Is Obama better than Bush? The same? Worse? Given that quite a few historians have already rated Bush II as the worst president ever, it’d take a tall order to actually hit lower than Dubya. I honestly don’t think Obama is worse than Bush. But is he actually better?
First of all, Obama is a much better public speaker, with or without a teleprompter. Hands down, Obama can win a diction and rhetoric trophy over Bush II. Obama’s abilities as a public speaker do help a great deal in maintaining his public image, no question about that. But we have to go beyond that public image to arrive at the reality of his presidency.
Obama continued the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay. To me, that’s on the level of “same as.” Obama changed a Bush policy on abortions, but it wasn’t a far-reaching one. I don’t see it as any real difference. Personally, I do not want anyone to have an abortion, but I also know that the issue is by no means resolved as neatly as that in the USA. It seems as though Presidents will give us six of one and a half dozen of the other when it comes to abortion policy. Looking over the rest of Obama’s policies during his presidency, I’m not seeing many that jump out… until…
Ah! Health care reform! I’ll say this about that: at least it wasn’t an invasion of Afghanistan to help out buddies over at Chevron. Until the Taliban refused to concede on the trans-Afghan pipeline, they were solid citizens providing a firm hand on the government of Afghanistan. Once the negotiations broke down, the USA prepared to go into Afghanistan and secure enough real estate to get that pipeline built. Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, it’s had record opium harvests, with last year’s harvest being off due to adverse weather. The drug lords control large forces in Afghanistan that shift from one side to the other, depending on local political realities. One of Bush’s gravest errors as a president was the invasion of Afghanistan, followed by his invasion of Iraq.
But Obama has maintained operations in Afghanistan and expanded US involvement to include Libya and Syria, with Iran not too far off. These are mistakes, as well. We have no plan of ending the conflict in Afghanistan that does not involve letting drug lords have close to free run of the country. Iraq remains a mess, but now it has fewer US troops getting in the way of the bullets: Afghanistan will be the same once the USA reduces its presence there.
The world likes Obama more than they do Bush, but the armed forces dislike Obama more than they did Bush. As far as foreign policy goes, I’m going to say Obama’s about the same as Bush. Bin Laden died on Obama’s watch, but Obama didn’t pull the trigger. Neither did George “Mission Accomplished” Bush, for that matter.
So what about that health care? I think it was a wasted opportunity. Obama’s team caved in to the big donors, the insurance, pharmaceutical, and health corporations. Those guys produced the final bill, not Obama. People blame him for it, but they fail to account for the fact that it’s the richest of the rich that ultimately gave us the health care regime that exists now. It was impossible under Bush, and it’s more confusing after Obama. Again, a wash.
How about the economy? OK, Bush II picked up a national debt at the start of 2001 at just over or around $5.8 trillion, according to the US Treasury Department. That page shows the debt on 9/30, so there’s about a third of a year between that figure and Inauguration Day. The spending and tax cuts of the Bush II era took the US debt to $10.0 trillion by 9/30/2008, but I remember checking the debt on the day Obama took office and it was just under double what it was when Bush took office, already over $11 trillion.
$3.2 trillion of Bush’s debt increase was spread over 6 years. After 9/30/2007, another pair of trillions got added due to the collapse in the US economy. That’s a very rapid increase in a very short time, and goes right along with Reinhart and Rogoff’s research that shows in the event of an asset-devaluation bubble, the national debt for a country increases roughly 80% over the course of the crisis. The debt will hit $18-$20 trillion before the USA is done with this economic malaise, barring a partisan effort to thwart the tides of history.
That does bring me to the efforts to curtail the debt: yes, that should be done. Just not now. The economy needs to run its course, and ordering it to not get any more debt is like trying to yell at a tidal wave about to obliterate you that you don’t approve of that sort of thing. The process will take its course and it’s best to get out of the way so you’re alive to clean up afterward. It’s a shame that the Bush administration, with Congress, increased the debt so much, but now that we’re in the current mess, we have to draw the line at a level trillions higher than where the debt is now before we can start to roll it back.
