If Jeb Bush Isn't George W. Bush, Who Is He?

The Republican presidential hopeful set himself apart from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Rand Paul, but his differences with his brother are harder to see.

When people say that Jeb Bush has a name problem, they often mean that he has a foreign-policy problem—his association with his older brother's much-maligned stewardship of global affairs.

On Wednesday afternoon, he made his first move in trying to solve that problem. Speaking at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Bush asked to be judged on his own merits. "I love my brother, I love my dad … and I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make," he said. "But I'm my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own principles."

If Jeb Bush isn't George W. Bush, however, it's tough to tell who he is. His speech was a mix of obligatory platitudes about leadership, general statements of principles, and a stinging critique of the Obama administration—all the more stinging because it was delivered in Chicago, Obama's home. But it was notably short on specifics. That's understandable at this stage, before Bush has even officially announced he's running, but it doesn't help solve his problem.

Consider the principles Bush laid out. He said that a strong American economy is essential to maintaining peace. He insisted that America's words and actions must match. He said military spending is too low and needs to grow. He called for strengthening global alliances like NATO and regional ties to countries like Canada and Mexico. And he said America needs to be more ready to fight asymmetrical threats. He summed up his approach by calling it "liberty diplomacy," a phrase that is eerily similar to his brother's "freedom agenda."

Bush was most comfortable when criticizing the Obama White House. He said the U.S. has been a necessary leader because "our presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have accepted responsibility in the world with a faith that America is a force for good. I have doubts whether this administration believes American power is such a force."

Bush said he favored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Congress, and in general complained of chilly relationships with allies. "The great irony of the Obama presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world," Bush said. In particular, he assailed the White House's policy on Iran: "They draw red lines, then erase them. With grandiosity, they announce resets and disengage."

Lurking not far behind these questions is the memory of George W. Bush. Why, as Jeb Bush noted, does Iran now hold so much sway in Damascus, Sanaa, Baghdad, and Beirut? One major reason is that the war in Iraq created a power vacuum that empowered Tehran. How effectively did George W. Bush slow down Iranian proliferation? Not very.

All of that would be much easier to shake off if it was clearer how he differed—and if his circle of advisers wasn't so similar to George W. Bush's. (Much of that overlap is surely attributable to the small size of foreign-policy circles; Obama's administration drew heavily on Clinton aides, especially early on, but he's conducted a very different policy.) Without taking more concrete stands, however, that's hard to discern.

For example, Bush's critique of Obama's quickly abandoned red lines on Syria hits the mark. But what would Bush have done? Would he have bombed Syria? Would he have asked for congressional approval? It's not clear. He blasted the White House for not imposing greater penalties on Russia for invading Ukraine. His only prescription was to arm the government there, calling the failure to do so "feckless."

Some of the speech seemed to be aimed as much at Rand Paul, a presumed rival for the Republican nomination, from the emphasis on projecting American power abroad to his defense of the NSA's metadata-collection program. "We do protect our civil liberties, but this is a hugely important program to keep us safe," Bush said. And his call for increased military budgets seems risky, since the U.S. already spends more on the military than other developed countries, and since polls suggest Americans don't want more Pentagon spending. Of course, if Bush could deliver the 4 percent annual growth he wants—and it's unlikely—no one would object. (His suggestion that the U.S. should become one of the BRICS, an acronym to describe emerging economies, is mostly confusing.)

Perhaps most importantly, Bush's speech sets him up nicely against Hillary Clinton. For all the vagueness of his address, it still offered a clearer articulation of a worldview than the presumptive Democratic nominee has done. Bush is also somewhat insulated from any attacks on his brother's misadventures in the Middle East, since Clinton both voted for the war and helmed the Obama administration's policy in the region as secretary of state.

As a result, Bush's speech did a good job of differentiating him from Obama, Paul, and Clinton, even as it did little to fulfill its apparent intention of showing how he's different from his famous relations. But it's a long campaign, and you can't do everything in one speech.