David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times is smart and useful in its treatment of the similarities between the national-security policies of President Obama and those of George W. Bush after 2003 (though I think a more reasonable date to pick would be 2005), and of the differences between the Bush team and Dick Cheney during the waning years of the Bush White House.
But Brooks misses entirely why Obama has been more successful in selling those policies. It’s not just that Obama is more skillful at it, and understands public leadership better than Bush ever did. More than anything, it’s that when Bush finally moved away from the abject failures of the Bush-Cheney years, they were his failures.
Bush may have begun doing the right thing — or, at least, he may have begun doing the wrong thing less often — but he no longer had any credibility. Thus, by the time Condoleezza Rice had begun moving foreign policy in a less-insane direction, Bush had already irretrievably cast himself as a malleable tool.
Nor are the choices Obama is making today — on Guantánamo, on torture photos, on military tribunals — the sorts of things that will gain any real support on their own merits. Rather, most reasonable people see them as the least-bad decisions he could make given the “mess” that he inherited from Bush, as he put it yesterday.
Again, not an argument Bush could have made.