think that there are negative supply side effects, it would be a leftward shift in AS which would also be inflationary. Going back to our construction example, Uncle Sam would have to bid higher than private industry to hire construction workers away from their current jobs, putting upward pressure on construction wages. The additional borrowing would also put upward pressure on interest rates.

                I’ll admit that a lot of these little models are crude, but I also don’t see a good argument for abandoning them based on the apparent predictive power of more sophisticated ones.Report

              • Avatar JJ in reply to James Hanley says:

                James,

                You make two fundamental mistakes.

                1) Rate of growth from the bottom is not a good way to measure efficacy of economic policy in a recessionary cycle. Why? Because economic policy is acting through the drop and the bigger the fall the bigger the potential growth rate during recovery (If I drop rGDP by ninety percent I can spend 3 years at 100% rGDP growth and still be worse off than before the fall). So if I intentionally make the fall worse I could appear to have done a better job according to rGDP growth. Much better to look at time to full recovery from start of recession and from the bottom. On these measures Latvia is still a mess whether you look at rGDP or unemployment. Just ask yourself if you’d rather a) earning 20% less 3 years from now but have had 10% per year rises in years 2 and 3 or b) earning 5% less three years from now but had only 3% rises in years 2 and 3. Arguing that Latvia (or any of the other eastern europeans) has done better than the U.S. is logically equivalent to choosing a) over b). If you don’t believe this you MUST believe that economic policy is irrelevant until the bottom of the recession is hit to view latvia as a good news story. This is an absurd position but your welcome to try and defend it. If you don’t believe either of these things then it follows that latvia is worse off than almost every OECD country over the last 5 years.

                2) Keynes explicitly argued for cyclically balanced budgets that were counter cyclical. In economics stimulus has always meant the budget deficits during the downturn. Any deficits that occur while an economy is at full employment were not supported by Keynes or by any IS-LM or new-Keynesian economic model with reasonable assumptions. Politicians have used Keynes as cover for constant deficits for the last 60 years because a) spending more on the electorate than you take from them is a winning strategy 90% of time, and b) they could get away with lying because no layperson is going to go read a 70 year old book and a bunch of journal articles to understand the difference between deficits are OK and deficits are GOOD when the economy is depressed/recessed and BAD otherwise and the media won’t correct them.

                It’s worth noting that 2) is a fact that could only be countered by showing quotes of Keynes arguing for full employment deficits or surveys that show a significant minority (or majority) of economists who believe that deficit spending in a downturn is a good idea also support equally large or larger deficits in a full employment environment.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to JJ says:

                What’s latvian unemployment? Vis a vis america’s, which is at 20+%…Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to JJ says:

                JJ,

                Re: 2. I already answered that at 9:01 a.m. above. You’re critiquing a strawman, since I never argued Keynes supported stimulus spending when the economy was at full employment. Thanks for reading before responding.

                Re: 1. Again, as noted above, I really meant to reference Estonia. Here’s Estonia’s GDP from ’95- 2011. They’re really not doing that badly at all.

                Also, in your comment you’re making assumptions about what fiscal policy would have done as a country’s economy begins to decline. But that’s what’s at question here, so I reject it as an assumption.Report

            • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to James Hanley says:

              How surprised should we be that the pre-recession spending didn’t prevent a financial crisis?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

                Me, I’m not surprised at all, because I lean monetarist. But if the economic problem is lack of demand, then shouldn’t having government continually pump up demand keep demand from lacking?Report

              • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to James Hanley says:

                I think that we may be disagreeing on the definition of “stimulus spending.” I’d define “stimulus spending” as an increase in G to compensate for a drop in one of the other components to keep GDP at or near potential. Government purchases are just a component of GDP, so if we’re talking about consistent government spending (even deficit spending) over time, I would call that “the government component of trend GDP” and not “stimulus.” If there’s a decrease in (I + C + NX), why would we expect G remaining on trend to somehow prevent a departure from trend GDP? I’m just surprised that somebody would ask that question, monetarist or not.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        Stimulus to CHINA. yeahhuh.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

      “Upkeep” is the only answer that makes sense to me.Report

  4. Avatar clawback says:

    Conventional wisdom errs when it says that George W. Bush was incompetent.

    No, conventional wisdom correctly says that George W. Bush was evil. The persistence of his policies demonstrates his competence.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    My one quibble is that I think the narrative was that Bush was incompetent, but his administration wasn’t (the joke was always that Cheney, whom no one thinks is incompetent, was running the show).Report

  6. Avatar Rtod says:

    I had said this earlier but it deserves to be said publicly: This is just an absolutely excellent piece, Jason.

    That all of this isn’t conventional wisdom says something about the overpowering dominance of horse-race coverage masquerading as journalism. I’m going to be interested to see what firm Obama haters and lovers are going to make of this.Report

  7. I don’t know if Bush himself as competent or not. Most of the anecdotal data suggests he wasn’t a complete ignoramus as often portrayed, but that he wasn’t exactly up to speed with all the policy implications he was undertaking.

    There’s also a lot of semantics on whether or not the legal foundations for some of the policies you describe are the same between even the original Bush OLC and the later one run by Goldsmith et. al. There were several substantive changes in the logic and arguments used to justify certain policy choices, which have deeper implications than the surface impressions of the actual policies might suggest.

    I do think to a large extent, the original Cheney-Yoo regime doesn’t exist as much as the Goldsmith inspired one. Now granted, that might not be particularly soothing to you, but there are distinctions to be drawn between the two.

    In all of this, the figure of the president is a bit peripheral. I don’t think it really would have mattered which Republican was in office at the time.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I suspect that Jason would argue, though I don’t mean to argue for him, that if all it takes to change the policies is the legal justifications the administration comes up with, then the policies themselves are quite dangerous.Report

  8. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “The man appears to have delivered exactly what the American electorate wanted”

    Well, see, that’s the thing.

    The American electorate didn’t want that. If they had, they’d have voted for McCain. The Obama campaign didn’t just hint at change; it made change into a campaign slogan.

    It seems a bit odd to look at the Obama administration’s actions and say “well you voted for him, this must be what you wanted!”Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to DensityDuck says:

      The Duckman has a point here.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Glyph says:

        And no primary challenge? And no Republican able to capitalize on being an anti-Bush? At least two of them clearly tried, but to no avail.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          I worry that we mistake indifference and learned helplessness for preference.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Chris says:

            At a certain point, there is no difference.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to James K says:

              There may not be a difference in terms of the effect on policy in the short term, but there is certainly a difference when considering ways to bring about change. If people really want this shit, then you have to convince them otherwise. If people just don’t care enough to pay attention, you have to wake them up, and if it’s learned helplessness, you have to make them feel empowered.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Chris says:

            This seems right to me. High-information people like us get really worked up over drones and kill lists and Gitmo and surveillance and such, but the vast majority of people have no daily interaction with any of that. We dramatically overestimate the extent to which people give a shit about this stuff.

            When people voted for Obama to get “change”, what they meant was “make the economy stop sucking”. And no, they also don’t give a shit that that isn’t something the president can necessarily do.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

              You assume that high-information people would of course be against “drones and kill lists and Gitmo and surveillance and such”.

