Claiming a mandate he never had, the newly reelected president foisted a bold agenda upon Congress and the public, then watched it collapse within months—a victim of scandal, cynical opponents, and his own hubris. One despairing adviser declared, “This is the end of the presidency.”
That was George W. Bush in 2005. Or was it Barack Obama this past year? Reading Peter Baker’s extraordinary account of the Bush-Cheney era, Days of Fire, I found a striking number of parallels between Bush’s fifth year in office and the atrocious first 12 months of President Obama’s second term.
My takeaway: Obama needs to shatter the cycle of dysfunction (his and history’s) or risk leaving office like Bush, unpopular and relatively unaccomplished.
Fournier then sets out nine similarities between Bush and Obama. Among them:
Assuming victory came with spoils. Bush wasted no time plotting an expansive vision for his second term, ordering speechwriters to produce an Inaugural Address that made “ending tyranny in our world” official U.S. policy. His domestic agenda included changes to Social Security, immigration, the tax code, and court-clogging litigation rules. Obama unleashed an aggressively liberal agenda in his second Inaugural Address, promising to combat climate change, loosen immigration restrictions, curb gun violence, and expand human and civil rights.
Bush and Obama made the same mistake. Both men convinced themselves that they were reelected because of their agendas, rather than because of negative campaign strategies that essentially disqualified their rivals—Democrat John Kerry and Republican Mitt Romney. In fact, many of the issues claimed as presidential mandates in 2005 and 2013 actually received relatively little attention from the candidates and from the media in 2004 and 2012. On the night of Obama’s election, I wrote:
Barack Obama won a second term but no mandate. Thanks in part to his own small-bore and brutish campaign, victory guarantees the president nothing more than the headache of building consensus in a gridlocked capital on behalf of a polarized public.
If the president begins his second term under any delusion that voters rubber-stamped his agenda on Tuesday night, he is doomed to fail.
Mandates are rarely won on election night. They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching.