Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Obama Can Learn from Bush

President Obama and former President George W Bush met in Africa earlier this week. Watching Bush's interview with CNN, it was obvious to see how comfortable he's finding retirement. Bush also renewed his commitment to avoid criticizing Obama (an approach he adopted towards the end of his Presidency). Nonetheless, I hope that Obama asked Bush for some advice. The President could take some hints from Bush's second term.

For a start, Obama should entertain the merits of shaking up his cabinet. Bush's appointment of Robert Gates at the Defense Department was a pivotal moment in his administration. Right or wrong, Rumsfeld had become politically toxic by late 2006; a replacement was needed. Gates arrival re-energized the Department, renewed the necessary process of fiscal tightening and helped guide the US Military towards successful efforts in Iraq. It's obvious that a number of Obama's inner circle have become political liabilities- Attorney General Holder being the most obvious example. But regardless of politics, a shake up could also deliver some much needed dynamism to an Administration widely perceived as suffering from policy stagnation.
Obama could also learn from Bush's leadership style. Bush's disregard for opinion poll data (something that he again mentioned in the CNN interview) is well known. But Bush was right - the job of a President isn't to pursue popularity, it's to make tough decisions. As Harry Truman put it, ''The Buck Stops Here''.  Let's be clear, the American people aren't always right. Bush's Iraq surge (a decision that was vastly unpopular at the time) was a major success. Obama should be willing to make hard choices on issues of critical national concern - addressing the debt etc. He should not be dissuaded by polls/internal party politics. In politics, taking risks pays off - Bin Laden's death proved that. Reverting to partisan games would be a disaster.

Obama could also learn from some of Bush's mistakes. Because of the controversy of Iraq and perceptions that his Administration didn't care about Congressional input on defining issues - key Bush Administration policies - social security reform for example, failed to gain traction. Noting this reality, Obama should seek personal relationships with Republicans. He should attempt to rise above the fray. His kind words (see below) about President Bush offered a good start.

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