Fournier Digs In

US President Barack Obama uses an umbrel

Like many other veterans of the Village, the former McCain supporter, Ron Fournier, has never liked the Obama era. Its implicit repudiation of so much that came before still rankles many in the capital’s permanent chattering and political class. And so Fournier’s dogged and constant attempts to drag this presidency to the low levels of its predecessor are not exactly surprising. But the latest is a classic, down to its melodramatic title: “This Is The End Of The Presidency.” The thesis is that Bush and Obama are essentially the same failures in the same way and for the same reasons. And when the analogies are laid out as an analogy as far as it can … well, it’s so preposterous and lazy an argument it beggars belief.

Here’s the gist of Fournier’s Obama-Is-Bush absurdity in its various stages. Obama, like Bush, allegedly began his second term by going far out on an ideological limb. If only Obama had listened to Fournier! The president would never have supported immigration reform (even though it was temporarily deemed even by Republicans as the sine qua non if they were ever to win the White House again). He would have presumably abandoned the healthcare reform that had already been passed and had been at the center of a furious campaign. He would have chosen to “spend [his] political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching,” as Fournier brilliantly suggested a year ago in a far-seeing column of surpassing prescience and non-falsifiable vagueness.

So he would have seized on Sandy Hook by proposing a moderate package of gun control, with overwhelming public support, right? Wrong! He shouldn’t have done that either! What should he have done? Er, hard to tell from Fournier’s column, which simply lumps together random things he doesn’t like about Obama and compares them with random things that everyone now concedes were dreadful under George W. Bush.

But what Obama shouldn’t have done is

rub Republican faces in defeat. Obama forced his rivals to accept higher taxes on the wealthy. It was his prerogative; he won the election. And he set the tone for a harsh and humiliating 2013.

Let’s just unpack that a little, shall we? If Obama had done nothing at the end of 2012, tax rates would have gone up dramatically on most Americans, with revenues increasing by almost 20 percent, as the Bush tax cuts’ self-imposed expiration finally arrived (after their massive failure to create growth and a massive success in creating unprecedented debt). Obama – in an act of overbearing hubris – only let the tax cuts expire for a tiny proportion of Americans earning more than $400,000 a year, halving the total tax increase and concentrating it only among the very rich, whose wealth and incomes had exploded since 2000. On spending, the sequester remained in place, keeping government spending at levels tighter than in almost every previous recovery’s, very much including Reagan’s. Here’s the impact on the deficit of this and other measures that Obama agreed to, from the Wall Street Journal:

deficits0413Talk about liberal over-reach! This decision to prevent much larger automatic tax rises and to reduce spending and the deficit by these amounts during a still-lingering downturn is what Fournier regards as rubbing “Republican faces in defeat.” Seriously.

But Fournier is not done yet. Both Bush and Obama had first term “successes” that turned to defeat in their second term. Bush’s first term success was – wait for it – the Iraq War, whose core casus belli Bush had lied about. And so obviously the analogy with Obama is to the ACA, a first term success some of whose provisions Obama had also lied about.

How does one note that a war that killed more than a hundred thousand people, and destroyed America’s moral credibility and global power is not really in the same universe as a health reform law, modeled on a Republican governor’s, that, so far, has done nothing but provide access to health insurance for many, forced some to buy more expensive and comprehensive coverage, frustrated millions by being launched on a faulty website, and possibly already arrested soaring healthcare costs? I guess it’s possible to see both things as equivalent – a brutal, lost war and a fledgling overhaul of the country’s healthcare system. But I think most sane people not captive to Beltway narratives would beg to differ.

But then, according to Fournier, both Bush and Obama failed to cop to errors! Yes, Obama had that brutal press conference where he owned up completely to failure on, and beat himself up again and again in apologizing. But that, according to Fournier, wasn’t any better than Bush’s flailing around in the obvious catastrophe of Iraq, keeping Rumsfeld until 2006, and dithering until the mid-terms gave him the courage to do something more tangible than wait and watch. Again: I simply beg to differ. The difference between Obama’s response to error and Bush’s is the difference between night and day.

Ditto the difference between partisan Democrats keeping after Bush in 2005 (while never voting to curtail his war and acquiescing in most of its abuses) and the near-pathological attempt to destroy Obama by Republicans in 2013. What was stunning this year was the revelation that the GOP was prepared to wreck the entire global economy and the credit of the US government, if it could get them one small political edge over a re-elected president. This negotiating tactic was a new level of extremism, as Americans rightly understood. And if Obama had won the same Republican support for healthcare reform that Bush had from Democrats on Iraq, the last five years would have been much, much different. Or was that Obama’s fault as well?

All these critical, central facts for the last five years do not fit anywhere in Fournier’s analysis. And the truth is: nothing this president has done compares even faintly with the damage wrought by his predecessor. Bush exploded the deficit in a time of growth; Obama has cut it dramatically in a time of near-depression. Bush gave us two disastrous wars; Obama has largely ended both, and set in process diplomatic initiatives in Syria, Iran and Israel-Palestine that, if successful, can defuse potential new ones. Obama has tackled a huge domestic problem – the accessibility and cost of healthcare – which Bush allowed to fester and on which the current GOP has no policies except a return to the disastrous status quo ante. Bush initiated the first ever American-run program of torture of prisoners. Obama ended it. Bush presided over the worst breach of national security since Pearl Harbor. Obama killed Osama bin Laden and decimated his forces on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush presided over the total collapse of the free market system in the US; Obama has painstakingly rebuilt it.

If you exclude all this context and focus on superficial Washington games and tropes, you can maybe concoct a theory of the past five years that makes Fournier’s analysis seem plausible. It’s just that you have to erase the actual events from your brain and your memory.

It tells you a lot about Washington that doing that will make you the editor of National Journal.