Every President's early months in office are shaped by circumstances and policies inherited from his predecessor. But few presidencies have enjoyed opening acts in which the previous administration loomed as large as the Bush record has in the first three months of the Obama era. Every time a media organization promises a summing-up of "Barack Obama's First One Hundred Days," the headline should have an asterisk attached: *Brought To You By George W. Bush.
Neophyte presidents have inherited unfinished wars before: Dwight Eisenhower was elected to end the conflict in Korea; Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey while pledging to extract us from Vietnam; and even Bill Clinton was bequeathed an ongoing military operation in Somalia, which turned sour early in his presidency. They've inherited economic crises: Ronald Reagan took over amid stagflation; FDR was elected at the bottom of the Great Depression. And they've been asked to pass judgment, with a certain amount of finesse, on their predecessors' extra-legal excesses - think of Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon in the wake of Watergate, or Warren Harding undoing Woodrow Wilson's forays into wartime authoritarianism.
But Barack Obama hit the trifecta. He's inherited two ongoing military conflicts; he's responsible for managing a global financial crisis that began on his predecessor's watch; and he spent last week trying to pick his way through the political-legal minefield created by the Bush Administration's interrogation policies. As a result, across an eventful three months in office, the events of greatest consequence - the stimulus bill, the strategizing around Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing efforts to bail out and prop up America's banking and automobile industries - have all been continuations, revisions, and responses to Bush-era policy and Bush-era crises.
These various inheritances may all prove to be tremendous burdens in the long run, and the Obama White House can be forgiven if they sometimes look back with envy on Bush's own first hundred days - a moment of peace and relative economic stability, when the biggest controversy concerned arsenic levels in the drinking water. But over the short term, at least, the burdens that Bush left his successor have proven to be tremendous political assets.
This is true in the banal sense that low expectations are a gift to incoming office-holders, and succeeding an unpopular President is the best way to guarantee your (temporary) popularity. Barack Obama didn't have to turn around the unemployment numbers or get the Dow back to 14,000 (or 12,000, or 10,000 ...) in order to make Americans feel good about him, and about themselves; all he had to do was not be George W. Bush.
This is also true in the (much-discussed) sense that great crises present great opportunities, and a country reeling from a series of a body blows is more likely to go along with an ambitious new President's agenda. If you want to re-engineer the country's health care, energy, and education sectors, taking office at a moment of maximum dislocation doesn't hurt. (Especially since the one thing Bush didn't leave behind was a viable opposition party.)