Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

The Untold Story of the Illegal Immigration Debate

While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

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While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

illegal immigration actually peaked during the boom of the late 1990s, after which it declined almost steadily except for a one-year increase in 2004, after President Bush raised the issue of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans (some of them U.S. citizens) during the 1930s. And, though conservatives are loath to acknowledge it, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president in modern history.

The Obama administration in fact deported a record 410,000 people in 2012–an increase of more than a quarter from 2007.

The largely untold story of the immigration debate, then, is that in the last few years–thanks to the efforts first of President Bush and now President Obama, as well as border state governors–we’ve seen a massive increase in border enforcement. The southern border is as protected as it has ever been. That development, along with a weak economy, has led to a net outflow of people from the U.S. to Mexico. That hasn’t happened in 40 years.  

I mention all that because if you listen to some critics of comprehensive immigration reform, they speak as if (a) nothing has been done to secure the border and (b) the flood of illegal immigrants to America has never been higher. That simply isn’t true. The situation, in fact, is more nearly the opposite.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to do even more to secure our border. But the debate would be helped if it were informed by the reality on the ground, not claims firmly rooted in mid-air.

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Obama and the “Moral High Ground”

In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

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In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

Obama’s “fiscal cliff” deal to extend the Bush tax cuts comes, ironically, the same week he quietly signed an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–another source of controversy during the Bush administration. Bush’s national security policies did not escape Obama’s moral judgment. In a 2007 speech, Obama said Bush “decided to take the low road” in its response to military threats: “We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland. Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear.”

The fight over FISA was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but also a symbolic one. Obama staunchly opposed immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government–one Bush-era provision of the law. “I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty. There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people,” Obama had said.

Pretty clear, right? That promise didn’t even make it through to the election.

Immediately upon taking office in 2009, Obama outlined exactly how he would take us from “the low road” to the “moral high ground,” and that included shuttering secret CIA prisons around the globe and ending long-term secret detentions. Upon signing that executive order, the moral preening was rewarded with applause. A new day had dawned. Yet as the Washington Post reported yesterday, Obama has relied on long-term secret detentions “without legal oversight” throughout his first term in office:

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions….

The sequence described by the lawyers matches a pattern from other rendition cases in which U.S. intelligence agents have secretly interrogated suspects for months without legal oversight before handing over the prisoners to the FBI for prosecution.

Perhaps Obama just thinks the “moral high ground” is overrated. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only the best interests of the country in mind, and that he is not the morally bankrupt, power-hungry, fear-mongering political opportunist he would accuse others of being if they were to follow his path.

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Does Obama’s FEMA Deserve Applause?

As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

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As I wrote earlier today, there is little doubt that part of the reason why President Obama got a bounce of some sort from Hurricane Sandy is the perception that his administration did a much better job dealing with the emergency than President Bush did during Hurricane Katrina. This was largely the result of a complacent media that was content to portray the president as the hero of the occasion after his fly through New Jersey and the seal of approval he got from Governor Chris Christie. But Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, someone who knows a thing or two about what happens in a crisis, isn’t buying it.

Giuliani is frustrated not so much by the political spin of this story as by the spectacle of the citizens of his beloved New York City being left in need while the rest of the country “moves on” from the hurricane. As far as Giuliani is concerned, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t deserve the laurels they have received from the media and for which the president is given credit. As Politico reports:

“The response since the time the president got all this praise and credit and press ops has been abysmal,” Giuliani said on Fox News Channel’s “America’s Newsroom.” “FEMA is as much a failure now as at the time of Katrina.”

Giuliani, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that he did not “understand” why New York was facing water, generators and gas shortages.

“It’s quite obvious they didn’t pre-plan for water, they didn’t pre-plan for the generators, they didn’t pre-plan for the gasoline,” he said.

He bashed Obama for losing “focus” on the subject.

“The president getting all this credit so early, maybe the first day or two he was paying attention, but the minute he got his credit, the minute he got his pat on his back, we had the same situation as we had in Benghazi,” Giuliani said. “He loses focus. He goes back to being campaigner-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.”

The push back against the narrative of Obama’s brilliant emergency response may be coming too late to alter the public’s view of events. But if it is coming late it is because, unlike the Democrats in 2005 during Katrina, Republicans have been reluctant to inject politics into a natural disaster. But if the plight of the people of New Orleans was all the fault of George W. Bush — even though most of the problems there were more the result of the complete collapse of state and local authority and the abandonment of their posts by first responders, then it is not inappropriate to ask why Obama gets a pass as residents of New York and New Jersey cope with a crisis that is far from under control.

No president deserves to be blamed for bad weather. But the ability of Obama to avoid responsibility for what remains a terrible mess can be directly attributed to his cheerleaders in the news media.

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GOP Should Blame the Media, Not Sandy

A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?

The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.

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A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?

The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.

Sandy’s impact was more than just a diversion from political business as usual. It was a chance for many in the mainstream media to trot out comparisons between the federal response to Sandy to that of the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While there’s no question that the government was better prepared and was able to do what it could more quickly this time, the assumption that Bush deserved to be blamed for what happened in New Orleans while Obama deserves credit for the situation in New Jersey and New York is a partisan distortion. The bulk of the problems in New Orleans were the result of the abject failure of state and city first responders and officials. Yet the pictures of the devastation and the sufferers are still linked to the general perception of Bush’s incompetence. By contrast, the narrative in which Obama got to be the hero of Sandy doesn’t seem to be affected by the fact that many Americans are still without power or shelter a week after the storm.

Of course, blaming Obama for what’s happening in New Jersey and New York wouldn’t be any more fair than blaming Bush for the collapse of the levees in New Orleans or the fact that most of the police and firemen in that city fled rather than doing their duty. There are some things that really are beyond the scope of any president to control, and the weather is one of them. That’s true even for a president who promised that he could turn back the oceans, as Obama famously did when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. But anyone who thinks the liberal media wouldn’t be blaming a GOP president for the plight of Sandy’s victims doesn’t understand much about American politics.

The point here is not just that the media gave Obama a boost last week, but to highlight the fact that throughout this campaign that is what they have done at virtually every point. Just as most of the mainstream media failed to follow up on the scandalous failure that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and then turned a blind eye to the administration’s politically motivated deceptions about it, there was never much chance that they wouldn’t use Sandy to help Obama.

