Obama’s 2010 Election Strategy: Campaign Against George Bush

According to The Politico, President Obama plans to counter the rising Republican tide by campaigning against a man who hasn’t held elective office for nearly a year and a half:

President Barack Obama is trying to ride the wave of anti-incumbency by taking on an unpopular politician steeped in the partisan ways of Washington.

It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush left office 16 months ago.

The White House’s mid-term election strategy is becoming clear — pit the Democrats of 2010 against the Republicans circa 2006, 2008 and 2009, including Bush.

It’s a lot to ask an angry, finicky electorate to sort out. And even if Obama can rightfully make the case that the economy took a turn for the worse under Bush’s watch, he’s already made it – in 2008 and repeatedly in 2009.

It’s not clear that voters still want to hear it.

“If you’re the leader of a large corporation and you’re in power for a year and a half and you start off a meeting with your shareholders by blaming your predecessor, that wouldn’t go over very well,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. “This is a very weak approach. … And I can’t imagine it having an impact on these very swing voters.”


The first glimmers of Obama’s 2010 message came in New York last week where he rallied the party faithful with a charge that Republicans drove the economy into a ditch, obstructed Democrats’ efforts to pull it out and now want back the keys. “Sounds like he wants to run against George Bush one more time, doesn’t it?” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quipped when shown the clip on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Obama cranked up his indictment of the GOP in Ohio this week, criticizing “the ‘just say no’ crowd” and the Republicans’ “selective memory” of the economy in January 2009.

The message is layered. A shot at Bush (without mentioning his name.) A jab at congressional Republicans (although rarely saying “Republicans.”) A defense of the actions he’s taken so far.

It’s a striking approach for a president who often talks of looking forward not backward. But Obama’s aides believe that explaining how the economic crisis occurred and what happened since is a fair argument to make and an important contrast to draw.

Perhaps, and I’m hardly going to sit here and defend the record of George W. Bush, or of the Congressional Republicans that held power up until 2006, but I’ve got to question the wisdom of a campaign strategy that ignores the fact that you’ve been in office for nearly two years and instead asks voters to focus their attention on someone who retired to Texas in January 2009.

The strategy isn’t without historic precedent, of course. Democrats used the public’s memory of Herbert Hoover as a whipping boy for decades, and Republicans have done the same with Jimmy Carter. Even in the late 19th Century, Republicans would refer to Democrats’ ties to the slaveholding South for decades after the Civil War ended.

In the end, though, it seems unlikely that Obama’s strategy will work this year:

“If you’re the leader of a large corporation and you’re in power for a year and a half and you start off a meeting with your shareholders by blaming your predecessor, that wouldn’t go over very well,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. “This is a very weak approach. … And I can’t imagine it having an impact on these very swing voters.”

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    You know, James had a meme here a while back, that Obama was running “Bush’s third term.” He has diverged on some issues, of course, but on some of the things “new Republicans” would attack him on, he is extending Bush policies.

    I doubt Obama literally intends to run against Bush, but I some positioning that way could be a spoiler. Look at this graph, for instance. They had to draw the Obama line horizontally to make the point.

    Yeah, given that graph, “running against Bush” does challenge new Republican BS about “Obama’s debt.”

    And of course Republicans would want to say “forget about Bush, it’s all on Obama” … contrary to facts.

  2. Gerry W. says:

    Unfortunately, I will never forget the eight years of total incompetency, ignorance and arrogance, and failed ideologies. It was tax cuts, stay the course, deficits and debt, our jobs going overseas, our money going to Iraq, and the neglect of our infrastructure. Laissez-faire at its best. It will take 10 to 20 years to clean up the Bush mess.

    And while people on the right blame Carter. It actually was LBJ who created the “guns and butter” that created the inflation of the 70’s. We were doing good, or at least the economy was manageable until Bush came in and did his “guns and butter.” History repeats itself and we will suffer for it. LBJ-inflation, Bush-deficits and debt.

  3. What if he loses? A third term for Bush?

    Gerry, thank for a good morning chuckle.

