By 2008, Bush's approval rating was microscopic, and he was considered politically toxic. The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, found himself in the unique position of running a general-election presidential campaign that took aim at his own party's incumbent. The Democratic nominee, Senator Obama, ran against the Bush administration virtually across the board, including on national security.
When the Obama administration took office after a resounding electoral victory, the new president trumpeted the new direction he would take on terrorism and foreign affairs. His efforts appeared so derogatory toward the Bush administration's approach that they prompted Juan Zarate, President Bush's counterterrorism advisor, to tell NPR, "I don't think the administration has helped themselves, or frankly helped the country, by trying so hard to paint their policies as being so radically different from the past. They're not, and for the sake of the country they shouldn't be."
Zarate was right. Although Obama swore on the campaign trail that his national security efforts would differ markedly from those of his predecessor, Obama's counterterrorism policies have largely been a continuation of those forged during the last two years of the Bush administration. Some conservative pundits still attempt to show Obama's overarching weakness on national security, and a select few portray him as dangerous, but there is a growing awareness among analysts of the continuity between Bush and Obama on counterterrorism policy.
Indeed, national security was marginal as an issue in the 2010 midterm election. One Republican pollster noted during that campaign that the economy "dwarfs everything. It's sort of like looking at a house and there's all these things that need repair, but if the roof's on fire, all these things are secondary. Jobs and the economy are the equivalent of the fire on the roof."
From 2002 through 2008, the politicians and parties that benefited from their politicization of terrorism and national security got a number of significant substantive points wrong. In 2002, the Republicans were wrong to politicize the issue in the first place. Moreover, the midterm results were viewed by many as a mandate for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 2004, President Bush's winning campaign insisted that the country was safer due to this invasion, and that the administration would change neither its decision to go to war nor its execution of the conflict if given the opportunity. Not only did the invasion not make the United States safer, but the situation in Iraq would not improve until the administration dramatically changed its approach.
The Democrats finally gained some advantage from Bush's foreign policy failures in the 2006 election, but they interpreted the vote as a mandate to get out of Iraq while it was mired in civil war and al Qaeda enjoyed a significant foothold. They used the 2006 results as a bludgeon with which to attack the surge that would help to reverse that dangerous situation. And in 2008, Obama exaggerated the aspects of Bush's counterterrorism policies that should be changed, even making campaign promises that he couldn't keep.
The good news is that because of the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations on terrorism and national security, as well as waning voter interest, it may be possible to eliminate some of the harmful partisanship that has produced a suboptimal policy. Though doing so will not be easy, it would be one of the most productive accomplishments that could enhance America's security.
Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP