Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often been compared to that of the first President Bush as the “realist” tendencies of both the president and his advisers have often been noted particularly with regard to his hostility to Israel and interest in appeasing Russia. But on the day that George H.W. Bush celebrates his 88th birthday, the real comparison between the Republican mandarin and the hero of the liberal “hope and change” crowd is just becoming apparent. As he seeks re-election, President Obama is fighting not so much to convince Americans of his worth but to control the narrative about a failing economy. That’s the very same struggle the 41st president fought and lost 20 years ago.
A generation after his political Waterloo at the hands of Bill Clinton’s political war room that immortalized the slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” the elder Bush is a popular figure, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his namesake, Bush 41’s re-election efforts were sabotaged by Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and the bad timing that caused his post-Gulf War popularity to peak a year before he faced the voters again. But most of all it was the perception that he had led the economy onto the rocks and was so out of touch with ordinary Americans that he didn’t even know it. After the last two weeks in which a devastating jobs report was followed by President Obama’s claim the private sector was “doing just fine,” you don’t have to strain to hear the echoes of the elder Bush’s troubles.
Bush 41’s biggest problem in 1992 was an economy that was slow to rebound from a recession. The nation’s economic malaise was the foundation for Clinton’s critique of Bush. But even though the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as the Democrats painted it (and was well on the way to recovery in the final months of his presidency), there was no denying the White House seemed helpless throughout the campaign to combat the impression the country was going under on Bush’s watch.
The notion of Bush 41 as being clueless about the struggle of ordinary Americans was captured in one cringe-inducing moment when he expressed amazement at a supermarket price scanner, a device that had been in use in most stores for years. While it wasn’t really fair to criticize a man who had spent the previous 12 years as president and vice president for his unfamiliarity with the routines of grocery shopping, it reinforced the notion of him being a patrician who was clueless about ordinary life. Obama’s gaffe was actually much worse than that. It shows his refusal to accept the reality of the failure of some of his policies, but the real damage is that it has strengthened the prevailing narrative about the economy.
The analogy between the two presidents is far from exact. Obama has advantages Bush 41 could only dream of. Bush was just another in a long line of wealthy white guys to live in the White House, while Obama has the historic status that comes from being the first African-American president. Bush had a restive GOP base that bitterly resented the breaking of his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, while Obama can still count on a united party even if the messianic hopes his presidency engendered have deflated some of their enthusiasm. Obama also can count on a mostly sympathetic liberal mainstream press. Most of all, there is no Ross Perot-like third party challenger in 2012 to muddy the waters and disrupt partisan voting trends that might have saved Bush.
But for all his advantages, unless President Obama can convince the country that events are not slipping beyond his control, he is on a fast track to being the first one-term president since Bush 41.