It's a reasonable surmise that by "the last eight years" Obama actually means "the Bush administration"--and if so, this is just the latest variant of the president's favorite excuse, "I inherited this mess!" But we'd like to mount a qualified defense of the statement as a bit of political analysis.After so much hope and expectation in the wake of his election and inauguration, Obama really isn't looking so good right now. It's a shame too, but I won't try to justify the fact that I just couldn't vote for him last year. I had my reason, but an historic election might give way eventually to an historic rejection.
Surely the president is right on at least two important points: Voter anger predated his administration, and it helped to get him elected. That said, he has the time frame wrong. Voters were not especially angry in 2004, when they re-elected President Bush, and the majority party expanded its margins in both houses of Congress. (Only four incumbent congressmen--one senator and three representatives--were ousted that year.)
The anger of the voters--or, to be more precise, of those voters who do not have strong partisan or ideological attachments, and thus can plausibly express their anger by voting either for Obama or Scott Brown--began sometime in 2005 or 2006, which is to say in Bush's second term. And as we think about Bush's second term and Obama's first year, there are actually quite a few similarities:
• Ideological overreach. Bush's proposal for partial privatization of Social Security had a lot in common with ObamaCare. It was not a response to an immediate crisis. Its passage would have realized a generations-old ambition of the president's most ideological supporters. It proposed to change a system that, in the minds of most voters, seemed to be working well. Its opponents argued persuasively (which is to say, they largely succeeded in persuading voters without an ideological ax to grind) that it was too risky.
• Detachment in the face of actual crisis. Bush had Hurricane Katrina; Obama has 10% unemployment. Neither was the president's fault, but in each case the administration failed to come across as competent and concerned.
• An unpopular war. For Bush it was Iraq, on which the public had soured by 2006; for Obama, Afghanistan, which showed signs of losing support last year. Both presidents took a political risk in stepping up the war effort, which was to their credit, if belated.
• Overconfidence. Both Bush and Obama mistook their election victories for an unqualified mandate. Both made the mistake of assuming their congressional majorities were permanent. Both have been criticized, with some justification, for stubbornness and an inability or refusal to listen. Both ended up looking weak by virtue of having overestimated their own strength.