Steven Thomma (WASHINGTON) — He ran as the anti-Bush.
Silver-tongued, not tongue-tied. A team player on the world stage, not a lone cowboy. A man who'd put a stop to reckless Bush policies at home and abroad. In short, Barack Obama represented Change.
Well, that was then. Now, on one major policy after another, President Barack Obama seems to be morphing into George W. Bush.
On the nation's finances, the man who once ripped Bush as a failed leader for seeking to raise the nation's debt ceiling now wants to do it himself.
On terrorism, he criticized Bush for sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and denying them access to U.S. civilian courts. Now he says he'll do the same.
On taxes, he called the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy wrong, and lately began calling again to end them. But in December he signed a deal with Republicans to extend them for two years, and recently he called the entire tax cut package good for the country.
And on war, as a candidate he said that the president didn't have authority to unilaterally attack a country that didn't pose an imminent threat to the U.S., and even then the president should always seek the informed consent of Congress. Last month, without a vote in Congress, he attacked Libya, which didn't threaten the U.S.
Big differences remain between Obama and Bush, to be sure. His two nominees to the Supreme Court differ vastly from Bush's picks. Obama does want to end the tax cuts for the wealthy. He also pushed through a massive overhaul of the nation's health insurance system.
Yet even on health insurance, his stand wasn't so much a reversal of Bush's approach as an escalation. Bush also pushed through a massive expansion of Medicare by adding a costly prescription drug benefit — at the time, the biggest expansion of a federal entitlement since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Indeed, some of the differences between the two presidents are measured in gray, not black and white as once seemed the case.
Some of the changes in Obama can be attributed to the passion of campaign rhetoric giving way to the realities of governing, analysts say.
"He is looking less like a candidate and more like a president," said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "He has discovered that it's much easier to make promises on the campaign trail than it is to keep them as president."
At the same time, some of the surprising continuity of Bush-era policies can be tied to the way Bush and events set the nation's course, particularly on foreign policy.
"Morphing into Bush was not a willful act," said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "It was acquiescence to the policies his predecessor shaped and the cruel realities that Obama inherited."
For example, Obama found he couldn't easily close the prison at Guantanamo Bay because he couldn't find a place, abroad or at home, willing to take all the terrorist suspects held there.
"Bush created, on the military and security side, new realities from which no successor, Democrat or Republican, could depart, "Miller said. "It's like turning around an aircraft carrier. It cannot happen quickly."
Among the ways Obama has reversed his earlier promises and adopted, extended or echoed Bush policies:
In 2006, Bush had cut taxes, gone to war, and expanded Medicare, and increased the national debt from $5.6 trillion to $8.2 trillion. He needed approval from Congress to raise the ceiling for debt to $9 trillion.
The Senate approved the increase by a narrow vote of 52-48.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., voted no.
"Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally," Obama said in 2006. "Leadership means that 'the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership."
Now Obama's on the other side. He's increased the national debt to $14 trillion, and needs Congress to approve more debt. Moreover, Obama's aides now say that congressional meddling to use that needed vote to wrangle budget concessions from the White House would be inappropriate and risk financial Armageddon.
What about Obama's own vote against the president in a similar situation? A mistake, the White House said.
As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama opposed extending the Bush tax cuts on incomes greater than $250,000 a year past their expiration on Dec., 31, 2009.
In 2007, he said he was for "rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent of people who don't need it." In a 2008 ad, he said, "Instead of extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, I'll focus on you."
As president, Obama proposed letting those tax cuts expire as scheduled, while also proposing to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for incomes of less than $250,000.
But he didn't get Congress to approve that. When the issue came to a head last December, Republicans insisted on extending all of the tax cuts or none, and Obama went along lest the tax cuts on incomes below $250,000 expire even briefly. His final deal with the Congress also added a one-year cut in the payroll tax for Medicare and Social Security.
"What all of us care about is growing the American economy and creating jobs for the American people," Obama said. "Taken as a whole, that's what this package of tax relief is going to do. It's a good deal for the American people."
He said again last week that he wants to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, this time on Dec. 31, 2012.
As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed a broad reversal of Bush's policies toward suspected terrorists.
Most pointedly, he said he'd close the prison in Cuba and try suspected terrorists in civilian courts, not in military tribunals.
"I have faith in America's courts," he said in a 2007 speech. "As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."
He ran into a torrent of opposition, however. Members of Congress balked at transferring suspected terrorists to U.S. prisons. New Yorkers balked when his administration said it would try accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in lower Manhattan.
Last month, he changed course, saying he'd keep Guantanamo Bay open, and would try Mohammed before a military court.
The reversal, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, "is yet another vindication of President Bush's detention policies by the Obama administration."
Echoing Bush, Obama's also asserted that he has the power to hold suspected terrorists without charges or trial, and that he has the power to kill U.S. citizens abroad if his government considers them a terrorist threat.
During his campaign, Obama signaled that he'd be far more circumspect than Bush was in using military power. He did say he'd send more troops to Afghanistan, which he's done, and that he'd attack al Qaida terrorists in Pakistan, which he's also done.
But he opposed the Iraq war from the start, and said he didn't think the president should wage war for humanitarian purposes or act without congressional approval, absent an imminent threat to the U.S.
"The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," he told The Boston Globe in 2007.
"In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action."
On March 19, the U.S. attacked Libya on humanitarian grounds, absent any threat to the U.S. and without approval from Congress.