Let’s try a political thought experiment. Imagine that a few months after a new president takes office, his administration approves an offshore oil well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico. It is to be run by BP, whose employees were very generous donors to the president’s campaign. The oil company airily dismisses the possibility of a catastrophic leak that might destroy the coastline. Nearly a year later, the president—to the dismay of his environmentalist supporters—says he wants to greatly expand offshore drilling. Soon after that, the BP well explodes, and oil spews into the gulf. It’s clear to everyone that the blowout is a major catastrophe, requiring a federal mobilization. But the president’s initial response is to say, in effect: do not worry, BP will pay for the cleanup. Eleven days pass before he goes to survey the scene.
Of course, this is a sketch of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the president is Barack Obama. But here is the rest of the experiment. Imagine the reaction of Washington—the media, Congress, the “national conversation”—if the president wasn’t Obama but George W. Bush. “We would be under siege,” says Dan Bartlett, who was communications director in the Bush years. “There’d be calls for special prosecutors, investigations everywhere. The focus wouldn’t be on what was happening out in the gulf—it would be on what happened in the West Wing.”
Now, I hold no brief for George Bush, and I have no desire to launch a screed against the home-field advantage that Obama still gets in the non-Murdoch media. But I do marvel at how Obama has become the hallucinatory Escher drawing of our politics. It’s hard to decide which way the stairs are built, whether they will lead to the roof or basement, and there is no flat middle floor to stand on. To those on the right, he’s evil incarnate, but on the left, he still can do no wrong, or at least nothing so wrong that they are willing to take him on. That “blowout preventer” is still working.
The stark division in politics these days is mostly over how we see the president himself. At the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans—a gathering of the conservative hard core—the ballroom was filled with a sense of apocalypse, fear, and even dread about Obama. It was emotion far beyond the mere derision that the same crowd used to heap on Bill Clinton. In that red-state world, Obama is an alien usurper, intent on imposing a socialist one-world regime. Beltway Republicans still don’t grasp the intensity of this. Only 25 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans in the latest New York Times poll, but 38 percent describe themselves as conservatives—the largest ideological slice of the electorate by far, and the conservatives’ largest share since the question was first asked in 1992.
Yet in many ways, and on many issues, Obama is pursuing, for want of a better term, Bushian policies, and in ways that would have brought the world down on W’s head. Offshore drilling is a special example, given the Bush family’s history in the business. But there are others. One is Guantánamo, which remains open; another is the Patriot Act, most of which the president supported when it was recently reauthorized. He has doubled down on Afghanistan, and there are still nearly 100,000 troops in Iraq. Despite the advent of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, Obama says that this year he will not push Congress for federal reform (which Bush, to his credit, did). Fearful of the gun lobby, the White House is even shying away from a bill, proposed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to take guns away from persons on the terror watch list. Imagine if Bush had done that!
Then there is the Democrats’ “financial reform” bill. Yes, the banks are squalling about all the new regulations it would impose, but the Obama administration is opposed to a whole series of amendments that would actually restructure the world of financial services. One proposal would have restored the old Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited banks from being stockbrokers. Another, proposed by Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, would have taken the simple approach of limiting the size of the big banks. But the Obama administration, full of Goldman Sachs alums, didn’t support the Kaufman bill, which was defeated last week. “Put it this way,” Kaufman told me before the vote. “I’m not calling the White House for help.” Of course not. There’s a Bushian socialist usurper there.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.