Beating Obama has always meant overcoming the handicap of media bias as well as the inclination of many Americans not to unseat the first African-American president. If Romney falls short tomorrow, it will not be just the fault of a hurricane, but will also be due to the lack of a level playing field for the candidates on virtually any issue.

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Has Obama Learned From His Mistakes?

The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

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The most effective argument for President Obama in tonight’s foreign policy debate is consistent with the one the Democrats have been using as their all-purpose cudgel against Republicans this year: George W. Bush. Bush has been the president’s alibi on the economy as he continues to blame his predecessor for the country’s troubles on his watch. But on foreign policy, naming Bush is an offensive rather than a defensive stance since it allows the president to label his challenger as someone who would repeat the mistakes made by the 43rd president. To a country that is weary of 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan and shudders at the memory of the conflict America left in Iraq, calling Romney another Bush and calling his advisors “neocons” who are his “puppet masters” may be an effective, if somewhat unfair and misleading argument. But the real question on foreign policy is not whether the United States will invade any countries in the next four years, since neither man is likely to do that. Rather, it is whether they can learn from the mistakes made in the last decade made by both of the last two administrations.

Romney’s inherent caution makes him unlikely to be trigger-happy when it comes to foreign interventions that are now seen in retrospect as unfortunate. But invading countries is not the only sort of mistake a president can make. While Romney will be careful not to fall into the traps that undid Bush, it remains to be seen whether President Obama is capable of learning from the mistakes he has made in office, especially in the Middle East.

That apparent incapacity to learn from mistakes was on display this past weekend when the New York Times broke its story about an agreement between the administration and Iran for direct talks following the election. Both sides have now denied it, but the Times isn’t exactly backing down and I can’t entirely blame them for that. The administration’s ambivalence — the sources were all reportedly senior Obama officials — seems based on a justified concern that they were being caught showing some post-election “flexibility” that might undermine the president’s electoral hopes. But no matter how many denials are issued — and the Iranians can always be counted on to talk out of both sides of their mouth on such things — does anyone really doubt that the administration has been begging Tehran for such talks for years and is eager to strike some sort of unsatisfactory compromise with them that would allow the president to claim victory and then move on while the Iranians prepared to emulate North Korea?

This points out the president’s inability to understand that four years of comical “engagement” with Iran followed by years of half-hearted sanctions and futile efforts to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions have not worked. Even worse, they have convinced the ayatollahs that the president isn’t serious about stopping their nuclear program and can be counted on to go on allowing them to buy time with pointless negotiations until the day when they can announce they have achieved their goal.

Issuing “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear development would have showed that the president had learned from his mistakes, but his stubborn refusal to do so and his pretense that everything he has done has only strengthened his weak hand with Tehran doubles down on his errors. Though Romney is called a neocon for calling for a tough line on Iran, establishing America’s credibility on the issue is exactly what is needed after four years of weakness.

The Middle East peace process is another example of how the president seems to have no awareness of how his errors in which he undermined Israel helped encourage Palestinian intransigence and make a resolution of the conflict even more unlikely. The president’s inept response to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments in the region also betrays no willingness to reassess a muddled record. As the Libya fiasco showed, merely killing Osama bin Laden is not only a poor substitute for a foreign policy, it also tells us nothing about the administration’s faltering response to a revived al-Qaeda.

Elsewhere, the president’s passionate pursuit of favor with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China yielded nothing but more contempt from these regimes. The president’s hot mic moment in which he promised to be more flexible with Russia stands as a clear warning of what a second Obama administration will do.

Romney is right to assert that America’s military pre-eminence must be maintained and that strength is the best way to avoid conflict, but it is also fair for to ask whether he has learned from Bush’s mistakes. An even better question is whether Obama has learned from his. Based on everything we have seen and heard in the last year, the answer seems to be no.

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It’s Time to Support Iranian Labor

I’ve been off-the-grid in South Carolina for a few days, so I missed this when it originally came out:

For weeks, a manifesto complaining about Iran’s stumbling economy circulated in secret among factories and workshops. Organizers asked for signatures and the pages began to fill up. In the end, some 10,000 names were attached to the petition addressed to Iran’s labor minister in one of the most wide-reaching public outcries over the state of the country’s economy… The rare protest document — described to The Associated Press this week by labor activists and others — suggests growing anxiety among Iran’s vast and potentially powerful working class….

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the George W. Bush administration—thanks in large part to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her policy planning staff—was the decision to ignore the rise of independent trade unions in Iran. Mansour Osanlou’s organization of the Vahid company’s bus drivers in 2005 really was Iran’s Lech Walesa-Gdansk-Solidarity moment. Obama’s team has been little better when it comes to organized labor in places like Iran, remaining silent as the regime’s crackdown accelerates. The Europeans are little better: I’ve had many a meeting with European social democrats and Green Party activists who perform intellectual somersaults to explain why they should not support Iranian workers struggling for the basic rights American workers have for decades, if not more than a century, taken for granted.

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I’ve been off-the-grid in South Carolina for a few days, so I missed this when it originally came out:

For weeks, a manifesto complaining about Iran’s stumbling economy circulated in secret among factories and workshops. Organizers asked for signatures and the pages began to fill up. In the end, some 10,000 names were attached to the petition addressed to Iran’s labor minister in one of the most wide-reaching public outcries over the state of the country’s economy… The rare protest document — described to The Associated Press this week by labor activists and others — suggests growing anxiety among Iran’s vast and potentially powerful working class….

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the George W. Bush administration—thanks in large part to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her policy planning staff—was the decision to ignore the rise of independent trade unions in Iran. Mansour Osanlou’s organization of the Vahid company’s bus drivers in 2005 really was Iran’s Lech Walesa-Gdansk-Solidarity moment. Obama’s team has been little better when it comes to organized labor in places like Iran, remaining silent as the regime’s crackdown accelerates. The Europeans are little better: I’ve had many a meeting with European social democrats and Green Party activists who perform intellectual somersaults to explain why they should not support Iranian workers struggling for the basic rights American workers have for decades, if not more than a century, taken for granted.

