Obama Repeating Bush 41's Mistake

Obama Repeating Bush 41's Mistake

By Richard Benedetto - August 23, 2011

History can provide a useful map to avoid mistakes of the past. Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning for president in 2008, often looked back at mistakes he said George W. Bush made, and vowed not to repeat them. It proved to be an effective campaign tool that helped sweep him to victory.

But now, three years later, President Obama appears to have forgotten that lesson. He is still aware of history, but only seems to apply it when he wants to chide Republicans for what he sees as their missteps. He can be visually impaired when it comes to applying them to himself. Thus, he is on the verge of repeating a big mistake that a predecessor made with disastrous results.

That predecessor was George H.W. Bush. And the mistake was that while burdened with serious unemployment problems as he faced re-election in 1992, he promised to come up with a new economic plan, not immediately, but in a few weeks. More specifically, he said in December 1991 that he would unveil his new economic blueprint in his State of the Union message in January 1992.

Sound familiar? It should. Obama, faced with more-severe economic problems than the elder Bush, now says he will outline new economic solutions in a televised speech to the nation after Labor Day, still more than two weeks away. Meanwhile, he is on vacation.

On the surface, it might appear to be a good political strategy: gear up the public for a big announcement down the road and maximize attention to it. But in practice, the strategy is fraught with dangers, as the elder Bush found to his regret.

In the period between when Bush said he would unveil a plan and the actual rollout, public expectations for a magic solution skyrocketed to heights that no plan could have reached. After all, if there was some sure-fire cure for the nation’s economic ills, wouldn’t it have been tried by then?

Nonetheless, White House aides and strategists hyped the speech. They leaked hints of what might be coming and floated trial balloons in the news media to see how they might be received. Bush’s Democratic opponents gained tons of media attention criticizing the mythical plan from every angle, even though nothing had been officially proposed.

Inevitably, Bush lost control of the narrative to his critics. So when the much-ballyhooed speech was finally delivered, it crashed of its own weight. Obama could be facing a similar fate.

Here is what James Gerstenzang wrote in the Los Angeles Times on the eve of the 1992 Bush speech. Substitute Obama’s name for Bush’s and you have a textbook case of history repeating itself.

“Facing a pivotal moment in his presidency, George Bush will deliver a State of the Union address tonight that will seek both to help restore his political stature and to convince an increasingly skeptical nation that he has a plan to end its economic trauma.

"Advisers inside and outside the White House say that the President's job, beginning with tonight's nationally televised address to Congress is to demonstrate that he comprehends the pain of the recession and has a growth package to overcome it. . . . The future of his presidency and his prospects for reelection could hang in the balance. . . . The President himself has raised expectations for the speech to unusual levels, fending off questions since December about his economic recovery plan by saying that his answers would be contained in this address to the nation.”

What did Bush propose to lift the country out of recession?

  • A moratorium on new government regulations on business.
  • A cut in the capital gains tax.
  • A tax credit for first-time home buyers. Elimination of many federal spending programs.
  • A health-insurance tax credit for poor families.

Newspaper editorials, columnists and Bush critics largely deemed them too little, too late. The Washington Post panned it as “A Lollipop Budget.”

And as we know, Bush lost his bid for a second term.

Fast-forward 19 years to Obama. His proposals are likely to be different from Bush’s. But will they be convincing enough to pass Congress and lift a depressed and skeptical American public?

Statistically, Obama’s uphill climb is steeper than Bush’s.

  • Unemployment in January 1992 was 7.3 percent and inching downward. Unemployment is currently 9.1 percent, up 0.1 percent from a month ago.
  • Bush’s recession was only about a year old. Obama’s has been around for nearly three years.
  • Bush, going into his speech, had a job approval rating of 46 percent in the Gallup Poll; Obama is at 40 percent.

Three weeks after the speech, Bush’s job approval hit a new personal low of 39 percent. If Obama is expecting a boost from his speech, history is not on his side. The only thing he has going for him right now is time. The election is still 14 months away. 

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.


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