How much can we blame a President?
When each new President takes office, he is allowed something of a grace period in which he may say, effectively, “I’m simply cleaning up the other guy’s mess; soon I’ll get to the good work on my own agenda.”
This is all good and fine for a while, but sooner or later his partisan opponents in particular will begin to demand an end to these claims. With Obama, of course, we have long since passed that point — that the President puts too much responsibility for the economy on Dubya is a standard Republican talking point. Obama apparently disagrees, and it may be an effective election strategy:
In a big campaign speech in Ohio this week, President Obama made perhaps his most focused case that the economy is still struggling because he inherited a giant mess created by eight years of Republican policies. And according to a new Gallup poll , Americans don’t necessarily disagree: Three and a half years after George W. Bush left office, 68 percent of Americans still blame our 43rd president a “great deal” or a “moderate amount” for the lousy economy. The “blame Bush” crowd includes 67 percent of independents and, surprisingly, 49 percent of Republicans. What’s more, those numbers have remained relatively static since August 2010. Mitt Romney is running hard against Obama’s economic record, but could Obama keep his job by running against Bush’s?
Those are fascinating stats, and while I’m no fan of Obama’s economic strategies, it’s good to see that Republicans are beginning to accept that Bush wasn’t so hot either.
I think the bigger issue, however, is this: How much responsibility is it actually fair to attribute to any President for the policies and changes in the country which occur while they’re in office? Typically supporters of any candidate are eager to give their guy credit for all the good stuff while just as eagerly asserting that all the bad stuff is out of his control. Whatever we conclude about the President’s responsibility, I’m pretty sure that conclusion is wrong.
Writing for the Independent Institute a few days ago, Anthony Gregory pointed out a key distinction (bolded below) in fairly assigning responsibility:
Admittedly, the president’s role is exaggerated in many areas. Commentators often wrongly attribute general moral, cultural, economic, and international trends to the president. [Yet there are many areas in which] the president enjoys wide latitude.
Often, the best a president can do is to stop doing harm. In his fourth year in office, Obama bears much if not total responsibility for most of what his military and law enforcement agencies do. On these issues in particular, the buck stops with him. If Obama’s supporters refuse to hold Obama accountable, they have no one to blame but themselves for America’s perpetual wars at home and abroad.
In other words: In foreign policy and administrative issues, Obama can’t really blame intractable congressional Republicans if his supporters don’t get what they expected or wanted. He can bring the troops home, and he can simply refuse to enforce failed and racist policies like the War on Drugs. Gregory specifies:
This is, after all, the president who campaigned on closing Guantánamo, only to keep it open years after Republicans like Condoleezza Rice and Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it should be closed.This is the president who escalated drone bombings in Pakistan, and bombed Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. This is the president who promised accountability and the rule of law, only to turn around and totally whitewash and immunizethe previous administration for torturing war prisoners. This is the president who pledged to respect habeas corpus, only to fight the federal courts at every turn to shield presidential power, and who formalized his own authority to target American citizens for summary execution without judicial due process.
President Obama has accelerated the deportation of immigrants. He has vastly expanded the crusade against drugs—signing off on increased drug task force spending, ramping up raids of medical marijuana facilities by a factor of eight contrary to repeated promises he would stop them, allegedly arming Mexican drug cartels in a bizarre drug war strategy, making destruction of the opium trade central to his Afghanistan policy, and sending 200 Marines to Guatemala to combat trafficking.
Gitmo, drone bombings, pardons for Bush-era torturers, assassinations, deportation, the drug war — all of this is directly under Obama’s control in his capacity as head of the Executive Branch. To deny that he is capable of changing the course of these policies is an absurd claim which can only be accepted by the most devoted, blind partisans.
Bush deserves plenty of blame for his time in office, which Gregory ably describes as well. But Obama deserves blame too.
And, whomever we support, blame is best served realistically and equitably wherever it’s due.
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- thepoliticalbreakdown said: I would take this one step further and stop blaming just the current president (regardless of his party) when things don’t get some. Put pressure on our gridlocked, polarized Congress to change its ways, then things might get done.
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