There is absolutely no reason why Washington should not support Iranian labor. Because Iran’s Supreme Leader believes that he is the deputy of the messiah on earth and that his sovereignty comes from God, he cares little for what the Iranian people think or what they suffer. But, if Iranian labor unions force the government to be more accountable to the people, then even better; Iranians tend to be far more moderate than their government. If labor discord sparks civil unrest that undercuts the regime’s grasp on power, then that is no reason to shed a tear.

Rather than turn his back on the Iranian people as President Obama did in 2009, perhaps it’s time to channel the current unrest into a real strategy to empower the Iranian people vis-à-vis the regime which has brought nothing but suffering down upon them.

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Bill Clinton’s Disgraceful Comments About George W. Bush

Now that Bill Clinton has been welcomed into the home stretch of a close presidential race in order to help President Obama’s reelection efforts, the public is probably prepared to hear some whoppers. But yesterday, appearing on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, Clinton crossed a line:

ZAKARIA: Is Mitt Romney right that the only thing you can do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is kick the can down the road?

CLINTON: No, it is accurate that the United States cannot make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to do that. What we need to do is maximize the attractiveness of doing it and minimize the risks of doing it. We can do that.

And if you look at it, President Bush, when he took office, the second President Bush, I’ll never forget he said, “You know the names of every street in the old city and look what it got you. I’m not going to fool with this now.”

And immediately the death rate went up among Israelis and Palestinians because there was nothing going on.

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Now that Bill Clinton has been welcomed into the home stretch of a close presidential race in order to help President Obama’s reelection efforts, the public is probably prepared to hear some whoppers. But yesterday, appearing on CNN with Fareed Zakaria, Clinton crossed a line:

ZAKARIA: Is Mitt Romney right that the only thing you can do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is kick the can down the road?

CLINTON: No, it is accurate that the United States cannot make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to do that. What we need to do is maximize the attractiveness of doing it and minimize the risks of doing it. We can do that.

And if you look at it, President Bush, when he took office, the second President Bush, I’ll never forget he said, “You know the names of every street in the old city and look what it got you. I’m not going to fool with this now.”

And immediately the death rate went up among Israelis and Palestinians because there was nothing going on.

In reality, what was “going on” when the “death rate went up” at the beginning of the Bush administration? It was actually the Second Intifada, which began under… President Bill Clinton. Clinton is right that the “death rate” went up. Thousands died in the Palestinian terror war against Israelis civilians that began after the failure of the Clinton Camp David peace talks.

Nonetheless, was Clinton’s position that George W. Bush should encourage more peace talks between the Israelis and Yasser Arafat, despite the violence? It most certainly was not; in fact Clinton’s opinion was decidedly the opposite of that—and that’s exactly what he told Bush. From Martin Indyk’s memoir of the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy—a book that is extremely positive toward Clinton:

On January 23, 2001, Bill Clinton was in his final hours as president. There was one piece of unfinished business he was determined to take care of: it was payback time for Yasser Arafat….

Now Clinton wanted to make it clear to the incoming administration just who they would be dealing with. He had already dwelt at length on Arafat’s perfidy while briefing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that morning. Now he called Colin Powell, the secretary of state-designate, who had earlier served as Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When the phone rang, Powell was dressing for a pre-inaugural concert. He was surprised to hear Clinton’s voice. “I just wanted to wish you all the best in your new position,” the president said. Then he launched into a vituperative, expletive-filled tirade against Arafat. Powell understood the real motive for the call. As he would recount it to me, the president warned him, “Don’t you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he’ll lie to you.” Arafat had failed his people and destroyed the chances for peace, Clinton emphasized. “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me.”

Clinton called everyone he could get an audience with to tell the administration not to deal with Arafat. The Palestinian chairman was a liar, and he “destroyed the chances for peace.” The Bush administration recognized this as well, but made a push for peace once Arafat was gone and the Palestinians had a chance to recalibrate after the succession of Mahmoud Abbas to Arafat’s place and the Gaza disengagement.

Why is it so important to call Clinton out on this every time he repeats it? Because in his quote to Zakaria he blames the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians during the Intifada on Bush. If that’s not what he meant to say, he should clarify immediately. But either way, he owes George W. Bush an apology.

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Obama “Incomplete” Already Changed to F

If memory serves, when I attended Columbia University only a few years before Barack Obama’s arrival on campus, the rule about “incompletes” was that you had a year to complete the course work before your grade was converted from an “I” to an “F.” That somber warning–given to students who were able to procure a pass for not handing in a term paper, taking the final exam or missing classes for one reason or another–was brought to mind by the statement made over the weekend by the only Columbia grad ever elected president that his grade for handling the economy ought to be an “incomplete.”

Republicans are pouncing on this by pointing out, as the Romney campaign said, that it is absurd to ask the American people to re-elect a man who can’t even give himself a passing grade. Nevertheless, contrary to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an incomplete is not equivalent to failure. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that ought to mandate extra time for a student to satisfy course requirements. But Obama’s alibi, repeated by Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter–blaming it all on George W. Bush–doesn’t meet the Columbia standard. Asking for an extra year or even two before being held responsible for the state of the nation is not unreasonable. Asking for four or more years before you can be graded gets you an F at Columbia, Harvard, Occidental, the University of Chicago or any other institution the president was associated with.

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If memory serves, when I attended Columbia University only a few years before Barack Obama’s arrival on campus, the rule about “incompletes” was that you had a year to complete the course work before your grade was converted from an “I” to an “F.” That somber warning–given to students who were able to procure a pass for not handing in a term paper, taking the final exam or missing classes for one reason or another–was brought to mind by the statement made over the weekend by the only Columbia grad ever elected president that his grade for handling the economy ought to be an “incomplete.”

Republicans are pouncing on this by pointing out, as the Romney campaign said, that it is absurd to ask the American people to re-elect a man who can’t even give himself a passing grade. Nevertheless, contrary to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an incomplete is not equivalent to failure. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that ought to mandate extra time for a student to satisfy course requirements. But Obama’s alibi, repeated by Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter–blaming it all on George W. Bush–doesn’t meet the Columbia standard. Asking for an extra year or even two before being held responsible for the state of the nation is not unreasonable. Asking for four or more years before you can be graded gets you an F at Columbia, Harvard, Occidental, the University of Chicago or any other institution the president was associated with.