              “{When people voted for Obama to get “change”, what they meant was “make the economy stop sucking”. ”

              …and, y’know, close Gitmo and bring all the troops home and not use American military forces to intervene in foreign countries anymore. Like he said he would do during the campaign.Report

              • A) I made no such assumption. I’m not even sure why you think I would make such an assumption, in that it’s so obviously false.

                B) You think that’s what the average Obama voter wanted? To close Gitmo? Seriously? I know you’re kind of the village idiot around here, but…Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                “You think that’s what the average Obama voter wanted? To close Gitmo? Seriously? ”

                …so you’re contending that the “average Obama voter” did not expect or desire that foreign wars cease, that incarcerated foreign non-military detainees be released, that military actions in nonbelligerent countries cease, and that I’m “kind of the village idiot around here”?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to DensityDuck says:

                DD,
                How many of Obama’s voters were black? ConservaDems in general? Liberals are outnumbered by Conservadems last I checked (go ahead, prove me wrong!).

                Obama said he’d end Iraq and wage Afghanistan right. To a lot of people, he’s done that, as he’s gotten Osama Bin Laden.
                Yes, I think most people would say “military actions in nonbelligerent countries” ought to cease (even republicans!) — but people have varying definitions of waht nonbelligerent entails.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

                Ryan, I don’t know if my social circles are any indication (maybe you’d class them as non-average/high-information/untrue-Scotsmen Obama-voters) but I can definitely anecdotally confirm that Obama’s campaign promises re: closing Gitmo and ending the wars were relevant issues for many people I know.

                Why do you contend that the average Obama voter didn’t really care about that stuff?

                Or is it just a general contention, based on post-facto evidence, that pretty much *nobody* must care about that stuff, or else it wouldn’t still be going on (basically, restating the OP)?Report

            • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Ryan Noonan says:

              Y’know, for as important as we’re constantly told voting is, the folks that do it sure tend sharply towards lacking (even avoiding) relevant information…Report

  9. Avatar North says:

    I’d quibble that another reason that Bush is seen as incompetent is that only a few of these policies (mostly the most easily undone ones) are seen as actually being Bush’s policies rather than being policies enacted by his Veep or the rest of his cabinet while he just passively went along with it.

    Certainly Obama with his hyper defensive crouch on defense and the recession hasn’t done any of the roll backs I’d like to see. Some for obvious reasons (raising taxes in a recession~ terrible idea) others based on a rude politics of cover your ass (if he rolled back the war on terror and a terrorist attack happened he’d be cooked) and others based on sheer political calculus (he likes the executive power and he could have healthcare reform or prosecute people over torture, he chose the former).

    Certainly I’d join the chorus saying this is some fine writing and agree especially heartily that we as a polity seem to have embraced, if not the policies themselves, then the political reactions that uphold them. Hopefully this’ll break eventually. Obviously some elements of it simply can’t continue as they are.Report

  10. Avatar Kazzy says:

    A great piece, Jason. I don’t know that I agree that “we” got the polices “we” wanted because “we” were scared. There was a very vocal objection to what Bush did when he did it, some of which has persisted despite the uniform change of the man implementing the policies. But otherwise, a lot of really fascinating food for thought and a really strong indictment of narrative-construction business and its players.Report

  11. Avatar Thoreau says:

    Like DensityDuck, I don’t know that it’s quite accurate to say that the public supports these policies. People voted for change in 2008.

    However, it is obviously true that there has been no challenge to the continuity in 2012, whether from Team Red, insurgents within Team Blue, or even a third party with enough support to pose a credible spoiler threat and get attention for it.*

    So, I would say that rather than supporting the policies that W. gave us, the public simply doesn’t oppose them in any active way. It may be a difference without any practical distinction, but it tells us something about the nature of the problem.

    *It may be that Gary Johnson or the Green candidate will get more votes than the margin of victory in some swing state, but they certainly aren’t getting enough attention to make that part of some narrative of repudiating the lack of change.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Thoreau says:

      The center should have a voice too.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Thoreau says:

      “it is obviously true that there has been no challenge to the continuity in 2012, whether from Team Red, insurgents within Team Blue, or even a third party with enough support to pose a credible spoiler threat and get attention for it.*”

      That is certainly true. The electorate might not have got what they asked for in 2008, but it’s four years later and they’re apparently happy with what they got.

      Although, y’know, the only Republican candidate who overtly said “yeah I’ll stop doing all of that stuff” was Ron Paul, and the received wisdom was that only horrible racists would ever want him as President. And only horrible racists would mount a primary challenge to America’s First Black President(tm).Report

  12. Why exactly is W. still viewed as an incompetent?

    The Harriet Miers nomination, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ tenure at the Justice Department, Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Department of Defense, mismanagement of the Iraq occupation, and Katrina all spring to mind.

    Also, the targeted killing program is under congressional oversight (LA Times), as mentioned before, so “Who reviews his decisions? No one.” and “that unreviewable targeted killing of American citizens” are not accurate statements. From the Times piece:

    Once a month, a group of staff members from the House and Senate intelligence committees drives across the Potomac River to CIA headquarters in Virginia, assembles in a secure room and begins the grim task of watching videos of the latest drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

    Sometimes they see Hellfire missiles hit buildings after suspected terrorists have entered. Other times they can make out a group or a vehicle consumed in a fiery blast. Occasionally, a smaller explosion kills just one person, as officials say happened when a missile this month crashed into a room in Pakistan’s tribal areas and killed Abu Yahya al Libi, Al Qaeda’s No. 2.

    The videos are much sharper than the grainy drone imagery that can be viewed on the Web. “You can see exactly what is going on,” said a senior congressional aide, who, like other officials, spoke about the highly classified program on the condition he not be identified.

    The regular review of some of the most closely held video in the CIA’s possession is part of a marked increase in congressional attention paid to the agency’s targeted killing program over the last three years.

    The oversight, which has not previously been detailed, began largely at the instigation of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials said.

    The lawmakers and aides with the intelligence oversight committees have a level of access shared only by President Obama, his top aides and a small number of CIA officials.

    In addition to watching video, the legislative aides review intelligence that was used to justify each drone strike.

    They also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA’s assessment of who was hit.

    “We receive notification with key details shortly after every strike, and we hold regular briefings and hearings on these operations,” Feinstein wrote in May in a letter sent in response to a column that ran in The Times questioning the oversight of drone strikes.

    Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Creon Critic says:

      I will grant you that Mists was a misstep.

      I will not grant Katrina as a knock against Bush. Bureaucratic f-ups yes. Gore or Kerry would have had those, or something akin to them, just as much.

      The problem with the oversight that you describe is twofold. First, it is post facto. Second, it is legislative and not judicial. Congress is not well equipped to make decisions about particular distances of executive power prospectively. Courts may not be perfect, either, but there are mechanisms in place to guide them. All this kind of oversight can do is produce ineffectual clucks of disapproval.Report

      • Regarding assessing the Bush administration and bureaucratic mess ups, I’d say the buck stops where? If something on the order of magnitude of Katrina response is a shambles the president needs to take urgent steps to get it right. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” does not indicate to me Bush was taking those needed steps. Secondly, well before Katrina, shouldn’t the president appoint people with relevant expertise to key positions like FEMA directorships? The Bush administration’s appointments to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq indicate that the wrong people in key positions problem was endemic, Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq.

