Trials of first Bush parallel Obama

Democrats, especially those close to the White House, have been raiding the history books of late, looking for lessons that might help propel President Obama to a second term.

But one parallel in particular is too close for comfort: that of President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Fred Malek, who managed Bush’s campaign that year, agreed that the two men face comparable predicaments.

“Both were going toward an election with a weak, troubling economic picture. Both saw their approval ratings drop substantially from where they had been,” he told The Hill.

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But, he added, there were — and are — significant differences.

“Obama clearly knows we have a problem, economically, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Bush didn’t believe we had as troubled an economy as we had — and he also thought that, to the extent that government would get involved, anything it did was as likely to be wrong as right.”

Malek believes Bush was right on the substance but that his failure to show a real appreciation for the financial pain voters were experiencing cost him reelection.

He argued that if Bush had, in January of the election year, begun delivering a message of concern about the economy in general and jobs in particular — ideally on a daily basis — the outcome would have been different.

It is precisely this kind of concern that Obama is now seeking to display — notably in last week’s jobs speech and in the series of public appearances he is making to rally support for his plan.

Obama has other advantages, too. His personal likability ratings have remained resilient and he is almost universally regarded as a much more effective campaigner than the stiff and patrician Bush.

Obama “can turn on charisma like turning on a faucet,” Princeton Professor and presidential historian Fred Greenstein said. “I think we’ll see a lot more of that.”

But Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College who worked as a volunteer on Bush’s victorious 1988 campaign, suggested that Obama might not be as immune to the charge of being out of touch as his supporters would like to believe.

“Bush was vulnerable because he came from a privileged background. Obama does not come from a privileged background, but he is vulnerable to the criticism that he joined the Eastern elite,” he said.

Bush suffered for much of his political career from a perception of weakness, even being accused of being afflicted by a “wimp factor.”

The label may not adhere so easily to Obama, who still maintains at least a remnant of the glamour that attended his 2008 campaign. But liberals worry that a succession of compromises on everything from healthcare to the George W. Bush tax cuts to the debt ceiling hold dangers in this respect.

“When one makes threats, and then you don’t hold to them — well then, don’t make the damn threat in the first place,” Democratic strategist Mike Fraioli said.

The whole validity of the Bush-Obama comparison is disputed by other observers.

Greenstein noted that Bush in 1992 faced a meaningful primary challenger in the shape of Pat Buchanan and a third-party candidacy in the general election from Ross Perot. Neither scenario seems likely to be replicated next year.

Still, this leaves dangling the question of how Obama sells himself next year. The overall narrative that drove his 2008 campaign — that he was the candidate of hope and change — was immensely potent.

But an incumbent president cannot go into battle under that flag. A more modest frame seems both essential and inevitable.

In the run-up to last year’s congressional elections, Obama’s standard stump speech included an extended metaphor in which he likened the country to a car. He and his party colleagues were in the process of getting it out of a ditch into which, he said, Republicans had driven it.

It was ineffective at the time, and seems sure to be even more so if a large number of people come to believe the car has not really budged despite years of straining and heaving by the current administration.

Any repeat of job numbers similar to those for last month, which showed no net growth at all, would make such a judgment seem probable.

Obama tried out a different metaphor at the end of last month. During an appearance on  Tom Joyner’s radio show, he said the economy had suffered “a heart attack” in 2008.

“The patient lived, and the patient is getting better, but it’s getting better very slowly,” he added.

In one lesser-reported passage of last week’s speech, he sought to frame his approach to the economic travails in yet another way.

“What’s guided us from the start of this crisis hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s been a commitment to stay at it — to be persistent— to keep trying every new idea that works, and listen to every good proposal, no matter which party comes up with it.”

The problem for Obama, however, may be that this approach seems so at odds with the elevated expectations that attended his first campaign.

In 2008, at least some of his supporters did see the prospect of an Obama presidency as a silver bullet for the country’s troubles.

It might ultimately prove good enough to portray Obama as a patient “doctor” tending to the nation’s ills. Still more potent might be the argument that his Republican opponent, whoever that may be, would do no better.

But these boil down to an argument that Obama is the least poor option. As such, it is quite a comedown from the emotion-stirring candidacy of 2008.

It might still work. But, as the elder Bush’s advisers might be tempted to observe, it rather lacks “the vision thing.”