As I wrote yesterday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only president ever re-elected on the basis of an “incomplete.” But despite the attempt by Obama and Cutter and the rest of the Democrats to paint the situation in January 2009 as the moral equivalent of March 1933, the analogy falls flat. The downturn of 2008 was bad but it was no Great Depression. And Barack Obama’s stimulus boondoggle and Obamacare didn’t gain the support of the country the way FDR’s New Deal did.

Even an often foul-mouthed radical liberal MSNBC talker like Ed Schultz has admitted “a lot of Americans out there … don’t want to hear about Bush anymore.” Barack Obama can run against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, but he can’t run on his record. As for that incomplete the president has given himself, after this much time it’s already been changed on his transcript to the “F” that he fears the voters will give him in November.

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Are We Better Off? Democrats Plead Guilty With an Explanation

Heading into their convention this week, leading Democrats are being asked a simple question about the administration they think Americans should re-elect in November: Are we better off today than we were four years ago? The answers have been variable, but they all have the feel of someone in the dock pleading “guilty with an explanation.”

Given the high unemployment rate, the lack of economic growth matched by a startling hike in the deficit fueled by administration spending programs, it’s little wonder that most Americans tell pollsters they are not better off and that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley admitted as much on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday: “No, but that’s not the question.” He amended that answer on CNN to say that we were but the damage was already done. Senior Obama campaign officials weren’t much better than O’Malley.

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Heading into their convention this week, leading Democrats are being asked a simple question about the administration they think Americans should re-elect in November: Are we better off today than we were four years ago? The answers have been variable, but they all have the feel of someone in the dock pleading “guilty with an explanation.”

Given the high unemployment rate, the lack of economic growth matched by a startling hike in the deficit fueled by administration spending programs, it’s little wonder that most Americans tell pollsters they are not better off and that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley admitted as much on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday: “No, but that’s not the question.” He amended that answer on CNN to say that we were but the damage was already done. Senior Obama campaign officials weren’t much better than O’Malley.

David Plouffe, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” tried to finesse it, and just said the country would be worse off if Mitt Romney wins. David Axelrod was similarly vague. But all agree that everything is George W. Bush’s fault and think President Obama should continue blaming his predecessor rather than owning up to the fact that things got worse on his watch and that he doesn’t have a plan for fixing that. All of which sets us up for a week in which Democrats will spend more time damning the 43rd president than extolling the virtues of his successor. That’s an odd strategy but one the Obama campaign feels is their only choice.

It may be that after three days of non-stop Bush-bashing, claims that the Republicans are liars and a defense of the status quo on entitlements, the Democrats will get some sort of a bounce out of their convention. All the while, they will be praying that the monthly jobs report due out on Friday will bring some good news rather than a negative report that might undo any positive vibes earned from the focus on their arguments.

Fairly or unfairly, President Bush is still deeply unpopular and blamed for an economic downturn caused more by a federal intervention in the housing market that was the doing of Democrats than anything he did. But what the Obama campaign is asking the voters to do is not so much to give him a second try as to veto a third term for Bush. That’s a neat trick if they can pull it off, but their claim that Republicans are trying to make voters forget about Bush’s record is complicated by a concurrent request that they also forget Obama’s. The nuanced answers to the “are you better off” queries betray the fact that Democrats understand that few believe a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle or the vast expansion of entitlements and government power created by ObamaCare has done anything to improve the nation’s lot.

John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday that, “For liberals, it’s always 1936” because they have never quite absorbed the fact that New Deal liberalism and contempt for conservatives is a relic of a vanished age. But in order to win this election, Democrats are faced with the difficult task of duplicating Franklin Roosevelt’s successful campaign for a second term by running against the man he defeated four years ago.

George W. Bush may not be quite as unpopular as Herbert Hoover was then but, as his absence from the GOP convention proved, he’s still a liability to his party. However, there is no comparison of the economy Obama inherited to the one FDR confronted. As much as Democrats are now retrospectively trying to paint the state of the nation in January 2009 as comparable to the Great Depression, I doubt many will buy it. FDR was the only president re-elected on the proposition that four years was not long enough for him to acquire ownership of the state of the nation. Democrats are betting their political lives that Obama can do the same under vastly different circumstances.

While in 1936 Roosevelt could claim to have at least improved the morale of the American people by giving them the impression that the country was heading in the right direction, Obama can’t.

Guilty with an explanation doesn’t usually work when it comes to evading fines for traffic tickets. We’re about to find out whether it can re-elect a president.

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The George W. Bush Alibi Doesn’t Cut It

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

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Isaac-Katrina Analogies Are Gift to Dems

The danger posed by Hurricane Isaac to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico may soon overtake the Republican National Convention as the top story of the week. The troubles of the GOP are rightly overshadowed by the potential for loss of life and property in the states bordering the Gulf. But while Republicans must sit back and watch and pray along with the rest of the country that the disaster is not as great as some fear, they will also be watching for liberal attempt to rehash the aftermath of the last big hurricane to pound New Orleans. While some in the party are grousing about the way the choice of a Florida city during the season of tropical storms has played havoc with the convention schedule, what they really ought to be worried about is the way the media will use the hurricane to rehearse the alleged sins of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Though the post-invasion mess in Iraq is still thought of as the George W. Bush administration’s worst problem, the true turning point during his second term was what happened after the levees failed in New Orleans. Bush is staying away from Tampa, allowing Mitt Romney his week of glory without any reminders of his unpopular Republican predecessor. But courtesy of Isaac, the networks and cable TV channels are going to be able to put the 43rd president back in the public eye. More than the Democrats’ unseemly attempts at political guerrilla warfare in Tampa, any media hyping of the Isaac-Katrina analogy will be both a distraction from the GOP convention narrative and a way to bludgeon the Republicans by digging up the canards hurled at Bush back in 2005.