        The LA Times piece undermines the notion that the presidency has “unreviewable” powers in the targeted killing domain. So one can say inadequate oversight, after-the-fact oversight, but not no oversight or “We know that no one gets to review [Obama’s] decision. Ever. The ones who might do it have all abdicated the responsibility.” as is written in Jason’s Kill List Democracy piece.

        All this kind of oversight can do is produce ineffectual clucks of disapproval.

        I disagree. This kind of oversight, specifically intel committees’ staff review after each and every strike, is capable of detecting, restricting, and stopping abuses. Congress possesses the power of the purse, the power to threaten bureaucratic restructuring, and the power to legislate restrictions – and ultimately the power to impeach if necessary. Overall, the way this is put in the original post, “Who reviews his decisions? No one.”, presents a vision of presidential unaccountably. The president and the national security bureaucracy are both accountable to congress and the Times piece provides insight into that accountability.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I would agree with Burt on Katrina not being a mistake. It was terrible that it happened and Bush’s PR was bad but the actual response was in-line with federal guidelines. According to CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) training, all Americans should be prepared to survive for 3-5 days on their own in the event of a large-scale natural disaster and first-responders are always going to be local. Katrina followed that timeline.Report

        • Avatar Rtod in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          I would be more inclined to agree with this if two years earlier, right before an election, the NG had not been so proactively prepared and put in place to assist in FL. For me, the outrage about Katrina was never about what happened immediately after the levee – it was the implicit messaging about how the gain or loss of political capital dictated how important disaster relief should be handled.

          Also, the White House’s initial dodge that they “didn’t know” things were bad – despite it being on the news 24/7 – was pretty unforgivable.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Rtod says:

            Declare a state governor incompetent and violate the posse comitatus act? That really would have been the kind of massive violation of the limitations on Presidential power that people always accuse Bush of having done.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to DensityDuck says:

              Maybe. Maybe they did indeed keep making offers of federally-paid-for assistance, only to be told to go away and leave LA to go it alone. Stranger things have certainly happened.

              That never passed the smell test for me, though. It always felt like a CYA response.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Creon Critic says:

      And this is what we traded due process for?Report

  13. Avatar George Turner says:

    I’d have to agree that Bush will be a towering figure in history because his changes were sweeping and permanent. His father didn’t deviate much from Reagan’s policies, aside from raising taxes, while not spiking the football after the collapse of the Soviet Union perhaps being his greatest accomplishment. Clinton is well liked, but aside from welfare reform didn’t really do much of anything, and indeed thought missing 9/11 deprived him of a legacy. Obama has likewise been a placeholder, basically a more confused and muddled version of the W years, and in fact almost any notable aspect of the Obama era is blamed on Bush, perhaps making him the first President since FDR to serve a third term.Report

  14. Avatar MFarmer says:

    I think it’s safe to say that focus on Presidents and personalities misleads us from the fundamental problem of a statist system which allows the abuses we suffer. The personalities can be replaced from Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama, etc, but the system remains and it’s leading us to collapse.Report

  15. Avatar trizzlor says:

    If you step back far enough any two things start to look like a single point.

    I think Obama’s actions on torture and health-care are significant and significantly different from his GOP contemporaries. The fact that you completely avoid the issue of torture in a post on Bush and the security state is, frankly, pretty shocking. I also think comparing debt under two vastly different economic environments is a bit of a cheap trick.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to trizzlor says:

      Hey, debt added because taxes must be as low as possible and wars should be fought on a credit card is exactly the same as debt added because we’re in an economic tailspin.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to trizzlor says:

      All it would take for torture to return is the revocation of a single executive order. Or not even bothering to revoke it, just going ahead and doing it. There will be no prosecution for the torturers, only for the people who leak their names.

      That’s what Obama did about torture.Report

      • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        What does this even mean? Torture is already illegal. How could Obama have made it extra-super-duper illegal? And, again, this seems to fall into the idea that Obama could do this by himself — if anything were to be done, it would have to be done by Congress.

        This is what’s so frustrating about your argument comparing Obama and Bush, while entirely ignoring Congress. Someone says, “Obama stopped torture.” You come back and say, “Well, he only did it by executive order.” What else was he supposed to have done? He can’t pass laws.

        And as for prosecuting those responsible for torture, believe me, there’s nothing that would make me happier than seeing Dick Cheney in chains. But should Obama have ground his administration to dust against the rock of torture prosecutions? We have an established history in this country, including Ford pardoning Nixon, of not prosecuting our elected officials for their misdeeds. If Obama were to break that tradition, it would have completely stopped any forward momentum for his presidency. Now, you can argue that that might have been worth it. Obama clearly thought things like Obamacare, DADT repel and the surprising, under the radar movement on environmental change. If we’re going to see anything come from Bush-era torture, it’s going to take a decade and some sort of truth-and-reconciliation committee to accomplish it. If you think the US could have an adult conversation on this subject, you’re kidding yourself.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

          He might have done lots of things.

          He might have prosecuted, which I don’t at all agree would “grind his administration to dust.” And even if it did, are there not some things worth sacrificing a second term for?

          Another option is that he might simply have pardoned the high officials of the previous administration. That would at least have acknowledged their guilt publicly.

          Or, as you suggest, a truth and reconciliation committee would have done just fine by me.

          The real problem here is that if justice isn’t done within our lifetimes, and preferably soon, our country is going to be ashamed of this forever. That is, if we don’t go right back to it in a Romney administration.Report

          • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Our country should be ashamed of this forever. This isn’t some sort of minor thing. That said, I do think there are a lot more shameful things in our country’s past (slavery, Japanese internment, Jim Crow, I’ll just put a space here marked “Andrew Jackson”) and things that we should be ashamed of currently (the death penalty), and we somehow managed to overcome those and make substantial gains in a lot of other areas.

            Maybe torture prosecutions wouldn’t have completely destroyed Obama’s single term — although you’d have to try really hard to convince me of that — but waiting a decade or two for a T&RC doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to me.

            Beyond this, by your own admission in this last post, you’re as good as owning the fact that if Obama isn’t reelected, the we’ll be right back to torturing people — a subject you feel so strongly about that you believe a president should throw away his entire administration dealing with. I find that absolutely perplexing.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Aaron says:

          The surprising, under the radar movement on environmental change seems to include such things as Solyndra and A123.

          Which, of course, also answers Stillwater’s question from yesterday.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

            To be honest I’m not so upset about things like that. I think that the whole “give ’em money and let ’em ride” style of management could have saved some money–like, don’t buy a huge fancy factory if you haven’t got the orders to fill it–and seriously that place is NICE–but it’s a hard truth of technological development that not every idea is going to work. (Remember bubble memory? Neither does anyone else.)

