In office, Obama extended, to an unexpected extent, Bush's policies aimed at terrorism (drone strikes, intrusive electronic surveillance). But in most ways, Obama has functioned internationally as the anti-Bush. Where Bush was quick to act, Obama has been painstaking. Where Bush was frequently accused of ignoring allies, Obama has consulted exhaustively.
Most important, where Bush launched a war of choice in Iraq, Obama has resisted not only military intervention but even lesser forms of involvement in crises such as Syria's. In his recent West Point commencement speech, Obama bookended Bush's ringing calls for spreading democracy with an alternative doctrine: "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint," Obama declared, "but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences."
(Alex Wong/Getty Images, left; Pete Souza/White House Photo, right)
That sentiment actually aligns Obama with the public's post-Iraq mood: Polls consistently find most Americans opposed to involvement in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or other hot spots now boiling over. But those blazes are simultaneously melting public confidence in Obama's management of global affairs. And in both parties, the same foreign policy leaders who judged Bush as too reckless now largely view Obama as too cautious. Thinkers in both parties echo Marshall when he says the president has overcorrected from Bush's course and "underestimated the cost of standing aloof from crises that get much worse" in places like Syria and Ukraine. In perfect symmetry, the latest Pew/CFR poll found last fall that after improving when Obama first took office, the share of Americans who believe the nation is losing respect internationally has almost spiked back to its Bush-era level.
All of the potential 2016 presidential contenders must navigate between this parallel disenchantment with both of their predecessors. Hillary Clinton began that process with her memoir Hard Choices, in which she signaled she would have been tougher than Obama on Syria and Russia — but also unambiguously renounced her support for the Iraq War. In balancing diplomacy and force, aspiration and restraint, Clinton seems determined to seek what one top Democratic security thinker calls "an intermediate point between Bush and Obama."
Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, are already channeling Ronald Reagan's arguments against Jimmy Carter by insisting that Obama has invited disorder by failing to provide "clear, decisive, and morally unambiguous American leadership." But Rubio (and like-minded Republicans) face a mountainous hurdle Reagan didn't: Many Americans now equate that brand of leadership with the discredited Iraq War. For that reason, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on Bush's National Security Council, says Republicans ultimately can't sell a more assertive approach than Obama's without reversing the widespread conclusion that Iraq was a historic blunder. "You have to make the argument that sins of omission can be as bad or worse than sins of commission," Feaver says.