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.