How Barack Obama Resembles George W. Bush

It's the difference between politics and governing—more a chasm than a difference, really. Often, after a vociferous campaign denouncing his predecessor's policies, a new president finds that not all of those policies are so terrible when viewed from the lonely promontory of the Oval Office. During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower criticized Truman-style containment as meek. By six months into his presidency, Ike had embraced containment as the only practical way of dealing with the Soviets. In 1992, Bill Clinton belittled George H.W. Bush for botching the economy (stupid). Soon after his inauguration Clinton lamented that he was becoming an "Eisenhower Republican" as he pushed through a tax increase and fiscal austerity. George W. Bush famously despised his predecessor and tried to be the un-Clinton in his first term, especially on foreign policy. By his second term Bush was practicing a very Clintonesque brand of centrist diplomacy around the world.

Somehow, though, people expected something different from Barack Obama. The man was a political phenomenon, after all, a historic president, and Bush had left office with historically low ratings. Obama did seek to erase Bush's legacy even faster than Bush had tried to do with Clinton, repudiating W's policies even as the latter sat on the podium listening to Obama's inaugural address. But a little more than six months in, with his approval ratings now hovering around where Bush's were in late July 2001—in the mid to high 50s—the Obama administration is beginning to resemble the Bush team in more ways than you might think. It's not just a question of converging poll numbers; we are starting to see converging policy positions as well—which is a remarkable thing to contemplate considering where the two presidents began ideologically.

Consider: Obama wants to close Gitmo but can't seem to get around to it. He's facing down North Korea and getting into bed with China. He's followed Bush's economic bailout plans pretty much move for move, except for the stimulus. Obama, like Bush, has got a vice president who's out of control and staking out a harder line, for example on Russia. (OK, Jokin' Joe Biden is not exactly Dick Cheney in outlook.) He's got a Supreme Court nominee who, according to some of her senatorial questioners, sounded unempathetically like John Roberts at her confirmation hearing. And after months of fruitlessly awaiting an answer from Tehran on engagement, Obama is now being forced to adopt an almost neocon view of Iran's protest-wracked government as illegitimate. (If he doesn't, what does that say to the protesters and their liberal supporters?) The eager young president who came into office seeking foes to engage is finding that he has almost no one to talk to except for the old stalwarts that Bush liked to meet. Oh yeah, and both Bush and Obama have dug deep fiscal deficits.

Even in areas where Obama has consciously sought to repudiate Bush, like energy and health care, the new president seems to be retreating back into a murky Bush-like world. Obama talked a lot about becoming the green president, but his climate and energy plan is beginning to resemble the giant fish in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, chewed to the bone as it makes its way through the House and Senate. Many environmentalists are disappointed. By sitting down with nearly every interest group known to man and making concessions to every stakeholder—for example, giving coal utilities hefty pollution allowances—the final bill that passed the House was seen by critics as so watered down that it might do more harm than good in some areas. Obama's climate czar, Carol Browner, once called Bush's "the worst environmental administration ever." Fair enough, and at least Obama meets with everybody while Bush spent most of his eight years catering to the energy lobby and shelving climate change. But how much difference will Obama really make in the end, even if he's starting from the left, not the right?

On financial-services reform and health care too, the administration's eagerness to make nice with critics could result in such a gutting of the final legislation that little changes. Obama is so ready to compromise that it's easy to forget what a dominant majority he has in both the House and Senate. In the health-care debate, for example, the president has signaled he's willing to give up the "public option"—a government-run rival insurance plan—even though some economists think that may be the only way to rein in the private insurance industry's runaway costs.

Bush, remember, also tried to do a lot at once, even before 9/11. In his first eight months he talked about rolling back what he saw as 50 years of liberal influence—internationalism abroad, judicial activism at home, a progressive tax code. Obama may have spread himself too thin as well, even if it's on the other side of the ideological spectrum.

There are still major differences between them, of course. Bush staked out a hard-right agenda and then tried to strong-arm the country into following it; Obama headed for the pragmatic center almost immediately upon taking office. The biggest difference of all, of course, is this: Bush, in his first six months, inherited a dominant superpower, a booming economy, a budget surplus, and a relatively peaceful world. Obama inherited the worst financial disaster since the Depression, the worst recession since World War II, two wars, and the vast fiscal hole Bush left him. So even if he meets W. somewhere in the middle, Obama may not be doing too badly.