            That’s really the line I’d have hoped to see the President take. “There have been failures. Anyone familiar with the history of technology should not be surprised. To paraphrase Edison, successful research is mostly a question of finding every way that doesn’t work. Our test rockets blew up hundreds of times before they worked, and even successful rocket programs were cancelled when they didn’t perform as well as others. The computer and pharmaceutical industries are full of examples of promising ideas that received large amounts of funding and effort, and proved to be unsuccessful. It’s always going to be less expensive to keep things the same; but it’s clear that keeping things the same will, in the end, destroy us.”Report

  16. Avatar Thoreau says:

    Reagan was not inevitable. He was something different. We can debate the actual extent of the changes he wrought on the government in his 8 years, but he did mark the ascendance of a new tide in conservatism, and that has born fruit over the past 32 years. Without Reagan, one of our two major governing parties would be different.

    Much of what happened after 9/11 was probably inevitable, given what the fear and trauma did to us. However, I’m not convinced that Iraq was inevitable. Unlike some, I’m open to considering a counter-factual where Gore invades Iraq, but I consider that merely possible, not a guarantee. Also, I doubt that Gore would have cut taxes like Bush did (for good or for ill, according to your preference, but it’s significant either way).

    Yes, I’m granting that Gore would have been similar in many ways, many very significant ways. However, I think the likely differences (note that I say likely, not guaranteed) would have been significant as well.

    Obviously we’ll never know if Gore would have been different, because we don’t have time machines. However, I think it’s fair to ask to what extent the Bush era was the product of events versus personalities, and ask what the plausible response of a different personality would have been if similar events unfolded.Report

    • Avatar Steve C in reply to Thoreau says:

      “Unlike some, I’m open to considering a counter-factual where Gore invades Iraq, but I consider that merely possible, not a guarantee.”

      So Gore have gone around asking people like Richard Clarke to come up with and AQ-Saddam connection. Gore would have talked about mushroom clouds. He’d have shipped all the tanks and weapons necessary to fight the war over prior to (making a show of) working through the UN.

      Moreover, just from the perspective of political calculation, you’re saying there’s a possibility that Gore would have put his re-election, legacy, and party’s future on the line – he’d have been motivated to do so even without the neocon war-cheerleading core that existed under Bush.

      It’s possible in the sense that any wild theory is possible, but that’s not a useful bar.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Steve C says:

        Most of the motivation for Iraq came from the experiences that Cheney and Rumsfeld has under Bush Sr. That was why they pushed so hard (read: not oil). Since Gore didn’t have those kinds of experiences I doubt that would have been the same conclusion for him. To the contrary he came up in an administration that had dealt directly with AQ so I think he would have focused on them. The problem of course was that his response might have been too tepid.Report

      • Avatar Thoreau in reply to Steve C says:

        Let me begin this response by making abundantly clear that I consider the invasion of Iraq to be unjustified on every level: Moral, practical, you name it. I opposed it back then, I oppose it even more now, and I’d be happy if the people who cooked the intelligence reports wound up breaking rocks in the slammer.

        That said, the Clinton administration spent 8 years continuing a policy of containment and occasionally lobbing cruise missiles at Iraq. They were not happy with the situation. So if Middle Eastern terrorists attack the US and launch us into a global war on terror, I harbor this suspicion that almost any US administration would view a long-term thorn in the side as something to be Dealt With.

        That said, I’m far from convinced that Dealing With The Problem would meant a ground invasion. Perhaps more cruise missiles (a futile approach, but it is Doing Something). Perhaps sponsorship of a coup or insurgency. Perhaps an assassination attempt.

        My fantasy counter-factual is that, just as Qaddafi was officially rehabilitated in 2003 (that came to an end in 2011, but still), perhaps President Gore takes a look at this secular dictator who’s at odds with the religious extremists, and decides to offer him some path to rehabilitation, as was done for Libya in 2003. I don’t know precisely what it would look like, but some sort of cooperation against Al Qaeda seems like an obvious piece of it.

        My other counter-factual is that President Gore looks at Iran and says “Hey, these guys have no love for Al Qaeda, they have no love for the Taliban, they have ties to anti-Taliban folks in Afghanistan and anti-Saddam folks in Iraq, we are about to invade Afghanistan and we are continuing to meddle with Iraq from time to time…we should talk to them.”Report

  17. Avatar Thoreau says:

    On Gore and torture:

    I’d like to believe that Gore, the individual, would be different. But if 9/11 happened under him (or anybody else) I suspect that in dark, distant, hidden places, some very evil people would be doing similarly ugly things, with similar excuses. It’s the nature of the beast.

    The biggest difference (and not one to trivialize) is that other personalities might have kept those things to the true “bad apples” level, rather than institutionalizing them and proclaiming them fine and just and 100% lawful.Report

  18. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The war in Iraq was not an inevitability. It took a colossal act of political will to make it happen. And it changed the world, whether for good or ill will not be definitively known for a generation. Bush made that happen.

    He also embedded a political coalition for the GOP that need not have been configured as it is now.

    Rank him with William McKinley as a powerfully influential historic figure historians will prefer to minimize, unfairly.Report

  19. Avatar James K says:

    An excellent article Jason, and a nut-punch of Balkovian proportions.Report

  20. Avatar pete mack says:

    Comment summary: historians will say that Cheney was the most influential vice president of all time.Report

  21. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    There could be some quibbles, and I agree with a few of the ones above, but overall I’m not sure that anyone could honestly have any fundamental disagreement with a lot of what’s in this piece. It contains truth.Report

  22. Avatar Mike Noordijk says:

    2 little things missing from the article: a strategically disastrous, clearly unwarranted war, managed in the most incompetent way possible, and policies and paralysis leading to the biggest financial crises this country has seen since the Great Depression. Those quibbles might have something to do with the perception of Bush’s competence.Report

  23. I’ve quibbled a little bit here and there in the comments, because I really do think there’s a tendency to overlook the fact that the center of American electorate has always been viciously authoritarian, but I’d also like to add to the chorus. This is a great post and a great (and dispiriting) argument.Report

  24. Avatar Rose says:

    On my phone, or I would say more. First, I think Obamacare, Lilly Ledbetter, torture, foreign relations, etc. are a big deal. Second, I’m not sure how much the lack of change is attributable to neither the popularity nor genius of Bush’s policies, but the difficulty of changing what you inherit. On domestic issues, there’s the additional complication of a divided Congress.

    Sorry if someone made this point — when I last read the comments, no one had.Report

    • Avatar Earth in reply to Rose says:

      “the difficulty of changing what you inherit”

      Well, many things are wrought through executive action, without the need for concurrence by Congress.

      On those fronts, the evidence is mostly that Obama has not been so very interested in undoing his predecessor’s actions, as he has been in extending them.

      Among the matters that *do* require legislative acquiescence, the closing of Guantanamo is often mentioned as an area where Obama couldn’t deliver the change he promised. This is only true superficially. What was really wanted, under the figure of “close Gitmo” was the end of indefinite extra-legal detention. What was offered by the President was merely a change in venue: all of the horrors of Gitmo would simply be relocated to the within US borders.

      So sure, it can be difficult to change what you inherit.