So back to the economy: neither Bush nor Obama held the financial elites responsible for the economic catastrophe they created. Both did not press Congress for more effective reform of the financial sector and neither has produced better enforcement of existing regulations. Dodd-Frank is barely a beginning to restoring order in the financial sector. Both presidents have been unable and/or unwilling to tell the big boys on Wall Street to quit gaming the US economy, so they’re roughly the same on the matter of the economy.
One should note why deficits rise so dramatically in times of financial crisis. Basically, people lose their jobs so they have greater demand on government aid. Also, with no jobs, they pay less taxes on their income, their incomes being zero. Spending goes up and revenue goes down and the deficit gap widens. This is why Keynes said it was a good idea for governments to spend more in hard times. Keynes also said governments should pay off those debts in good times, a point that both Democrats and Republican presidents and Congresses have ignored to our current detriment.
I’ve heard a comparison of Bush’s average unemployment to Obama’s, and that is statistical deviltry. The US economy lost 2.6 million jobs in all of 2008, when the financial crisis began. Bush could not turn back that tide, and neither could Obama. Although unemployment is down now from its high of 10.1% (and no, that’s not counting the discouraged workers… I’m leaving them out because the numbers are still bad without them…), unemployment is about to get much worse as the banking crisis in Europe continues to unwind, affecting banks in the USA. We’re going back to recession and this time around may look a lot like 1931’s slide into 1932. Obama can’t do much about that: if Congress – Tea Partiers in particular – tie his hands with fiscal policy, we’re sunk. We’re already at the limits of the effectiveness of monetary policy, so there’s nothing left to do but watch this economic thing take a deeper toll on the USA as it proceeds to the endgame.
Obama has a 26% current approval rating on his handling of the economy, which puts him in the ballpark with Bush’s overall rating, but still above it. Given that the economy is going to get much worse, I think that number is going to go much lower. One should note, however, that Bush’s numbers went down from a 90%+ approval rating after 9/11/2001, with spikes at the Iraq War and Saddam Hussein’s capture. Once the economic crisis started, Bush’s ratings were firmly in the toilet, as well. Obama’s current overall approval rating is still around 42%, which is about right for a president coming to the end of his second term. He’ll have a spike around re-election time unless the economy is in a major depression.
So what about the loss of the US’ credit rating? Honestly, I don’t get these ratings agencies. None of them properly rated the CDS and MBS stuff flying around. They pocketed fat commissions to rate that garbage AAA and ignored the fundamental risks of those assets. That led to the collapse of the economy. Now the USA has a AA+ rating, but France still has a AAA? There are other corporations, municipalities, and nations with worse economies than the USA that still enjoy a AAA rating, so go figure. And is it Obama’s fault that the downgrade happened? When I read the downgrade report, it blamed Congress and the President collectively. The Tea Party was the most belligerent faction of Congress, threatening even their own party discipline over the debt ceiling deal. Obama had nothing to do with the chaos in the GOP’s ranks.
Obama’s even taking heat over gas prices. Yes, they’ve spiked recently, but they’re not as high as they were at the tail end of the Bush administration. Gas Buddy shows a 6-year price history, and one can see the volatility in gas prices. Economic uncertainty goes with spikes in prices, except for that sharp dip that started in September 2008.
That dip went with the period between the bailout and the first wave of quantitative easing. That dip was not a good thing: it was deflation entering the US economy. Deflation destroys economies in its path. Bernanke, Bush, and Obama did all that they could to head off deflation. Yes, that may produce an inflationary situation, and I’ll be thankful for that if it happens. Because if we have deflation, we’re going to have the Second Great Depression on our hands.
Whose fault will that be? We’ll try to blame a president, but it’ll really be the fault of the financial elites that gamed the economy for their benefit and our ruin. They benefit when we try and prove one president was better than another, when really both were about the same: pawns in their hands.