George W. Bush became wildly unpopular because he tried to politicize everything. He wanted loyal, true-believing cronies in positions of power. Most of these folks weren’t competent. So lots of things — from Iraq to the Justice Department to New Orleans — were ruined. People noticed; Bush left office with an approval rating of only 22 percent.
Barack Obama also tries to politicize a great many things. He does so differently: he plays politics by compromising on everything, so that he can appear to be reasonable and the adult in the room. He scaled back economic stimulus in early 2009 because he wanted a bipartisan deal (which he didn’t get anyhow). Because his political calculation caused him to propose an insufficient stimulus, the economy didn’t create enough jobs. Lo and behold, Democrats became less popular and lost control of the House in 2010.
Now, he’s focused like a laser on the deficit — even though we’re mired in a severe recession — because he thinks that’s what swing voters want. Read this new expose from Elizabeth Drew:
It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.
Although the debt-ceiling negotiations are a mess, Obama’s political calculus will likely lead to fiscal policies that take trillions out of the economy, stifling the already anemic recovery. The awful economy, of course, will be what voters think about in 2012, not his “adult-like” attempt to reduce the deficit the year before.
The moral of the story — for George W. Bush, and now for Barack Obama — is that policy outcomes matter. Not just for their own sake, but also for political gain. Those who shun policy for politics tend to fail at both.