      It can also be difficult to see that someone in whom you invested great hopes is actually not interested in the many of the changes you sought.Report

      • Avatar Rose in reply to Earth says:

        There can be other reasons it is difficult to change an inherited policy than an obstructionist Congress. Popular opinion, economics, entrenched interests. Even why he did not approach Congress. Isn’t that exactly part of the Burkean caution on drastic top down changes? And part of why Obama was so keen to pass Obamacare in some form?Report

  25. I have a bit of a quibble with this essay. It completely elides the role played in perpetuating the legacy of the Bush era by a flagrantly obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate, which has used procedural tactics to demand a supermajority vote in order to get anything accomplished, and whose leader has unapologetically stated for the record that their #1 goal was to make the President a one-termer. I wonder how many of the policies you lament had any realistic chance of changing, given this unfortunate political reality. You seem to invest the presidency with greater power for change than it really has.Report

    • Convenient that these two comments would appear one minute apart. I suspect collusion…Report

    • Avatar DBrown in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      But if President Obama didn’t force congress to change something, then he is at fault – no?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to DBrown says:

        If he doesn’t even ask Congress to change most things, and if he instead makes abundant use of the powers he inherited from Bush, then he is certainly at fault.Report

        • This. “I didn’t have any choice; I had to work with the system we have” is about as banal as evil gets, especially from someone with that immense level of power. I don’t, necessarily, feel that Obama is evil, but he has made evil choices through passivity.Report

          • Avatar Rose in reply to Maribou says:

            Or you can say that ought implies can. Obama is no colluding Nazi.

            I understand how especially to the libertarian set, Obama hadn’t changed much ,, even made things worse. But I disagree that he has been utterly passive.Report

            • Avatar Maribou in reply to Rose says:

              I didn’t say he’s been utterly passive, I said he has made evil choices through passivity. That’s not equating him with a Nazi – Arendt wasn’t only talking about Nazis and I would say that a large part of her intention was to communicate that horror’s instruments were common, all-too-common human flaws. The reason I demurred at calling him evil is precisely that I *do* think he has also done significant, valuable things.

              The enactment of good doesn’t erase the enactment of evil, though. Even if I came to believe he was a good president overall (which I have sometimes believed), those pieces of the pattern, and his failure as a moral agent in those cases, would remain.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Maribou says:

            ““I didn’t have any choice; I had to work with the system we have” is about as banal as evil gets”

            On the other hand, “don’t hate tha playa, hate tha game”.Report

        • Well, he certainly wanted to close Gitmo. It was significant pushback from GOP Senators (and admitted cravenness from several Democratic ones, to boot) that killed that.

          And in addition to ObamaCare (no small potatoes), there was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, Dodd-Frank (though we’ve seen how that’s fared with GOP obstructionism), and the end of DADT. Without Congressional cooperation, I’m not sure how Obama ends the torture policies other than by executive order. And I’m certainly much more sanguine about women’s reproductive rights being safeguarded by Kagan and Sotomayor than by Roberts and Alito.Report

  26. Avatar Damon says:

    Rocking piece Jason!

    A couple things to take away, in my opinion. Those on the left screamed bloody murder about various policies Bush implemented and they rallied around Obama as the savior and fixer of those complaints. They ended up with ash as BOB essentially continued the same policies. Conclusion: except for a few hard core folks that care about policy/ideology, all the rest just wanted their own guy in power–nothing but politics and they can be dismissed as posers.

    All the politicians that objected to these new regulations and laws don’t seem to object as much now that they are in control. Hmmm….. Odd no?Report

  27. Avatar Kim says:

    “We didn’t start the FIRE”
    But bush did.
    A healthy, growing economy was non-existent during his administration (look at nasdaq if you don’t believe me).Report

  28. Avatar Steve C says:

    This was a pretty interesting article up until I realized that there was no mention of the decision to go into Iraq, which is only the biggest foreign policy failure of a generation. It’s such a big deal that it’s a key reason we have a President Obama at all, vs President Clinton.

    Fail.Report

  29. Avatar Maribou says:

    This is the best and truest depiction of American politics I have read in a very long time. (Really, more than American – no Harper without Bush.)

    The dreamer in me wants to believe that it is not so much (only) that we want it and don’t want to admit that we want it, but that we want it and also utterly abhor it. That America en masse both craves this state of affairs and is repulsed by it. Because if that’s the case, maybe we can still choose differently.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

      Well, and thinking it over, what I also want to believe is that “we”, for any accurate value of we, ARE choosing differently, at the same time as we are choosing the same. We do these horrible things. We also do these noble things. That is how we are, and it isn’t new, and both good and bad scale fractally all the way up and down.

      What I am desperate to believe is that the balance of who we are can change for the better, and that the same people (the whole nation, and I’m pretty sure I’m complicit) who have collectively wanted Obama to follow Bush’ pattern, and wanted to enact that pattern, also really do want to stop wanting that, do take some steps to stop things (even as they utterly fail at other things), and may find a way to change out the whole rotten core.

      I probably read too many novels.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

        (I know, I know, I should get my own post.)

        I’ve been thinking about Simone de Beauvoir’s _The Ethics of Ambiguity_ all week, and this seems to sum up what is weighing on my mind. It’s not a libertarian claim, it’s a humanist claim, and complicated by its tenses:

        If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.

        (de Beauvoir herself seems to have done evil things; something I didn’t realize until I was sourcing that quote just now. Oof. Rotten apples all the way down.)Report

  30. Avatar Aaron says:

    No mention of Congress in the original article, the only mention of Iraq is a Slate pitch about how it was “really” Bush who ended it, no mention of women’s rights, Lilly Ledbetter, no mention of torture, DADT, DOMA, the EPA, fuel efficieny standards, one positive mention of Obamacare.

    When people talk about this website being a myopic lovefest, this is what they are talking about. The only civil rights issues that seem to matter here are the drone strikes and the targeted kill list. There’s no discussion of the very real life harms that will be caused to people in the US by a Romney administration: no discussion of how many people will be affected by a repeal of Obamacare, by the gutting of Medicaid, by the appointment of anti-Roe justices to the Supreme Court.

    This website is sometimes like a libertarian version of the old New Yorker cover, with “Austrian School” on one coast and “Limited Civil Rights Absolutist” on the other and “other stuff” stuck in between.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

      No mention of Congress in the original article…

      …not writing about Congress.

      the only mention of Iraq is a Slate pitch about how it was “really” Bush who ended it…

      …because Bush signed the agreement that did end it, and because Obama tried (but failed) to change that agreement…

      no mention of women’s rights, Lilly Ledbetter…

      …both of which I consider to have been fairly minor, but again, the article is about Bush, not Obama…

      no mention of torture

      …false…

      DADT, DOMA, the EPA, fuel efficieny standards, one positive mention of Obamacare.

      …a mixture of irrelevant and false: irrelevant insofar as some of these things are the minor achievements of Obama; false insofar as I wasn’t being positive about Obamacare. If elected, I’d repeal and replace it.Report

      • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Where did you mention torture? I’ve read your article twice and I don’t see it. The word “torture” doesn’t occur until comment 53. If you’re talking about your glancing discussion of Guantanamo and the AUMF, you’re conflating completely different things.

