“We must stop the terror. I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers.”
– President George W. Bush, 2002
And with those words then-President Bush ended his impromptu golf course press conference, nodded his head to the gathered press and turned in the tee-box before uttering the now infamous line – “Now watch this drive.”
Credit where credit is due; the former President is a fantastic golfer, and many members of the press could likely learn from his backswing. But it was a moment which would become emblematic of his time in office; a smirking, disconnected President, laid-back at the country club, joking in a moment which seemed to call for seriousness.
In 2005, after hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana, President Bush was trampled in the court of public opinion for his government’s reaction during the crisis. It is uncontroversial to state that the Bush administration’s response was inefficient to the point of being catastrophic. But the attacks went much deeper than that. Condemnation of the administration’s response veered towards accusations of elitism and racism. Then-Senator Barack Obama castigated President Bush for what he called “unconscionable ineptitude” and described in his typically eloquent manner a scene in which the President “only saw the people from the window of an airplane, instead of down here on the ground [in Louisiana].”
The imagery elicited by Senator Obama was clear; a President looking down from above at the underprivileged Americans who needed his help, unresponsive in their time of need.
It is a popular image of the tenure of President Bush, backed in many ways by his administration’s resume. From leading, or rather misleading, the country to war, the rise of the surveillance state, a pro-fossil fuel energy policy, and tax cuts for the top 1%, President Bush often appeared to be looking down from above, ignoring the majority of Americans.
Senator Obama rose to prominence in great part due to attacking President Bush on these issues. But while Senator Obama and President Obama turned out functionally to be very different men, President Obama and President Bush have been, in fact, surprisingly similar.
And it is a connection which goes much deeper than their shared love of golf.
Recently, the state of Louisiana again faced crisis, this time from what is being called a “1000-year rain.” Over the course of two days 2-3 feet of water fell from the sky, an estimated 7 trillion gallons, causing rivers to overflow and communities to flood. Early assessments suggest somewhere near 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, with 30,000 requiring rescue, tens of thousands in emergency shelters, and over 100,000 applying for FEMA assistance.
While this calamity was going on, President Obama was curiously, some would say shockingly, silent. In fact, he was enjoying a vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. As pictures began circulating of a smiling President Obama on the golf course while Louisiana drowned, what had been for 7+ years in the realm of the covert, became overt. That is, the dissolution of the progressive people’s champion Senator Obama.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran for President as the peace candidate. He attacked President Bush for costing the country “lives and treasure” as well as “influence and respect” with the war in Iraq. He criticized the Bush administration for using “outdated strategies” and “flawed ideologies” and other Democrats for “voting and talking and acting like George Bush Republicans.”
But as President, Obama was, regardless of how many Nobel Peace Prizes he was awarded, anything but the peacenik he had campaigned as. In fact, when he exits office, he will do so as the only President to ever be at war for every minute of his two terms. He approved military action in no less than 7 countries, overseeing a cumulative military budget that not only exceeded President Bush, but was the largest since World War Two. And in ushering in the drone attack era, authorizing twice as many of these attacks in his first year as President Bush did over his entire presidency, he brought the reality of a daily life of unimaginable terror to countless civilians across the globe. It is not preposterous to assert that President Obama is not only a more prodigious warmonger than President Bush, but than any President in history.
A consequence of President Bush’s “war on terror” was the rise of the surveillance state. As early as 2004, while campaigning for the Senate, Barack Obama chastised the Bush administration for “violating our fundamental notions of privacy.” In 2005, Senator Obama said that the Patriot Act “seriously jeopardises the rights of all Americans” and called it “just plain wrong.” Additionally, opposition to the surveillance state was a fundamental pillar of his presidential campaign. He consistently hammered the Bush administration for their “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide” and for “ignoring the law when it is convenient.”
The counter-argument to Senator Obama was provided by President Obama in 2013. After years of a presidency which had renewed and expanded the Patriot Act and other similar legislation, he proclaimed, “You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy.” Clearly the idea of “100% security” is a false ideal, but whatever the percentage of privacy allowed in President Obama’s surveillance state, it is almost assuredly less than under President Bush.
As a former oil-man with a “certain swagger,” which he claimed “in Texas is called walking,” President Bush presented an image, not to mention a policy stance, which was easy to critique as pro-fossil fuel. While running for President, Senator Obama advertised himself as the environmental candidate, the man with “an energy plan that takes on oil companies.” He attacked the Bush administration for pushing America under the “tyranny of fossil fuels” and mocked his opponent’s running mate for her “Drill baby, drill” stance.
However, once making his way into the Oval Office, President Obama would oversee an oil-boom unprecedented in American history. In his near eight years, domestic oil production increased 88%, the most under any President. He worked against fellow Democrats to lift the ban on offshore drilling – “Drill baby, drill” indeed – and rejected the premise of binding international agreements on climate change. Regardless of his seemingly endless environmental platitudes, President Obama was not only as friendly to the fossil fuel industry as President Bush, but objectively as friendly as any President in history.
There were perhaps no policies more representative of the image of President Bush wisecracking at the country club than the infamous Bush tax cuts. These were seen by many as a blatant giveaway to the country’s uber-elite, a ‘head-meet-wall’ repetition of the fallacy of trickle down economics.
As the purported progressive who would be called a socialist by these uber-elites, Senator Obama reserved a special vitriol for President Bush and these tax cuts on the campaign trail. He called them “a failure of leadership” and eviscerated the system where “George Bush hands out billions in tax cuts to the wealthiest few,” proclaiming not only that it was “not fair,” but that it “doesn’t work.”
By 2010, these tax cuts were set to sunset out of existence. Curiously, though justified as part of a broader negotiation, they were extended under the Obama administration until the end of 2012. However, as the calendar flipped to 2013, in a situation which was neither curious nor justifiable, the tax cuts were cemented so that they would no longer sunset or expire. Republican Dave Camp summarized the situation perfectly in saying, “After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts, Democrats are joining Republicans in making them permanent.” For those keen on calling President Obama a socialist, perhaps they are confused as to the meaning of the term. Or perhaps they are referring to the America described by Martin Luther King Jr. in which there is “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
When President Bush took office, it was clear the idea of America he was bringing with him; neoconservative, imperialistic, a quasi-oligarchy. President Obama took office as the great progressive hope, the man who would give rise to the left of the ‘left.’ Instead, Obama succeeded Bush much in the same way that Bill Clinton followed George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan – with continuation and escalation. For nearly eight years this happened under cover of President Obama’s undeniable magnetism and charm; a diversion of quick-wit and good looks, all humor and mic-drops.
But the situation in Louisiana and the President’s response served to pull back the curtain on this façade. As the nation looked upon a leader smiling on the golf course while his people cried for help, they began to realize that perhaps the past eight years were in many ways not all that different from the eight prior.
And the people of Louisiana? They once again looked to the skies for help, but were instead told, “Now watch this drive.”
Nigel Clarke is a writer, activist, and notorious vagabond from the frozen north.