Analysis: Team Obama preoccupied with Bush
WASHINGTON — You'd hardly know George W. Bush is spending his days relaxing down in Texas. It feels like he's still right here in Washington, given the current president's almost daily repudiation of his predecessor's policies.
It's not that you hear Barack Obama uttering Bush's name, and aides are loathe to bring up Bush directly, except in private.
But there are plenty of signs that Team Obama is more than a little preoccupied with Bush — with avoiding his mistakes, reversing his policies in a daily drumbeat of events, and with getting as much political mileage as possible from coded but clear shots at the unpopular ex-president.
In Week One, Obama overturned Bush policies on funding for international family planning groups and detaining and questioning suspected terrorists; set up strict ethics rules for his administration; declared diplomacy the new emphasis for U.S. foreign policy; and signaled he was serious about ending the war in Iraq that Bush began.
In Week Two, Obama reversed Bush by moving to allow states to establish tougher standards than the federal ones on car exhaust; pledged greater urgency for the U.S. role in Mideast peacemaking; reached out to the billion-strong Muslim community that has been wary of the U.S.; cheered Congress for nearing completion of a children's health insurance expansion that Bush vetoed twice; signed an equal pay bill previously blocked by Bush and congressional Republicans; and undid Bush administration policies he said have favored employers over workers.
Each action was accompanied by rhetoric: "a clean break," "not going to continue with a false choice between our security and our ideals," "a new era of American leadership," "days of Washington dragging its heels are over," "when I say progress, not just photo-ops but progress that is concrete," "reverse many of the policies toward organized labor that we've seen these last eight years."
What better way for Obama to demonstrate to the public that he's turning into reality that "change" theme from his campaign than to make his first couple of weeks in office nearly entirely about a sharp U-turn from all things Bush?
"Yes, Bush is unpopular. But he's unpopular because the policies weren't right," said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. "What people want a change from is not theoretical."
The page-turning started right away, with Obama's inaugural address.
He talked repeatedly of restoring this and returning to that and proclaimed "the time has come to set aside childish things" — all notably sharp words, especially considering that Bush was sitting right there in the front row. (Bush, ever the politician who appreciates skilled politics in others, whispered to Emanuel afterward that he thought the speech was great.)
Other areas where Obama has marked out new territory include establishing a large team of advisers, some of whom don't agree with him, consulting across party lines and seeking to alter the dynamics of partisanship in Washington, said Stephen J. Wayne, government professor at Georgetown University,
Across the board, Obama aides have designed the agenda "very much as a signal of change," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. Though Obama is spending a huge portion of his early days in office on the economy, as he will continue to do, these other items are just as important.
"Our strategy is not to signify change, but to bring it," he said.
Expect this strategy to continue.
Underneath the mocking in the Obama White House hallways of Bush's buttoned-up Oval Office dress code or of the way he managed his daily schedules is a determination among Obama aides to use Bush's governing experiences as both lessons learned and a foil to curry favor with the public — for as long as they can keep it up.
Obama's joint address to Congress, a State of the Union-like speech coming sometime in February, is expected to focus heavily on the theme that Obama inherited messes on many fronts and will preside over the breaking of a new dawn over Washington.
There are potential pitfalls, however.
Obama was elected as a visionary, presenting voters with a somewhat mysterious but winning alchemy of youth, fresh ideas, modernity and the promise of a new era. He risks being seen as focusing on the past more than the future, and diluting some of that chemistry.
Also, politicians who focus on not repeating someone else's missteps can blind themselves to the ones to which they actually might be more susceptible.
"Bush made a terrible mistake when he changed, or tried to change, everything Clinton had done ... because Clinton went out with relatively high popularity ratings," Wayne said.
Obama is in the opposite position, following a president with very low approval ratings and benefiting from almost any comparison. That said, Wayne warned Obama against assuming everything Bush should go out the door.
"For one thing, he may have had some good ideas," Wayne said. "For another, Obama needs to have his own ideas."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Jennifer Loven is the AP's White House correspondent.