        Congress because it’s impossible to discuss the legacies of the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration without discussing the legislative environment they exist in. This is such a common sense observation that it baffles me that it needs to be pointed out.

        …both of which I consider to have been fairly minor, but again, the article is about Bush, not Obama…

        …a mixture of irrelevant and false: irrelevant insofar as some of these things are the minor achievements of Obama; false insofar as I wasn’t being positive about Obamacare. If elected, I’d repeal and replace it.

        The article, as best I can tell, is about policy continuity between the Bush and Obama Administrations. I point out policy discontinuities between the two and you simply wave your hand and say, “oh, well, those don’t really count — not quite substantial enough, you see.” What pitiful stuff. From your original article:

        There has been only one really notable legislative accomplishment in Obama’s first term, one thing I might never have expected from a third Bush administration, and that’s Obamacare.

        Fair enough, you’re not boosting Obamacare. But it also falsifies your argument that you’re really arguing about Bush.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

          Where did you mention torture? I’ve read your article twice and I don’t see it. The word “torture” doesn’t occur until comment 53. If you’re talking about your glancing discussion of Guantanamo and the AUMF, you’re conflating completely different things.

          They are entirely the same things, and I alluded to them because I trusted that for my audience saying “Hey, did you know Bush tortured?” would be insulting. We know this already.

          As to Obama, it’s my belief that the differences in his administration have generally been minor. I mentioned him in passing to assert it. That doesn’t falsify my argument; if you agree with my assertion, then it supports my argument.Report

          • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            You point out to me the area in the AUMF where it authorizes the Bush Administration’s torture regime. Because it doesn’t. You are engaging in some major post hoc ergo propter hoc nonsense here.

            I alluded to them because I trusted that for my audience saying “Hey, did you know Bush tortured?” would be insulting. We know this already.

            Ah, okay — I didn’t realize that I was getting in the middle of your shibboleth-filled mutual appreciation society here. I thought you were trying to make an argument, and not just assert a bunch of baseless nonsense designed to appeal to your fellow travelers and elicit a deluge of “Great article, Jason.” Thanks for clearing that up.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

              I find the really cryptic shibboleths are best — the ones absolutely no one understands, like “Guantanamo.”

              But rest assured, if this were a mutual admiration society, you’d have been kicked out a long time ago.

              As to the AUMF, I never believed it authorized torture. Nor did a lot of others. But some smart folks in Bush’s OLC did, merely and solely because it authorized a war.

              And so here we are. Whether torture will remain a long-term part of the Bush legacy, or whether it was just an aberration that existed for a few years — I trust we hope for the same things on that question, more or less. Don’t we? Either way, the question is unsettled, so I didn’t do more than allude to it. No regrets there.Report

              • The AUMF authorizes drone strikes against American Citizens in countries against which we have not declared war (or even declared kinetic action), so I have been told.Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I’m all on board with stopping torture and wishing to see no return to it, and you didn’t even really need to add that “when did you stop beating your wife?”-style “Don’t we?” My point is that the AUMF clearly does not authorize torture. The fact that the Bush Administration used it as an extra-legal justification to do so means that the Obama Administration putting an end to such shenanigans is a major policy difference, and a major rebuke to the Bush legacy.

                You didn’t answer my question from above, either — since no legislation authorized the Bush Administration to torture, and torture is already illegal in the US, what was the Obama Administration supposed to do to put a stop to it besides an executive order?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Aaron says:

                “When did you stop pressing charges against whistleblowers?”Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jaybird says:

                Totally the same thing as authorizing torture, good job for pointing it out.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Aaron says:

                If the guy was the guy who blew the whistle on the torture, would you see that as particularly germane to the topic?

                Because I do.

                Would you say that you could understand how someone else might see that as giving the game away?

                Because I could.Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Aaron says:

                I am not and have not said that Obama is a perfect creation, undeserving of criticism. I disagree strongly with the way he’s handled whistleblowers.

                But no, I do not believe that the one has the overwhelming bearing on the other that you seem to. Are you arguing that Obama is torturing whistleblowers because he wants to start torturing again? Because if you’re not, I don’t see the bearing on the discussion at hand.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Aaron says:

                Let’s say that there happens to be something that everyone agrees is not torture (like waterboarding, say) that happens to happen under the watchful eye of one of the three-letter agencies.

                And let’s go on to say that someone experiences a twinge of conscience. Someone wants to blow the whistle.

                Now do you see *WHY* the treatment of the guy who blew the whistle the last time this happened *MIGHT* be relevant to whether this happens again?Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Aaron says:

                No, not really. Whistleblowers are, by their very nature, often doing something illegal — allowing evidence of wrongdoing to come to light that might be protected information. Do I think that the Obama Administration is wrong to prosecute these people? Yes. Do I think that whistleblower protection laws should be strengthened, especially when it comes to the government? Yes. Do I think Obama’s prosecution of whistleblowers will have a major impact on future whistleblowers? Not really, no — what they’re doing is already illegal and libel for prosecution. That’s the chance they take when they decide to speak out. I don’t see how Obama enforcing that makes a huge difference one way or another.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Aaron says:

              You point out to me the area in the AUMF where it authorizes the Bush Administration’s torture regime.

              OK.

              “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks…in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

              Report

      • these things are the minor achievements of Obama

        You’re begging the question. You consider them minor, which is fine. Others may not concur, myself included.Report

        • I agree. I’m not sure what “minor achievements” means. Obviously repealing DADT was a huge cultural win, and while it’s not a legislative achievement, his position on DOMA is as well. The Lily Ledbetter act can be seen either way, but was certainly a big victory for labor in a time when such victories are few and far between. I’m not sure what the criteria here are for Jason, except maybe that, as his recent posts have shown, he tends to see civil liberties issues through a doomsday magnifying glass (I largely agree with his positions on these issues, just not on the how immediately dangerous he seems to think they are; plus, I think there are more immediate issues to deal with), but I’m somewhat surprised that he dismisses the DADT and DOMA stuff.

          On the government spending thing, I’d note that it’s difficult to really assess Bush’s legacy in this regard while we remain in a recession. As long as people are blaming the government for the economy, the government is going to want to do more, and therefore spend more money, to try to end it so the people in charge stop getting blamed.

          I’d also point out that the approach to countries like Iran and Syria (and perhaps even Libya) would likely have been different under Bush (for an example, see North Korea… by the way, we talk about Iraq, but North Korea was an example that makes Bush look more incompetent than brilliant).

          I’d say this: the national security apparatus related to terrorism that was established during the Bush administration is deeply entrenched, and not going anywhere. Spending we’ll have to see as unemployment drops and state government stop bleeding money and begging for more federal aid, and the “war on terror” stuff will remain largely the same with implementation differences depending on who’s in charge at the moment.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

            Anyway, long story short, the OP is a bit hyperbolic, but I see the point.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

              Let’s say I grant all of the above. Can Obama then even plausibly be put in the same camp as FDR in terms of how he reshaped the office of the presidency and American government more generally? I still don’t think so. But with Bush, I can definitely see it.