  4. Herb says:

    I don’t know…

    It becomes clear on page 2 that the “running against Bush” thing is part of an effort to tie current Republicans to past Republican policies. That’s not such a bad strategy, is it?

    After all, look at all the Republicans running against TARP. Essentially, they’re doing the same thing…only they’re careful not to mention Bush by name.

  5. Tano says:

    So where is the “running against Bush”?

    You seem to be basing your post entirely on the Politico piece, and the Politico piece seems to base the “running against Bush” charge entirely on one comment that Mitch McConnell made in response to Obama.

    And it was a pretty lame response. Obama mocked the Republicans for wanting the keys to the car that they drove into the ditch. Yes, that refers to their previous performance, but the heart of the charge is that they have nothing new to offer and have not learned from their mistakes.

    The secondary “evidence’ seems to be that Obama characterizes them as the “just say no” crowd. But how is this an example of running against Bush? Its a charge against the incumbent Republicans in Congress – the very people that the Dems are, in fact, running against.

    There seems to be a whole lot of nothin’ to this post – just trying to make a particular criticism of Obama without any real reason to support it.

  6. just me says:

    I think the democrats have the added problem that they have essentially been in control of congress for 4 years, because they regained control in 2006.

    Running against Bush isn’t going to work-it might work to some degree for 2010, but at some point Obama has to own what is going on in Washington and it won’t last until 2012.

    I almost think for Obama the best thing that could happen to him would be for the GOP to win at least one house of congress, because then he probably could find a target with some power to blame.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    …but at some point Obama has to own what is going on in Washington and it won’t last until 2012.

    Perhaps he’s hoping that by 2012, he’ll have Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney or even Newt Gingrich to run against…I’m sure he likes his odds under those circumstances…

  8. Juneau: says:

    Yeah, given that graph, “running against Bush” does challenge new Republican BS about “Obama’s debt.”

    And of course Republicans would want to say “forget about Bush, it’s all on Obama” … contrary to facts.

    Obama couldn’t govern his way out of a wet paper sack. I’m getting overwhelmed by boredom with the left saying this is Bush’s recession and debt. Please, can anyone do more than simply state this as established fact, which it is not, and give me specific decisions made by Bush that led to the housing crisis, current unemployment rates, and the last budget which put us another 1.X trillion in debt?

    The only thing that I can think of is in the housing category, where Bush didn’t override Dodd and Frank by insisting that the CRA criteria be tightened down. Is there something else that I am not aware of? ‘Cause that was a Democrat thing and, if you want to lay that on Bush just because he was the head man in charge – then you have to say that the current situation is Obama’s because he is the man in charge right now.

  9. Gerry W. says:

    There were many problems that piled up under Bush. Some not his fault and others ignored. Bush came into office with a surplus or near surplus depending what numbers you look at. Gingrich said there was a surplus. So the economy, while it had problems, was still manageable. Bush wanted his tax cuts or his trickle down theory. Now, maybe in a world of our own, this would make sense. But even under Reagan deficits went up. We realize putting money in the hands of people that they can make the best choice. However, that choice is increasingly more limited. You buy a product and half the products are Chinese. So this thinking of buying into the economy, looses value. If the economy was stimulated, then why were more and more of our manufacturing jobs were going overseas? At some point, do we recognize globalization? At some point do we realize that the middle class was not moving forward?http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/01/AR2010010101196.html?wprss=rss_print

    What we saw was years of increasing deficits and debt and Bush was saying “stay the course” when actually conditions were getting worse. If you think about it. Just having tax cuts does not manage anything. We have globalization and that is 2 billion cheap laborers who want our jobs. We got the tax cuts but we lost our jobs. Bush also pulled a “guns and butter” economics. You cannot spend money (tax cuts, medicare) and have a war at the same time. The last time this happened was with LBJ and we had inflation after that. So with Bush it was deficits and debt. So we saw our jobs leave the country, our money go to Iraq, and we also saw the neglect of our infrastructure. Now, I don’t know how you run a country like that. The economy was left a shambles, and the Iraq war was a quagmire, so warned about years ago. And it took the Iraq Study Group and others to try to fix the war and we are still trying to fix that. The wars was not paid for and he never had enough troops.

