The Obama administration’s scandal trifecta has caused some Republicans and even some media figures to start throwing the most dreaded comparison you can throw at a president: Richard Milhous Nixon. But though Democrats understand that the politicization of the IRS will, at the very least, energize their opponents next year, they’ve also rightly understood that at this stage talk about Nixon is, at best, premature. Thus when the White House sent out one of the president’s inner circle yesterday to do all five Sunday news talk shows, their strategy for surviving the scandals was clear. After the worst week of the Obama presidency, senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer played the one card that has always worked for the Democrats in the last few years: alleged Republican extremism. To listen to Pfeiffer, instead of the president needing to be accountable to the country for what’s been happening, it’s the GOP that owes the country an apology for preventing Obama from implementing his policies by prioritizing the scandals.
Turning the tables on your opponents is always a useful tactic, especially if it is done as shamelessly as this. After all, the same media that has turned on the president in the last week spent the previous four years lapping up this stuff. But if Pfeiffer’s boss thinks he can live through this siege of bad news merely by repeating the same media strategy he’s been employing all along, he’s mistaken. Talk about Nixon or impeachment doesn’t hurt Obama. But what he and his advisors are missing is that the most dangerous comparison to him right now is a president with whom they are much better acquainted: George W. Bush.
Mentioning Bush in the same breath as Obama is bound to offend both Democrats and Republicans. The former because they despise W. even more than a GOP demon from the past like Nixon, and the latter because they rightly believe evaluations of Bush as a failed president are unfair and the product of liberal slanders and media bias. But the 43rd president’s second term provides an object lesson in how a president can be done in by an impression of incompetence.
Right now, Republicans aren’t satisfied with damning the administration for its incompetent response to the failure to protect diplomats in Benghazi, the IRS scandal or the Justice Department’s spying on journalists. The implications of the lies that were told about Benghazi, the politicization of the IRS and the DOJ’s campaign of intimidation against whistle-blowers go much deeper than that. Indeed, Democrats lately seem to think that putting all of these problems down to stupidity is a safer strategy than the alternative. They believe Americans will forgive the government for not knowing what it is doing a lot quicker than they will deceit or a malevolent manipulation of power.
Perhaps. But what they are forgetting is that what made Bush’s second term so problematic was not so much the allegations about him “lying us into a war” as it was the impression that he lost control of the government. The tipping point was Hurricane Katrina and the attempt to portray that disaster as not only being Bush’s fault but that government agencies were not up to the task of handling the problem. The Iraq war dragged down his presidency not so much because many Americans came to the conclusion it was a mistake but because for a crucial period, the bloodletting seemed to be beyond his control. The financial crisis in the closing months of his term solidified the idea that Bush wasn’t in command and couldn’t fix problems.
Let me specify that I think much of this case against Bush was off base. Indeed, Iraq showed that Bush could take a crisis on and largely fix it, as the surge he adopted in 2007 won the war even if Obama’s subsequent withdrawal may wind up losing it. But the lesson here is that once a president is branded as out of touch and incompetent, not even a war-winning strategy shift can make it go away.
So while Democrats may think they are taking the easy way out by trying to persuade the public that the government just didn’t know what it was doing in these scandals, this is actually a fatal mistake. For a party and a president that are ideologically committed to the cause of big government to play this card undermines everything they stand for. As bad as Bush seemed to be doing, it is even worse for his successor to behave as if he hears about every problem in the media the same as everyone else and that he had nothing to do with any of it.
Pfeiffer and the rest of Obama’s advisers need to understand that rather than the incompetence argument being a plea bargain that will get him off the hook, it is actually an admission that the lame duck portion of this presidency has already begun. Accusing Republicans of being extremists won’t change that verdict.
By the same token, as much as Republicans are right to focus on the lies about Benghazi and the illegality of what the IRS has done, they need to remember just how badly Bush suffered from being labeled as a president who didn’t know what he was doing. Calling Obama a liar may be more satisfying than calling him incompetent, but it is the latter that may do more damage in the long run.