              Partly this is because Obama’s only had one term so far. Partly it’s because we’ll have to wait until Obama’s several years out of office before we can even assess his legacy fairly. But partly, well, just no. It doesn’t seem plausible at all.Report

              • I think we’ll have to wait and see what the long-term result of ObamaCare really ends up being before we’re in a position to pronounce on that.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Russell Saunders says:

                If nothing else, if he gets rid of the current Republican party by giving them the white whale of Obamacare… that’s reshaping American government (perhaps via enema, but… you take what you can get, I suppose)Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Is FDR the standard that we are going to hold presidents to now? Do we expect every president to come in and “reshape the office of the presidency and American government more generally”? Or is that the standard that we’re only going to hold Obama to? This seems like an incredibly unreasonable standard to hold someone to, especially someone who apparently thinks that Congressional intransigence isn’t something that should be taken into account when judging a president’s record.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Aaron says:

                I take FDR to be among the most influential of presidents. Only Washington and Lincoln are clearly, no-question-about-it more influential.

                I’m not ready to assess Obama’s presidential legacy yet. Whether he wins or loses in two weeks, it’s still going to be way too early to tell. But the game of assessing presidential legacies is hardly some new thing I made up, and hardly unreasonable. Journalists and historians both do it all the time.Report

              • Avatar Aaron in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I would certainly agree with you about FDR’s influence, but I don’t see how that’s a reasonable standard to hold any president to, or what baring it has on our evaluation of the continuity between the Bush and Obama Administrations.

                As far as I can see is, you say, “The Obama Administration has carried through all of Bush’s most important policies.”

                Other people have said, “Hold on, he differs from Bush in a whole host of ways, and even when he is running a similar policy, there are substantive differences between how they were implemented.”

                To which you say either, “Well, those are major differences by my lights” or “Doesn’t matter.”

                Now you’re saying that Obama isn’t in the same league as FDR, which, as far as I can tell, no one was implying he was.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Aaron says:

                He’s also asserting that Bush was in the league of FDR.
                Personally, I don’t see it. FDR was in a very dicey position.
                Bush took advantage of a weak/scared/stupid congress.
                I’m thinking more Alien and Sedition Acts than Medicare.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to argue that Obama has been a great or historically effective president. I’m just pointing out that he’s diverged from the Bush administration in several ways, and in the ways that he hasn’t, either a.) you’re right, Bush put in place a system (the war on terror) that will be difficult to get rid of, or b.) we don’t yet have enough data (the spending, except where the spending is war on terror stuff).Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Also, I genuinely hope that Obamacare turns into a real reform of the Health Care system, in which case, I’d evaluate Obama’s presidency upwards for getting things started. But much like civil liberties are magnified in your thinking about this stuff, health care is magnified in mine.Report

      • Avatar Jeff No-Last-Name in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        DADT is “irrelevant or false”?

        No more needs to be said.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jeff No-Last-Name says:

          It’s obviously not false. So what else do you suppose I mean?

          I guess I’d be saying it’s irrelevant. And when it comes to supporting the thesis that W. left a large, important, and underestimated legacy, I think that’s clearly the case. It was a Clinton policy, abolished by Obama.

          Of course, I’m happy it was abolished, but it’s also not something I was writing about.Report

  31. Avatar Pyre says:

    Excellent article.

    For the record, I believe it was more reason two. When I wrote a blog a while back on The Enigma of Amigara Fault a while back, I pointed out that one of the differences between Eastern and Western culture is the perception in the west that we are still the rugged individualists of the Wild West. This is what I believe is part of the discomfort that you mentioned. We largely want a government that has authority over every aspect of our lives (or, at least, “someone else’s” life) which keeps us safe from the “bad men” but we don’t want to lose our self-delusion that we’re all courageous individualists who live life by our own rules.Report

  32. Avatar IndyRdr says:

    I never defined Bush as incompetent because his actions resulted in unfavorable changes. I defined him as incompetent because he would represent that he wanted to accomplish “X” through action “Y,” but for reasons known at the time “Y” was problematic and did not appear to be the best course to accomplish “X”. Bush ignored the problems with “Y” claiming that such did not exist (see Iraq / Afghanistan) and, of course as already known, “Y” was true, the problems did result and “X” remains yet to be accomplished (and, in some instances, has become more difficult because of Bush’s acts). To proceed in that manner is incompetent.

    I also don’t think Bush is a genius. From Wiki: “A genius is someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight.” Nothing Bush said or did was new or creative (at least nothing comes to mind after reading this article). What he did was to ignore opposing opinions and, as noted above, pursued action regardless of consequence. That has been done before and does not imply insight or creativity.

    Also, other than the expansion of presidential power, it is not clear to me that he actually accomplish the goals he set out to achieve. For example, the tax cuts have not yet resulted in less government, lower deficits or increased economic expansion. The expansion is also arguably a tangential result related to Bush’s inability to seek consensus and pursue action regardless of consequence.

    To the extent that Bush appeared to seek his accomplishments in a manner different from prior presidents, I do think that Bush took themes from other people and “improved” on those themes (think campaign style); however, that alone never struck me as genius.Report

  33. There is a bait and switch in this post. “Domestically, … legislative accomplishment”

    You define domestic policy as legislation. Therefore so long as Republicans can filibuster and stick with Bush policies, Bush’s legacy endures. Would Bush have massively increased fleet fuel economy standards ? For you it doesn’t matter. That wasn’t domestic policy, because it wasn’t a legislative accomplishment.

    You have proven that the Democrats so follow Bush that they managed only one gigantic legislative accomplishment in the five months when they could legislate (so long as the alliance with the Connecticut for Lieberman party lasted). Given the rules of the Senate, persistence of policy is not a sign of influence of any former President.

    Also what about the ARRA. It was huge. Yes a stimulus was inevitable given the recession, but do you really think that Republicans would have cut taxes on the rich less in dollars than taxes on the poor ? Or massively invested in green energy ?

    Finally I see that you consider torture a trivial issue. Could you explain why ?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Robert Waldmann says:

      I made no equivalence between domestic policy and legislation. I deny that I even implied one.

      The ellipsis you make (“Domestically, … legislative accomplishment”) spans two paragraphs, in which I talk about Romney, Obama, and Bush, on a wide variety of subjects both domestic and foreign. To omit that fact and then suggest that I’m the one making that nonsensical equivalence is dishonest.

      As to torture, I’ve written at very great length about the subject, both here and at my previous blogs, and I certainly don’t consider it a trivial issue. I consider it appalling that we adopted the Soviet torture techniques that we formerly and very justly opposed. I’ve written so much about torture, in fact, that I didn’t think it was at all necessary to point out my views on the subject.

      And anyway, in this post they would have been a digression at best. The purpose of this post in particular was to argue that in many very important respects, George W. Bush has shaped the world we live in today. To support that claim, I do not need to assert that all policies have remained exactly the same. I focused primarily on those aspects of the Bush years that remain — his legacy, as I have many times repeated now.