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The danger posed by Hurricane Isaac to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico may soon overtake the Republican National Convention as the top story of the week. The troubles of the GOP are rightly overshadowed by the potential for loss of life and property in the states bordering the Gulf. But while Republicans must sit back and watch and pray along with the rest of the country that the disaster is not as great as some fear, they will also be watching for liberal attempt to rehash the aftermath of the last big hurricane to pound New Orleans. While some in the party are grousing about the way the choice of a Florida city during the season of tropical storms has played havoc with the convention schedule, what they really ought to be worried about is the way the media will use the hurricane to rehearse the alleged sins of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Though the post-invasion mess in Iraq is still thought of as the George W. Bush administration’s worst problem, the true turning point during his second term was what happened after the levees failed in New Orleans. Bush is staying away from Tampa, allowing Mitt Romney his week of glory without any reminders of his unpopular Republican predecessor. But courtesy of Isaac, the networks and cable TV channels are going to be able to put the 43rd president back in the public eye. More than the Democrats’ unseemly attempts at political guerrilla warfare in Tampa, any media hyping of the Isaac-Katrina analogy will be both a distraction from the GOP convention narrative and a way to bludgeon the Republicans by digging up the canards hurled at Bush back in 2005.

Bush never really recovered from the widespread impression that his appointees were not on top of the crisis and the publicized delays in getting federal help to the stricken city. The collapse of local authority, the way first responders fled and the abdication of responsibility by both the city and state of Louisiana had far more to do with the crisis than anything the federal government did. But it was Bush who got the lion’s share of the blame. The plight of the poor refugees in the Superdome wasn’t merely put on his shoulders but falsely asserted as proof of administration racism.

Should President Obama decide to arrive on the scene of any flooding or damage this week, it will not merely upstage the GOP infomercial. It will also be a not-so-subtle reinforcement of his recurring campaign theme in which he blames everything that’s wrong with the country on his predecessor.

Hurricane Isaac won’t fix the country’s economy or lower unemployment, which are the real obstacles to the president’s re-election. But the timing and the path of the storm may provide the Democrats with an unexpected bonus of campaign fodder that could undermine any GOP hopes for a post-convention bounce. And there’s absolutely nothing the Republicans can do about it except pray that the hurricane proves to be a minor annoyance to the Gulf rather than a full-scale disaster. Residents of the coastal region, both Democrats and Republicans, will be praying along with them.

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The Human Drama of Saving Lives

The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

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The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

It has never been clear to me why this achievement is celebrated more by those on the left (like Elton John and Bono) than on the right. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the disease and its early association in this country with the gay community. Perhaps it’s because such enormous good was achieved through the instrument of the federal government, which conservatives are instinctively wary of. Or perhaps it’s because the disease has historically afflicted people who have, in different ways and to varying degrees, been marginalized and are not part of the conservative coalition: gays, African villagers, IV drug users, and minorities in America.

To be clear: conservatives haven’t denigrated the global AIDS initiative; it’s simply that it has never really registered with them. It hasn’t touched their moral imagination.

We are all drawn to different things and animated by different causes. But I would have thought that an effort that has so clearly served the cause of human dignity – that has saved so many lives and prevented so much suffering – would be one that people of every political persuasion, including conservatives (particularly social conservatives and those active in the pro-life movement), would be held up far more often than it is. The global AIDS initiative has been an extraordinary human achievement that fits our national character.

I understand that discussing AIDS policy may not make for riveting political theater. But there is also a great human drama in emancipating millions of people from the bondage of fear and the grip of death; and there is great drama, too, in the story of a moral leader who was able to bend history in the direction of justice.

Leave it to Elton John to point that out.

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W’s Self-Imposed GOP Exile

Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

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Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

It is true that the last thing Republicans need is to give their opponents a chance to tie Mitt Romney to George W. Bush. Four years after succeeding W, President Obama is still blaming the 43rd president for all of his and the country’s problems. Bush’s second term was a perfect storm of problems that ranged from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War and left him politically crippled. It should also be admitted that some of his policies on spending and the expansion of entitlements are deeply unpopular with most Republicans these days.

But the idea that the immediate past president cannot show up at his party’s convention — a distinction he will now share with modern Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — is unfortunate for Bush, Republicans and the country.

For all of the mistakes made during his eight years in the White House, Bush remained to the end a moral voice who reflected the decency and faith of most Americans. It also bears pointing out that the man who entered the presidency vowing to differentiate himself in every conceivable manner from Bush wound up continuing the policies on fighting terrorism that he decried while campaigning in 2008. All this points to what will be Bush’s inevitable rehabilitation in another generation or two, once the hate-filled invective directed at him fades from memory and his achievements can be viewed through a prism that is not distorted by second-guessing about the invasion of Iraq.

Bush isn’t staying completely quiet. He has authored a serious book about policy and recently visited Africa to follow up on the AIDS initiatives and other efforts to help there that he began in the White House (and for which he has not received a fraction of the credit he deserves).

But he’s wrong if he thinks he has nothing to contribute to the political debates of the day. The idea that ex-presidents should, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, simply go home and resume life as private citizens is noble, but only to a point. Just as no one believes there is anything wrong with Bill Clinton speaking up about issues, the American people would benefit from W’s perspective. He has good reason to think he is well out of the swamp, but like it or not, that is where the nation is governed and where political ideas must be debated.

It was inevitable that Bush would decline to attend the Tampa convention and will probably remain out of sight during the campaign. He’s right when he says Romney can win without him. But let’s hope this is the last presidential election during which W will think it is the better part of valor to go to ground. We would all be better off if his voice was heard more often in the future.

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Obama’s Problem: Romney is Not Kerry

President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

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President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

With the polls showing the race a virtual dead-heat, there is little likelihood of either candidate pulling away. Nor is there any great mass of undecided voters whose more moderate views would make a swing to the left imprudent. Thus, Obama’s decision to pursue the decidedly unpresidential route of sliming his opponent makes some political sense. His only hope of victory is to energize a liberal base that is decidedly less enthusiastic than it was four years ago. To do that, he must feed them what they want to hear: class warfare and attacks on Romney as a wealthy plutocrat.

Thus, not only will Romney not get any apologies for the president recycling canards about his business career, he can expect it to only get worse with Democrats. That ought to concern Republicans who fear an all-out assault by the president will define his opponent and turn his personal record of success into a liability. One shouldn’t underestimate the power of negative attacks, but there are two reasons why a repeat of the GOP’s 2004 tactics may fail.

First, is the difference between Romney and Kerry. Like the 2004 Democratic nominee, Romney may be a wealthy man, but unlike Kerry, he built his own fortune rather than marrying into wealth. He is not a natural politician and doesn’t connect well with the voters. But neither is he a passive aristocrat who acted as if he was entitled to the nation’s highest office, as Kerry often did. While Kerry gave the appearance of a stationary target, Romney is a clever man who will not willingly play the role of tackling dummy for the Democrats.

