The Mysterious ‘Special Risks’ of the Obama Presidency

A Washington Post piece this weekend by Scott Wilson (3/14/09) centered around this “gotcha”:

In his inaugural address, President Obama proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

It hasn’t taken long for the recriminations to return–or for the Obama administration to begin talking about the unwelcome “inheritance” of its predecessor.

Over the past month, Obama has reminded the public at every turn that he is facing problems “inherited” from the Bush administration, using increasingly bracing language to describe the challenges his administration is up against.

The vapidity of this observation has been noted by, among others, Steve Benen of Political Animal (3/14/09):

The problem, if I’m reading the article right, isn’t that the president is saying anything untrue. Rather, we’re dealing with a dynamic in which one president hands off a catastrophe — several catastrophes, actually — to a successor, and the successor isn’t supposed to talk about it.

It’s worth looking at Wilson’s logic as to why Obama shouldn’t be pointing out that he inherited an economic disaster–even though he did. Wilson wrote:

Upon entering the White House in 2001, Bush pinned the lackluster economy on his predecessor, using the “Clinton recession” to successfully argue in favor of tax cuts that won some Democratic support. But for Obama, who built his candidacy on a promise to rise above Washington’s divisive partisan traditions–winning over many independent voters and moderate Republicans in the process–blaming his predecessor holds special risks.

He will need support beyond his Democratic base as he begins lobbying for his $3.6 trillion budget, which proposes sweeping changes in health care, the energy sector and the public education system. The president did not receive a single House Republican vote for his stimulus plan, prompting some in his administration to view his bipartisan outreach efforts as having little hope of success.

And Republicans have seemed only more emboldened in their rhetoric. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), for example, recently called the borrowing needed to fund the president’s economic recovery plans “generational theft.”

So when George W. Bush blamed Bill Clinton for his economic situation, that successfully gained him Democratic support for his policies. But for Obama, blaming his predecessor has “special risks”…because he needs Republican support for his policies. If you can’t see why criticizing the previous president should gain support for Bush but cost Obama support, then I’m afraid you don’t have what it takes to be a big-league Washington journalist.

I suppose you could read Wilson as saying that the special risks come because Obama promised to rise above Washington’s divisive partisan traditions–just like Bush did. Remember “I’m a uniter, not a divider?” Or maybe it was the fact that Obama won a majority of the popular vote–i.e., he won over “many independent voters and moderate Republicans”–that puts his presidency at “special risk.”

Update: Steve Benen’s first name corrected.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.