      That legacy is considerable. Whether it’s quite as big as I make it out to be is another question. And where torture fits in that legacy is — as I’ve stated elsewhere in the thread — still unknown. We know what the next four years will hold with Obama (no torture, no prosecutions, no reconciliation). We know what Romney has pledged before (double Guantanamo and torture more people). The choice is ours, such as it is.

      The rest of the points are debatable and are being debated elsewhere in the thread.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        To support that claim, I do not need to assert that all policies have remained exactly the same. I focused primarily on those aspects of the Bush years that remain — his legacy, as I have many times repeated now.

        This is a fair point, so let’s review the comparisons you did make:

        * “The Bush deficits continue …”. That’s true, Obama has not been able to unilaterally eliminate all of the programs Bush passed, nor retroactively revoke all of the money he handed out. That said, consistent deficit growth, one issue Obama has some control over, has ceased. Given that we’re in a great recession with severely decreased revenue, that’s a big deal, and unseen in the Bush administration.
        * “… when the supposed party of deficit hawks goes on a spending binge, we can all guess what the other party will do”. Bush’s signature spending achievements – taxcuts and medicare – were both unfunded deficit spending and we were told that deficits don’t matter. Obama’s signature spending achievement – healthcare – was not only deficit neutral, but we were repeatedly told that if you get a new program you have to pay for it and nothing comes for free. That’s a world of difference.
        * “… he repeated his five-point plan for prosperity—of which all five points were policies of George W. Bush’s. Not that the other team hasn’t gotten in on the act.” This doesn’t even make sense, Romney’s five-point plan is every candidates’ five-point plan. It is a utopian set of goals – balanced budget, energy independence, increased employment, etc. – that every single president would love to see accomplished. The criticism of Romney’s five-points is not that they’re bad, but that he has no plan to accomplishing it. Pretending like these points are some kind of novel Bush discovery is just naive.
        * The lobbying and transparency arguments are pretty opaque. I haven no idea how Obama has done in this regard, but neither you nor your links make any quantitative comparisons to previous administrations to support your point. Is Obama worse on transparency than Clinton or Bush Sr.? I doubt it. And we certainly haven’t had anything like the Bush Attorney General’s scandal or the Plame leak.

        So, what’s left? That which is always left: Afghanistan, drone strikes, and the kill list. The same three points you’ve made repeatedly in the past. The same three points that have been under a wealth of judicial and legal scrutiny which you’ve summarily ignored. What I see in this post is a simple attempt to denounce your detractors as Bush apologists and hypocrites without having to do any work to address their actual criticisms. Well done!Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to trizzlor says:

          “That’s true, Obama has not been able to unilaterally eliminate all of the programs Bush passed, nor retroactively revoke all of the money he handed out.”

          President Obama had it well within his power to let the Bush tax cuts expire at their initial sunset of Dec 2010.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to trizzlor says:

          This is a good response.

          As I said above, Jason’s focus is on a specific set of policies, mostly related to the war on terrorism. He’s a doomsdayist with respect to these policies. That perspective has a distorting effect. I think he has a point, but it’s easy for his point to be lost in the hyperbole. I don’t think he has much of a point on non-“security” issues, though. Bush and Obama have differed at any point that Obama could differ, in these regards.

          I do think the policies are worrisome, and in the wrong hands, with the wrong people doing the legal reviews, could be dangerous, but that’s never the perspective that Jason seems to be adopting. His worries seem much more immediate.

          I do think continuing to blow people up across the world is a Bush legacy that Obama has furthered, even expanded, and I’d like to see that part of the legacy done away with, but as I also said above, I think we’re going to be stuck with blowing people up for a semblance of security for a long, long time. Eventually, we’re going to just be known as the country that blows people up.

          On the tax cuts, it would have been a political disaster to let the middle class tax cuts expire. So his stated goal, which he was unable to achieve, was to let the tax cuts expire for the wealthy. The legacy of protecting the wealthy goes back way further than Bush II.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

            Chris,
            For many reasons, I see the Obama administration as being the “wrong hands.”
            Jason may at times seem an ivory tower intellectual on this front.
            I assure you I am not.Report

          • Avatar Aaron in reply to Chris says:

            Further from that, as Chris says, Obama’s stated policy prefecence wasn’t to get rid of the Bush tax cuts, but only the tax cuts on $250kth dollar and above. This is a huge difference.

            Also, with Jason’s concern for those affected by drone strikes and security policies, he seems to have little if any regard for the effects of his preferred policy positions will have on people in the US. Repealing Obamacare, as he stated is his preference above, will have disastrous consequences for people with preexisting conditions. Letting all of the Bush tax cuts expire during the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression would have been a huge disaster.

            Even in the area of drone strikes, Jason’s jeremiad might not be appropriate. According to the Guardian, civilian deaths in drone strikes have been steadily declining (down from 9-10% in 2008 to 0% in 2012) and are supported by local people in both Pakistan and Yemen.Report

  34. Avatar Maribou says:

    I wonder, also, if there is another root cause to the disjoint, something as simple as:

    Effectiveness requires a proportionate willingness to abandon the desire to hide failure, and failure is more visible than success. So the hugely effective, especially in realms that reward or ignore wrongful actions in the face of effectiveness, also spend a lot of time being seen as spectacular and obvious failures.Report

  35. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    I really do think there’s a tendency to overlook the fact that the center of American electorate has always been viciously authoritarian

    And if America’s center is a pro-torture, pro-permanent-debt, pro-drone, pro-surveillance-state, anti-liberty position, then I’m finally ready to concede that you’re a centrist.

    It’s not the center that’s viciously authoritarian. It’s low-information voters of all political stripes. “FIX IT. And then go away. Why can’t they just fix it and then go away?”Report

    • I remember reading an essay on one of the neocon site that discussed a meeting with some lovely folks in Iran where it was established that Persians are the most wonderful, hospitable, beautiful people in the world… and one of these wonderful people asked “Can’t the Americans come in and kill the greybeards and leave?”

      And it sounds so very simple.Report

  36. Avatar LarryM says:

    I agree with most of your particulars, but not your frame. In at least one, and perhaps more, key respect, Bush was successful in the sense that he implemented his preferred policy, but not successful in the sense that he didn’t achieve his goals, stated or otherwise. I think that undercuts any real claim of “competence.” The clear case is Iraq, and that alone, I think, looms large enough to overshadow his other “accomplishments,” at least on the “competence” frame. Even with a cynical take on his motivations regarding Iraq, it remains a colossal failure by any standard, unless you believe that he was an agent for Iran or Al Qaeda (of I’m course not suggesting that absurdity as being true).

    Then there are a number of border cases, depending upon how cynical you want to be regarding Bush’s motives and how much blame you want to assign him for the recession. But I think a pretty strong case can be made that the only clear area where Bush was a “successful” president was in amassing more power to the presidency and decreasing civil liberties. And he was indeed very successful in those areas, as baleful as such “success” looks to you and I. Not enough, IMO, to brand him, overall, as a “competent” executive.Report

  37. Avatar tt says:

    Oh I see. The author is a Cato Inst. crackpot.Report

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