The second difference is that the country is in a very different position than it was in 2004. Eight years ago, the Iraq War was starting to look like a mess, but the economy was not in crisis the way it is today. More Americans had voted for Bush’s opponent in 2000, and even his response to the 9/11 attacks had not reconciled Democrats to his presidency, so he was in for a tough fight in 2004 no matter what he had accomplished.

By contrast, today Obama still has the advantage of being a historic president with the bulk of the press in his pocket. But with the state of the economy the only issue anyone is talking about, the president’s belief that he can avoid blame by pointing the finger at his predecessor may be mistaken.

The problem with political science is that it is not science. Each election is different. If the president’s campaign and its unpleasant tactics can generate a big turnout from the left, the president may yet prevail. But the circumstances of 2012 are not those that allowed the Bush campaign to run to the right with impunity in 2004. The harsh economic reality that is leading to a steady stream of bad economic news may render the Karl Rove formula moot.

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Obama’s Excuses Are Getting Weaker

President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

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President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

Though the president preferred to take a “glass half full” approach to the jobs numbers, as the New York Times delicately described his rhetoric, Reich was more frank about Obama’s excuses. Far from the creation of 84,000 new jobs being a hopeful sign, the truth is very different:

Remember, 125,000 new jobs are needed just to keep up with the increase in the population of Americans who need jobs. That means the jobs situation continues to worsen.

After a good week in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision that led to more focus on Mitt Romney’s weaknesses, the jobs report brought the president back to the reality of a sinking economy that, as even Reich pointed out, he owns. The voters don’t care what he inherited. After four years, the Bush alibi, not to mention the swipe at Clinton, isn’t fooling anyone.

Reich also stated the obvious when he noted that Obama hasn’t any real ideas about dealing with the crisis. Even worse for the president — and the country whose fiscal affairs he is steering into the ditch — at this point the European debt crisis and China’s economic slowdown are likely to only make things a lot worse before they get better. Democrats may hope voters aren’t paying attention to the election and economic statistics until Labor Day, but by then the president’s goose as well as the economy may already be cooked.

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John Kerry’s Debating Lessons

The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

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The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

First of all, Kerry was not a poor debater–unlike Al Gore four years before him. Kerry, in fact, was a fairly decent matchup for George W. Bush in 2004. But one key to that was realizing what Gore had not–that Bush was a much better debater than he often got credit for. Kerry learned not to underestimate his opponent, and it served him well. Obama has thus far indicated that he plans to underestimate Romney. But Romney is a fine debater, and Obama isn’t. (Though Obama surely will be better this time around, Hillary Clinton ran circles around him in 2008.)

Both Obama and Romney, in fact, have something to learn from Kerry’s 2004 debate performances. In the second debate, for example, Kerry was asked about his reputation as a flip-flopper (“wishy-washy” was actually the way it was phrased in the debate question). Kerry responded first by naming the things he had been accused of changing his mind on–mistake No. 1–and then refuting the argument that he had changed his mind at all. His explanations were sound, but he was playing on Bush’s terms. He then, inexplicably, repeated the phrase “wishy-washy” twice while wrapping up his response. Romney must avoid this trap when he is inevitably accused of the same.

Bush then made a very clever move by using the phrase “I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does.” Bush had been accused of accusing Kerry of being wishy-washy; Bush instead argued off the premise that the American people had already come to the conclusion Kerry was wishy-washy, and he could easily explain why. Yet Bush’s response was even more effective because he was not wishy-washy and made a point of saying the presidency requires consistency. Obama, as a fellow flip-flopper, may not be in quite as strong a position as Bush was to deliver that line of attack.

In the third debate, Kerry turned a question about flu shots into an answer about health care coverage. He said:

Five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country. You’ve got about a million right here in Arizona, just shy, 950,000, who have no health insurance at all. 82,000 Arizonians lost their health insurance under President Bush’s watch. 223,000 kids in Arizona have no health insurance at all.

All across our country — go to Ohio, 1. 4 million Ohioans have no health insurance, 114,000 of them lost it under President Bush; Wisconsin, 82,000 Wisconsinites lost it under President Bush.

This president has turned his back on the wellness of America.

How this type of question plays out in the fall will obviously depend on the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare. But on this question, both Kerry’s attack and Bush’s response to it may be used against Romney. Kerry’s tactic of naming all the uninsured in swing states was a smart move, and if Romney advocates against universal coverage he better have an answer to this. Bush’s response began with this line: “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints.” Some version of this may also be employed against Romney’s critique of ObamaCare. In Romney’s case, he will be ready with a plan, and he’ll have to lay it out convincingly (and he won’t have a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation with which to do so).

One other element of the Bush-Kerry debates is instructive: the argument about Social Security reform. Bush proposed the option of partial privatization, which was not particularly popular and is not being proposed by this year’s candidates. But Romney does have something of a plan: slowly increasing the retirement age and slowing benefit growth for high earners. Romney’s embrace of the premium support model for Medicare will also be fair game in the fall.

Despite the fact that Kerry should have had public opinion on his side, his handling of the Social Security question was disastrous. When Bush was asked about the costs of his plan, he said: “The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children.” That’s a line we can expect Romney to drive home if he’s attacked on entitlement reform. But Kerry, if he’s honest, will urge Obama to study his own response to the question and avoid it at all costs.

First, Kerry began by noting that Bush suggested allowing Americans to invest some of their entitlement payments into their own accounts. “Now, my fellow Americans, that’s an invitation to disaster,” he said. Any politician with this low an opinion of the American people should at the very least hide it. This disdain dripped from Kerry like beads of sweat. Then he said all we had to do was put more Americans back to work, adding: “Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we’ll pull together the top experts of the country.”

Outright promises to kick the can down the road sound appropriately absurd to the American people. If this is why the Obama campaign brought John Kerry on board, they may reap dividends. If it was because he’s a rich guy from Massachusetts, Kerry may yet again be part of a losing effort.

