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.)
But it's especially true because of the way that the Bush-era burdens were passed on to Obama. It's here that the new president ought to feel gratitude, of a sort, to his predecessor. He inherited hard choices, but his immediate dilemmas could have been a lot harder had things fallen out differently in the final years of the Bush Presidency.
The stimulus package, for instance, was hardly uncontroversial - but it was a considerably easier sell than the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which was shoved, with difficulty, through Congress last autumn, while Bush was still in office. If Obama's signal recession-fighting initiative had required spending seven hundred billion on Wall Street, instead of eight hundred billion dollars on Main Street (or some version thereof), his poll numbers might look somewhat different today. Instead, he came into office with the former pool of money already appropriated, which has given his Treasury Department a (relatively) free hand when it comes to the unpopular business of bailing out banks, and enabled the White House to accentuate the more populist aspects of its program.
Similarly, in foreign policy, the ugly facts on the ground in Afghanistan required a serious strategic rethink from the new administration. But the Afghan conflict has always been less controversial, and the subject of less media scrutiny, than our occupation of Iraq. And the relative calm in the latter country - and the status-of-forces agreement that the Bush Administration signed in late 2008 - allowed Obama to pledge himself to a 2010 withdrawal without generating undue controversy. Had the state of play had been reversed - had Afghanistan been relatively stable, and Iraq in its pre-surge state of chaos - Obama's initial foreign-policy choices would have been considerably more difficult, and subject to greater criticism from left and right alike.
Even in the case of interrogation policy, where Obama may pay a small political price for the decision to release the "torture memos," his path was smoothed by choices that George W. Bush had already made. The fact that the Bush Administration had acknowledged the use of waterboarding and allowed the Red Cross access to high-value detainees enabled Obama to plausibly claim that he wasn't revealing any information whose secrecy hadn't been essentially compromised already.
None of these examples are intended minimize the overall success, in political terms, of Obama's first three months in office, or the finesse with which he's handled a variety of difficult issues. But his administration has only just begun to define itself, and things will almost certainly get harder as the shadow of the Bush Administration recedes. The policy debates for which this administration will be remembered are still ahead of it, and the crises and the defining moments they generate are still to come as well. In a variety of different ways, George W. Bush helped make Barack Obama's first hundred days a ringing success. But he won't be there to help forever.
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