Washington In a conversation the other day with a White House official, I heard something I’d never expected from an employee of Barack Obama’s. “I wish,” he said, “George Bush would speak up a little more.”
In the five months since he left the presidency, Bush has immersed himself in his memoir. He has stayed home in Texas and rarely spoken publicly. The result has been that he has largely disappeared from the news and — the point the Obama aide was making — pretty much has been forgotten.
Bush’s silence has made it harder for Obama to keep the public focused on Bush as being responsible for our present difficulties — the weak economy, the unsettled wars, the scandals of Guantanamo and the detainee program.
It is not for lack of trying. Obama regularly reminds the public in his own speeches and news conferences of all the problems he inherited from his predecessor. But to reporters covering the White House, those reminders have become familiar boilerplate. And since Bush won’t fight back, they rarely get much coverage.
Five months into his tenure, Obama has become the only president the American people think about. And a series of polls last week showed that when Americans think about Obama, they are becoming increasingly critical.
The Wall Street Journal/NBC, The New York Times-CBS and the Pew Research Center polls all reported similar findings. Barack Obama retains his personal popularity, with overall job approval scores upward of 60 percent. But when asked about specific important policies of the administration, the scores are much lower — or even negative.
In Andrew Kohut’s survey for Pew, the share of voters applauding Obama’s handling of the economy declined from 60 percent in April to 52 percent now. He barely broke even on his approach to the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts, with 47 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. By a 22-point margin, those polled disagree with spending billions to keep the companies operating.
For weeks, polls have consistently registered opposition to Obama’s decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. His speech blaming Bush for opening the prison apparently did little to ease the political fallout.
The New York Times-CBS poll had more worrisome news. As the size of the budget deficits has become more evident, concerns about the budget policies of the administration have grown. By a 2-1 margin, this survey found that voters answered negatively when asked if Obama has developed a clear plan for dealing with the deficit. A 52 percent to 41 percent majority rejected the Obama priority for stimulating the economy at the cost of higher deficits. They said the focus should be on reducing the deficit.
Health care, Obama’s latest and biggest fight, will provide another test of his leadership, with indications in several polls that Republicans and Democrats are taking opposing stands, despite the president’s calls for a bipartisan bill.
Until Iran exploded in popular protest against what appears to have been a rigged presidential election, there was broad approval here at home for Obama’s handling of foreign policy. But the White House expects more criticism of the troop buildup in Afghanistan, with the summer likely to produce more fighting and higher casualties.
In sum, Obama has probably extracted most of the political benefit available from the high pitch of activity at home and abroad that has marked the early months of his presidency. Now people are starting to take a more critical look at the decisions he has made. And they are waiting, with varying degrees of patience, to see how the big policy gambles of the early days play out.
Obama is fortunate that the public does not see a clear alternative coming from congressional Republicans. But he misses being compared on a daily basis with his predecessor. Thus, the irony of Obama people saying, “bring back Bush.”