- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2010

A difficult war, runaway federal spending, a dilemma over illegal immigration and even the aftermath of an environmental disaster - President Obama’s 2010 is looking a lot like President George W. Bush’s 2006.

And in many of those cases, Mr. Obama is turning to similar solutions as his predecessor: a surge of troops overseen by the same commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus; a modified line-item veto proposal; and deployment of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to soften opposition before a broad push for an immigration bill.

That the challenges are similar is not surprising. By definition, they are the unfinished business of the Bush administration, and in some cases had been languishing for decades longer. But for a man who ran on being the anti-Bush, Mr. Obama is realizing that breaking with a previous administration’s policies is easier said than done.

“Presidents have these received commitments that they can’t simply abandon. You may say in a campaign you’re going to depart from them really dramatically, but it’s hard to do that when you’re in office,” said Sidney M. Milkis, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The office of the president, “even when it’s pulled into the vortex of partisanship, requires a consistent administration and an enduring commitment to certain policies.”

Dana Perino, who was press secretary at the end of the Bush administration, said she watched with amusement during the 2008 campaign as Mr. Obama made promises she knew he would be hard-pressed to keep.

“All the comparisons they’re getting to the previous administration they invited, because they ran on all of these issues, saying how much better they were going to approach them and how their execution was going to be superior,” Mrs. Perino said.

On foreign policy in particular, she said, the U.S. position doesn’t change that much from administration to administration - partly because major changes in rhetoric or action can upset the established diplomatic balance. Other decisions, meanwhile, are easy to criticize by the party out of power but are hard to change, such as closing the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I kept thinking they’re not going to be able to do all of those things they’re promising, and we tried to tell them not to make that promise on Gitmo,” she said.

Senior White House officials acknowledged the similarities in the two presidents’ to-do lists, but one said “the basic philosophies about government are still very different.”

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also expressed confidence that Mr. Obama would succeed where Mr. Bush failed.

“We have a record of accomplishment,” the official said, checking off a list of Mr. Obama’s key legislative achievements, including the health care overhaul and a financial regulatory bill that could pass as soon as this month.

“We have a record of being able to take on hard things and get them done,” the official said.

Even when those actions aren’t always “politically popular or expedient,” another official added.

Still, Mr. Obama also finds himself taking care of unfinished business from the Bush administration, such as closing holes in the GOP’s Medicare prescription drug benefit. In their new health care bill, Democrats and Mr. Obama went back and filled in the “doughnut hole” - a gap in prescription drug coverage in the Republican bill written in 2003.

Both presidents have found themselves tested by catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico. For Mr. Bush, his response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005 and dominated much of the next year of his administration, came to define his tenure for many voters.

For Mr. Obama, meanwhile, the fact that oil is still spewing into the Gulf more than two months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded has left voters questioning his abilities.

“There’s really interesting parallels between Katrina and the oil spill, and a lot of people have asked the question whether BP will be ‘Obama’s Katrina,’ ” Mr. Milkis said. “Presidents increasingly are held responsible for these catastrophes, even if to some degree they’re out of their control.”

Though thousands died in Katrina and the death toll from the oil spill so far is limited to the 11 workers who died in the rig explosion, voters in polls have rated the federal response to the spill worse than they rated Mr. Bush’s response to Katrina at the same point in time five years ago.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in early June, six weeks after the spill began, 69 percent rated the federal response negatively, versus the 62 percent who said the same about the federal response to Katrina two weeks after the hurricane.

A Public Policy Polling survey in mid-June had 50 percent of Louisiana voters, including 31 percent of Democrats, rating Mr. Bush’s response to Katrina higher than Mr. Obama’s to the spill, compared with 35 percent who said Mr. Obama had been doing better.

The oil spill also short-circuited another policy position in which Mr. Obama seemed to be channeling his predecessor.

Earlier this year, arguing that the country needed to move beyond a fossil-fuel economy in the long run, Mr. Obama proposed expanding the offshore areas where oil drilling would be allowed - exactly the way Mr. Bush framed the issue late in his tenure. But the rig explosion forced Mr. Obama into an about-face, and he proposed a moratorium, which is now the subject of a fierce legal battle.

On foreign policy, Mr. Obama came into office promising a renewed effort at diplomatic outreach but has ended up in many of the same stalemates with rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea with which Mr. Bush dealt.

He also inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from Mr. Bush, and while he is seeing through a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq, he has imported into Afghanistan both Mr. Bush’s Iraq strategy - a surge in troops - and, as of late last month, the same military commander in Gen. Petraeus.

On the domestic front, Mr. Obama also confronts some of the same thorny issues such as immigration and spending that bedeviled Mr. Bush and faces some of the same roadblocks in getting Congress to act.

In May, the president announced he would try to tackle runaway spending by proposing a modified line-item veto and sent Congress a plan similar to the line-item authority Mr. Bush proposed in May 2006.

Meanwhile, the issue of immigration has plagued presidents for years, and Mr. Obama took a page straight from Mr. Bush’s 2006 playbook when he announced in May that he would deploy up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border as a sign that he was serious about border security. As with Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama then proceeded to demand that Congress pass a comprehensive bill that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and rewrite rules for the legal immigration system.

But Obama aides say there are key differences between the situation facing Mr. Obama now and the political landscape that faced Mr. Bush.

For starters, in 2006, Democrats and Republicans were at the table, urged on by Mr. Bush, working on an ultimately doomed bill, while this time, Republican senators have withdrawn from talks. One White House official said they have made a “political calculation” to obstruct everything Mr. Obama does.

Indeed, while partisanship is an eternal reality in Washington, it’s more pernicious now than at any other time in recent memory, Mr. Milkis said.

“It seems more centralized and intractable now,” he said. “It was there for Bush, but it seems to have reached a kind of climax with Obama.”

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