    With globalization and the loss of jobs, cities and states are struggling to find jobs. So today they resort to extension of unemployment benefits, cash for clunkers, tax credits to “keep” jobs, and casinos for every state. Cities and states cannot compete with 2 billion cheap laborers. In the end, instead of ignoring our problems, we have to deal with our problems. And one problem is globalization and you have to invest in your country, in your people, and in the future. Which is something republicans are not willing to do. So in the end, we are losing the middle class. This will be a country of rich and poor, unless someone steps up to the plate. And it cannot be a country based on ideology of “trickle down” or anything else. Pragmatism is needed to deal with our problems.

    The tax cuts was for the here and now. It did nothing for our future. It was spent money as other problems were ignored. So to go forward, can we continue with tax cuts or has that been overplayed? Have we cried wolf too many times? Likewise, with the federal reserve with low interest rates. How long can that continue? So if this has been overplayed and we have to deal with 2 billion people who want our jobs, along with China with 8% growth, just what have we done all these years? We have long term structural problems and they will not be solved overnight and I am afraid we will not see 5% unemployment rate for another 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, we will have more government as we got rid of a lot of private sector jobs.

  10. Juneau: says:


    You obviously put a lot of effort into that reply, and I appreciate it. I mean that sincerely. But you did not answer my question at all. What Bush policies put us in this recession? You have talked of debt and deficits under Bush at length. No one that I know is claiming that Bush was not a deficit spender. The issue here is the fact that Obama has tripled the deficit and put us into a level of debt that the CBO states is “unsustainable.” Obama has had almost two years of control where he has done nothing but make things worse, and exponentially worse at that.

    All of this “soak the rich” , and “big business is evil” rhetoric is just a way of diverting the attention of the public from the real issues; 9.7% unemployment (14% real unemployment), and an Administration that acts like an impromptu audition for amateur hour.

    The only thing keeping this administration out of the cellar in the polls is the media’s concerted efforts to downplay and ignore significant news that may reflect poorly on Obama. Period.

  11. Gerry W. says:

    Thanks for the reply. No one president causes a recession. We have had about 10 of them since the great depression. Recessions happen as the economy loses steam and /or the fed raises interest rates. We had a number of problems leading up and into the recession. The financial crisis, a housing crisis, an auto crisis, the tax cuts was spent for the here and now and could not drive the economy any further, the amount of factories closing has taken its toll, nothing invested in our future such as science and federal research grants, deficits and debt at some point slows the economy, and our preoccupation with the two wars. I felt like our country was abandoned when it needed much help.

    While recessions are not preventable, it could have been lessened with investing in our country, in our people, and in the future in both good times and in bad times. I don’t think you can ever let up in not investing in the country. As we see today. There are no “new” jobs to go to. So now that we have a recession, some recessionary jobs will come back, but those that have consolidated or went overseas are not coming back.

    But Bush said he was going to balance the budget by 2012. He never considered a recession. Of course, all presidents create this euphoria. But I just laughed at this as he was piling up more in deficits and debt and if you had a recession those numbers go higher.

    I think what irks me is that people blame Obama on these deficits. Now, I grant you he went with his health care bill and there was a lot of money thrown around as both parties do that when they come into power. But Bush left deficits and the first bailouts and I think those deficits was around 700 or 800 bilion dollar deficits. Add to that a recession and loss jobs, and I am guessing another 200 to 300 billion dollars in loss revenue. Add more bailouts and cash for clunkers and whatever else-a few billion more. Add the continual cost of war- a few billion dollars more. I can’t condemn any president being in a situation like this. Obama has called for commissions to cut spending. At least that is different language than what Cheney said with “deficits don’t matter.”

    But as I said, it will take us 10 to 20 years to clean up this mess. We are falling behind everyday with China. We have been losing the middle class for sometime. I think you have to add it all up, and we see a country in a total mess. I do not think that Ideology “tax cuts, trickle down, and laissez-faire” can run the country for very long. Bush got away with it. We saw the numbers were bad over five years ago, but everyone was still believing in the trickle down theory. We are where we are.