What Barack owes Dubya

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“This guy taught me everything.”
“This guy taught me everything.”

After Bill Clinton delivered a powerful address at the Democratic National Convention and began barnstorming the presidential campaign trail on President Barack Obama’s behalf, pundits buzzed that the former president had given the current one a big boost in his re-election effort. But there’s another former president to whom Obama owes a debt: George W. Bush. And not just as a convenient scapegoat for the country’s ills. Obama’s campaign has taken on the shape of Bush’s own reelection effort in 2004:

Comparing the 2012 US Presidential race to the 2004 edition.
Comparing the 2012 US Presidential race to the 2004 edition.
Image: Chart vis Real Clear Politics

American presidents face certain constraints in their first terms: recalcitrant legislators and unexpectedly wicked problems that bog down their campaign agendas. These constraints lead the incumbent to adopt predictable tactics: a relentlessly negative portrayal of the challenger; an emphasis on national security, where presidents have a freer hand; and reminding voters why they chose the incumbent in the first place. All these appear in both Bush’s campaign in 2004 and Obama’s this time round.

Both Obama and Bush fought for re-election while mired in the problems that defined their first terms—the Iraq war for Bush, the economic crisis for Obama—and promising to try harder. But both men were more popular than the economic and political fundamentals suggested they should be. In the most sophisticated election forecasting models we can find, it appears that Obama, like Bush, will eke out a narrow win over his challenger.

Why? According to Romney’s own strategists, his campaign’s hardest task is convincing American voters to give up on Obama after just one term. An incumbent president in the midst of tackling a national challenge—rather than riding an economic recovery, like Ronald Reagan in his 1984 reelection, or surmounting scandal, like Clinton in 1996—can bank on the emotional buy-in of the American people. The enormous approval ratings for Obama after an election he won largely on economic terms, and the huge support in the United States for the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004, make it harder for voters to accept a challenger’s argument that these are the very reasons the sitting president should be ousted.

And if Obama is reelected, we can expect his team to learn from Bush’s second-term maneuvers. Not the disastrous attempt to privatize Social Security—Obama has already learned, with his healthcare reform, the pitfalls of launching a massive, off-the-news reform project—but Bush’s pivot on the war in Iraq two years later, toward counterinsurgency and a troop surge designed to end the war as quickly as possible. Expect Obama to try to find a similar approach to the fiscal debates that will take place in 2013: A final “surge” of stimulus followed by an attempt to withdraw the troops of economic intervention at the fastest reasonable pace.

Such a plan would fit well with his administration’s long-time preference for a grand bargain on fiscal consolidation, with the priorities of leading members of Congress—Republicans especially—and with events, since several temporary fiscal measures will expire barely two months after after the election.

And what if Romney prevails? His odds and campaign are far better than those of Senator John Kerry, Bush’s challenger in 2004. But Romney would be in similar shoes to Obama’s at the beginning of his term. Obama decried many of Bush’s policies on civil liberties and national security, but soon found himself adopting them; his strategy, at least in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, is not that far removed from the final days of Bush.

Romney, if he gets into office, will find himself searching for economic policies that work, just like his own predecessor. Among other things, that will mean Fed appointees who support looser monetary policy, and a fiscal tack that encourages demand—all those tax cuts! While a Republican Congress might agitate for harsher fiscal consolidation, its members know the difference between rhetoric and reality, and how to disguise $352 million in spending cuts as $38.6 billion.

In other words, Bush isn’t a useful role model only for Obama. A President Romney would have to rely on the example of a conservative Republican who preached fiscal responsibility while promoting fiscal expansion.