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Only FDR Could Sell Obama’s Reset

As we noted yesterday and earlier today, President Obama’s attempt to make the election a referendum on George W. Bush is a rather slender reed to use as the foundation for his re-election campaign. As expected, the president’s speech in Ohio today on the economy pushed the idea that the choice this year was between his policies and those of the preceding decade, for which he blamed all of the nation’s problems. Obama’s call for a “reset” may have satisfied panicked liberals who want him to be nastier about his opponents. In a nearly hour-long rant, the president sought to refute criticisms of his administration as being too dependent on government intervention to save the economy, but at the same time claimed the way forward was to spend a lot more on public sector jobs. Predictably, he also threw in a red herring about Mitt Romney ending Medicare without reference to any ideas of his own about reforming the entitlement spending that is dragging the country into insolvency.

But the attacks on Romney and his personal wealth and branding Republicans in Congress as heartless wretches who want to throw grandma under the bus is still secondary to persuading the nation that even though he has been president for three and a half years, he should be held blameless for a bad economy. Gaining re-election by avoiding discussion of his failures and focusing solely on those of his predecessor is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Franklin D. Roosevelt did exactly that in 1936 when, despite the fact that his policies hadn’t been enough to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the overwhelming majority of Americans were still prepared to blame Herbert Hoover for their woes. But this notable precedent shouldn’t provide much reassurance for Democrats who worry about the prospects of a president who thinks a troubled private sector is doing “just fine” and (as he showed again today) has no new ideas to present about the economy.

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As we noted yesterday and earlier today, President Obama’s attempt to make the election a referendum on George W. Bush is a rather slender reed to use as the foundation for his re-election campaign. As expected, the president’s speech in Ohio today on the economy pushed the idea that the choice this year was between his policies and those of the preceding decade, for which he blamed all of the nation’s problems. Obama’s call for a “reset” may have satisfied panicked liberals who want him to be nastier about his opponents. In a nearly hour-long rant, the president sought to refute criticisms of his administration as being too dependent on government intervention to save the economy, but at the same time claimed the way forward was to spend a lot more on public sector jobs. Predictably, he also threw in a red herring about Mitt Romney ending Medicare without reference to any ideas of his own about reforming the entitlement spending that is dragging the country into insolvency.

But the attacks on Romney and his personal wealth and branding Republicans in Congress as heartless wretches who want to throw grandma under the bus is still secondary to persuading the nation that even though he has been president for three and a half years, he should be held blameless for a bad economy. Gaining re-election by avoiding discussion of his failures and focusing solely on those of his predecessor is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Franklin D. Roosevelt did exactly that in 1936 when, despite the fact that his policies hadn’t been enough to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the overwhelming majority of Americans were still prepared to blame Herbert Hoover for their woes. But this notable precedent shouldn’t provide much reassurance for Democrats who worry about the prospects of a president who thinks a troubled private sector is doing “just fine” and (as he showed again today) has no new ideas to present about the economy.

It’s not hard to see why FDR managed to beat Hoover twice, although the “Great Engineer” was not on the ballot in 1936. The suffering caused by the Great Depression was on a scale that is almost unimaginable to us today. Under the circumstances, a Roosevelt plea for more time seemed reasonable. Moreover, even after four years of the New Deal, Republicans still seem to own the country’s problems. Hoover was wrongly blasted at the time as a do-nothing though his ill-advised interventions in the crisis did more harm than good. But because the collapse occurred in his first year in office (1929), his identification with the Depression was so thorough that it would be another decade (which would include a World War that would finally end the Depression) before Republicans would be able to shake off Hoover’s taint.

But FDR’s ability to go to the people in 1936 without being held accountable for the continuance of the disaster on his watch wasn’t simply a matter of blaming the GOP. It was just as much due to the way he persuaded the country that he knew the way forward and that their only hope was to trust in him. We can look back now dispassionately and understand, as Amity Shlaes wrote in her classic history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man, that the New Deal failed in large measure to heal the economy. In fact, Roosevelt’s policies could fairly be blamed for the severe downturn in his second term that mired the country even deeper in the ditch from which it was extricated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But Roosevelt’s leadership skills were such that he gave Americans the impression things would get better. As Jonah Goldberg has rightly pointed out, some of the ideas of the New Deal had more in common with fascism than democracy, but it could not be said in 1936 that FDR was going back to the people without any new proposals or by merely castigating Hoover.

Things are thankfully not nearly so bad today, but the contrast between FDR’s ability to galvanize the nation with the 44th president’s lackluster appeals for support could not be greater. Having been swept into office as much by the Wall Street collapse that occurred in the fall of 2008 as by the “hope and change” mantra that focused on the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, he hasn’t much to offer to solve the nation’s problems other than a deeply unpopular health care bill and a stimulus that few outside of the left would even think of repeating.

As history shows, the White House’s plan to shift blame for the economy to the president who left office four years ago is not unprecedented. But even if Americans could be persuaded that George W. Bush was another Hoover, getting them to believe that Obama is another FDR is a bridge too far even for the Democrats.

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Blame Bush Poll Won’t Help Obama

Much is being made of the new Gallup Poll that shows more Americans blame George W. Bush for the current state of the economy than Barack Obama. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the 43rd president deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for America’s economic problems. That’s more than the 52 percent who feel the same way about the 44th president. The Obama campaign is taking this to heart. In his recent speeches Obama has taken to more or less asking the public for a mulligan on the economy because even after three and a half years in office, the country’s problems are, he says, Bush’s fault. This poll would seem to validate his conclusion that this is a good campaign strategy. But the idea that Bush’s numbers should give much comfort to the Democrats as President Obama tries for a second term this fall is laughable.

The first reason why the president’s re-election team shouldn’t place much faith in this poll as a guide to their campaign tactics is obvious. While Bush is still deeply unpopular, he is not on the ballot in November. Obama is, and the idea that the president can be re-elected simply because he is not Bush makes no sense.

Second, Gallup has been asking this question since Obama took office. In July 2009, it was not unreasonable that 80 percent of those questioned blamed Bush while only 32 percent blamed Obama. But during the last three years, the gap between the two has narrowed dramatically, with a majority of those polled blaming Obama for the past two years even as the number of those pinning it on Bush has declined.

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Much is being made of the new Gallup Poll that shows more Americans blame George W. Bush for the current state of the economy than Barack Obama. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the 43rd president deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for America’s economic problems. That’s more than the 52 percent who feel the same way about the 44th president. The Obama campaign is taking this to heart. In his recent speeches Obama has taken to more or less asking the public for a mulligan on the economy because even after three and a half years in office, the country’s problems are, he says, Bush’s fault. This poll would seem to validate his conclusion that this is a good campaign strategy. But the idea that Bush’s numbers should give much comfort to the Democrats as President Obama tries for a second term this fall is laughable.

