Why Obamacare May Be Obama's Katrina, Iraq

The crises don't compare, but their causes and effects certainly do.

President George W. Bush and president-elect Barack Obama walk through the colonnade November 10, 2008 to the Oval Office at the White House. (National Journal)

We've been measuring presidents against each other since John Adams failed in comparison with the sainted George Washington. Historical analogues are never perfect — no two presidents or presidential circumstances are exactly the same — but they are instructive, which is why most leaders are students of history.

Imperfect but instructive — so, too, are comparisons between Presidents Bush and Obama, and specifically, the causes and effects of their political crises, Katrina and Iraq for No. 43, Obamacare for No. 44.

In a well-argued analysis last week, Michael Shear of The New York Times wrote: "The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency."

Many others have made the same point (including me here and here). "There's a qualitative difference between people dying in New Orleans and people not able to get health care," said former Bush strategist and pollster Matthew Dowd on ABC's This Week. "But from a political standpoint, it's eerily similar to President Bush in the fall of 2005."

Dowd makes two important points. First, there is obviously no ("qualitative") comparison between the crises. Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,833 people and damaged more than $80 billion worth of property. It was an act of God, not a result of government incompetence toward the noble goal of expanding health insurance. The Iraq War claimed as many as 500,000 lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It was fought under false pretenses: the Bush's administration's claims that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.

Second, there are inescapable similarities in the ways that Bush and Obama handled their crises, and those actions changed the public's view of their presidencies. Specifically:

  • Their mismanagement raised questions about competence, compounded by deceptive and tone-deaf responses that undermined their credibility.
  • The crises came after a series of unrelated events that had already caused doubt among voters about the presidents. To borrow a cliché, Katrina was the last straw.
  • Their personal and job-approval ratings tanked.
  • Their dwindling political capital was squandered by defensive, insular advisers who refused to recognize the dangers.
  • They both ran reelection campaigns without a positive forward-looking message and made the races primarily about their opponent. That left them little political capital going into their second term.

Bush never recovered. Obama might still have time to learn history's hard lessons.

In a book I cowrote with Dowd and Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik, we argued: "This we learned from President Bush in 2005: When a politician loses his credibility, voters start to question his other values and eventually start looking at his policies differently. In politics, this can be doom."

Sound familiar? So too will these opening paragraphs from stories I wrote for the Associated Press during the Bush presidency:

Sept. 2, 2005: WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent's identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn't match the public's view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.

Sept. 12, 2005: WASHINGTON (AP) -- The fatally slow response to Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wave of anger that could transform people's expectations of government, the qualities they seek in political leaders and their views of America's class and racial divides. It's a huge opportunity that neither party seems poised to exploit.

Nov. 9, 2005: WASHINGTON (AP) -- Iraq, Katrina, CIA leak, Harriet Miers. Things couldn't possibly get any worse for President Bush. Wait, they just did.

March 3, 2006: WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush vowed, "We are fully prepared." Mike Brown barked orders. Weather experts warned of a killer storm. The behind-the-scenes drama, captured on videotape as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, confirmed Americans' suspicions of government leaders: They can run a good meeting, but little else.

Or this one from January 2007 after I had left AP: "President Bush has lost the greatest commodity a president can possess: The public's trust. Scattered with Katrina's winds and buried in the bloody battlefields of Iraq, his credibility is likely gone forever, which means there will be no political comeback for Bush. His die is cast."

The Bush White House angrily objected to these and other stories that pounced on his failures and consequences. Most conservative writers and some media critics objected to the stories, which were part of the AP's attempt to move away from false-equivalence analyses to edgy pieces of "accountability journalism."

The Obama White House is angry and, like the Bush team in 2005, mocking and punishing reporters who dare to question their tactics or their boss. Obama has his own hosanna chorus in the media to ridicule any comparisons — just as Bush did.

Once again, a man twice elected to change the culture of Washington is a captive of it. Wait ... you could say the same of Bush.

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