The first reason why the president’s re-election team shouldn’t place much faith in this poll as a guide to their campaign tactics is obvious. While Bush is still deeply unpopular, he is not on the ballot in November. Obama is, and the idea that the president can be re-elected simply because he is not Bush makes no sense.

Second, Gallup has been asking this question since Obama took office. In July 2009, it was not unreasonable that 80 percent of those questioned blamed Bush while only 32 percent blamed Obama. But during the last three years, the gap between the two has narrowed dramatically, with a majority of those polled blaming Obama for the past two years even as the number of those pinning it on Bush has declined.

Bush left office on the heels of a dramatic economic downturn in his last year in office that culminated in a Wall Street collapse during the fall of 2008 which ensured that Republican presidential nominee John McCain had no chance of succeeding him. After the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the bloody aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s second term began to appear as a failed presidency, with even supporters of the GOP thinking ill of him. The hangover from those dark days still influences polling about Bush, who registers as even more unpopular than a truly failed president like Jimmy Carter.

It is certainly possible many Americans will go on blaming Bush for our problems in the coming years, even long after both he and Obama leave office. But that says more about the way the country thinks about him than it does about the 2012 election.

Were the Republican challenging the president someone closely associated with the Bush administration, a re-election campaign focused on blaming Bush for the nation’s problems might make some sense. But Mitt Romney is not such a figure. While his foreign policy approach seems broadly similar to that of Bush and rightly so from my point of view, that cannot truly be said of much of his economic and other domestic proposals. Conservatives compared Romney to Bush and called him a “big government Republican” during the GOP primaries. But the truth is, he is far more of a fiscal hawk and presents a different take on federalism issues as his rejection of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education policies showed.

But a campaign that is still counting on animus toward George W. Bush being enough to carry Obama back to the White House this year is one that is clearly short on new ideas. More to the point, the reversion to blaming Bush is a tacit confession that nothing Obama has tried in the past three years has worked. Because his signature legislative accomplishments — ObamaCare and the billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle — are both deeply unpopular, the president has no domestic accomplishments to brag about except bogus economic statistics that ring hollow to a nation that knows how bad things still are.

The backlash against the president’s claim that the private sector is “doing just fine” shows just how badly he seems to have miscalculated the public’s mood. If he goes on spending the next five months trying to blame Bush rather than taking responsibility for his own failed administration, he will soon be joining the 43rd president on the sidelines as his successor gets a chance to fix the mess he leaves behind.

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President’s Plea for Mulligan Won’t Work

There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

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There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

The president’s advisers may be only playing the cards they have left in their hands, but even they must find it hard to believe that the public is willing to accept this sort of alibi. Fairly or unfairly, George W. Bush is still deeply unpopular and Congress is widely despised by the public. But presidents are judged on their own records, not those of their opponents. Though Democrats are still trying to convince themselves that Romney can be branded as an extremist, they know better than that by now. Indeed, for all of his shortcomings, the GOP standard bearer’s one great strength is his economic expertise. That means the president must present the voters with a more convincing rationale for a second term than a request for more time to finish the test.

The president may have inherited a difficult economy, but after a full term in office, the electorate expects the man in the White House to do more than point fingers at his predecessor or Congress. But the problem here is that the president and his inner circle are still so caught up in his historic status and the messianic hopes he engendered in his supporters that they believe the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them. Any other politician might think he needed to do more than just ask for a do-over, especially because President Obama needs to avoid a discussion of whether the American people are better off today than they were four years ago.

It is no small irony that a man who was swept into the White House by a belief that he would transcend partisanship and usher in a new age of positive hope-based politics is now left with nothing to say but to speak ill of his opponents. Though the president still has many advantages including his historic status and a very friendly mainstream media, he appears to be stuck with a message that would, were it articulated by a lesser office-holder, be instantly labeled a loser. Unless the president comes up with something better, his re-election campaign may start to resemble the economy that he failed to fix.

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Romney’s Education Course Correction

Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

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Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

The Times puts down Romney’s education ideas as a desperate attempt to create some distance between himself and President Obama that is complicated by the president’s support for some reform proposals like charter schools. His position is also described as somehow a derivative of Tea Party ideology — a pejorative in Timespeak — because it returns the GOP to a position of distrust for federal education power after Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.

But one needn’t be a Tea Party stalwart to understand how widely disliked the federal mandates created by Bush’s policies were in local school districts. Though the intent was to force improvement — a laudable goal — the imposition of an education philosophy that seemed at times solely focused on standardized tests is unpopular with both educators and parents. Though accountability is key to improving an often failing public system, Bush’s experiment seems to have proved that it cannot be accomplished by a top-down dictat coming from Washington.

Just as important, Romney’s willingness to cross a teachers union red line that, as the Times points out, Obama will not cross is no superficial difference. By seizing upon school choice as not just an education priority but also a civil rights issue, Romney is also putting Obama on the defensive.

The Times gives another airing to the tired chorus of choice critics, voiced by, among others, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Spellings who quit as a Romney adviser after he made it clear he would support voucher plans, says the idea of creating accountability via the competition that would be created by choice is “untried and untested.” But that’s what school choice opponents have been saying for a generation as they fought every attempt to try voucher plans or to curtail or end voucher experiments.

To say that advocacy of choice is an attempt to impose right-wing ideology on the education system is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. To the contrary, it is the liberal ideological opposition to empowering parents to choose their children’s schools that is the barrier to overcome here.

Moreover, choice would give minority parents whose kids are often stuck in failed inner city schools the opportunity to give them the same opportunities President Obama’s children have. It should be remembered that despite his support for public schools, Sasha and Malia Obama go to the elite Sidwell Friends School, not a local D.C. institution. Nor should it be forgotten that President Obama bears the responsibility for killing a Washington school choice scheme (initiated under President Bush) that enabled poor kids to rub shoulders with the presidential children at Sidwell.

Far from going out on a limb with the Tea Party, Romney’s course correction from Bush’s diversion from traditional Republican ideas is both good politics and good policy.

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