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Obama Campaign Drops The George W. Bush Talking Point

Obama And Bush

First Posted: 10/25/11 08:02 PM ET Updated: 12/25/11 05:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- At roughly noon on Tuesday, shortly after Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the tax policy platform for his presidential campaign, President Obama's reelection team offered a response. The Texas Republican and top challenger Mitt Romney wanted to "shift a greater share of taxes away from large corporations and the wealthiest onto the backs of the middle class," the campaign's press secretary, Ben LaBolt, emailed reporters.

It was a customary campaign response: tough-worded, carefully crafted and with a targeted message. Notably, it excluded mention of the most oft-criticized GOP figure of the last decade: former President George W. Bush.

From President Obama's 2008 campaign through the mid-term elections in 2010, the nation's 43rd president has served as a reliable boogeyman. The phrase "Bush's failed economic policies" was ingrained in the political lexicon. The "Bush foreign policy" became synonymous with disastrous adventures overseas. A "return to Bush" was the threat attached to any prospective Republican candidacy.

And yet, months into the president's run for a second term, mentions of Bush have all but disappeared. A review of the official public statements sent by the campaign from either LaBolt or campaign manager Jim Messina since late April reveals that the former president has yet to be mentioned by name. And it's not because there hasn't been an opportunity to do so.

On Oct. 24, 2011, the Obama campaign sent out a "Memorandum To Interested Parties," authored by James Kvaal, the campaign's policy director. The memo dealt with "Republican Plans Shift Taxes from Wealthiest Households onto Middle Class" -- a topic that used to be hailed as emblematic of Bush-era economics. But Obama's predecessor wasn't discussed.

In a 15-minute Oct. 19 conference call with Messina and LaBolt following the Republican presidential debate the night before, Bush's name never came up. The day before, the campaign put out a response to Romney's declaration that he'd like to see the foreclosure process run its course. An invitation to invoke the perils of Bush's ownership society or his soft touch on the banking system wasn't taken.

On Oct. 14, the campaign issued a response to a Perry energy speech. Numerous analysts had already compared it to an extension of Bush's oil-friendly policies. Obama's reelection team didn't take the bait. They chose, instead, to merely allude to the former president: "It’s straight out of the past," the campaign said of the plan.

On Oct. 7, a similar situation occurred when Romney gave a speech on foreign policy that observers quickly characterized as Bush 2.0. LaBolt's statement never mentioned Bush by name.

The Obama campaign declined a request to comment for this piece. But several top officials in the party felt compelled to defend the tactic on its behalf.

"Bush is irrelevant to the public," said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster. "It's not about him anymore and just seems political when you do it ... like you are ducking responsibility."

There is no clear historical precedent when it comes to incumbent presidents invoking their predecessor's name during their attempts for reelection. Bill Clinton "would never mention [the first] Bush, even though we wanted to," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for Clinton. "It was totally different for Reagan, [who] never stopped talking about Carter."

"In Britain, we still attack Thatcher," added Greenberg, who offered the following prediction: "I'm not sure Obama would ever use Bush's name."

Yet, the actual polling data suggests that Obama could still get political mileage from doing so. A late August Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 51 percent of respondents continued to blame Bush for the country's economic duress; 31 percent put the bulk of the blame on Obama.

It may be, as Lake put it, a bit off-putting for voters to see a president, three years in, still talking about the past. Certainly, Republicans have argued that doing so is not presidential. But not everyone is willing to give up on Bush bashing.

"Voters are still sympathetic to the fact that Bush left the country in a deep dark economic hole that Obama has been digging out of from day one," said one top Democratic strategist who, like others, declined to speak on the record out of fear of being reprimanded for second-guessing Obama campaign strategy. "That said, it's a tricky landscape to underscore this message without looking whiny or unaccountable. It's awkward at this point to come from [the president], but certainly not the campaign."

"Indeed, I’d like to see the pro-Obama pundits make it more personal." the strategist continued. "Hammer guys like Rove and Ari Fleischer with a shovel. Why do we treat them like they’ve earned a special seat on the country club board table?"

That's not to say there isn't shouting of Bush's name. While referring to the 43rd president has become passé for much of the Obama campaign, some White House officials still engage in it. On Oct. 12, Vice President Joseph Biden -- who's not exactly known for his talking points discipline -- challenged Republicans in Congress to "come up with one thing that's different from what George Bush did." This month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has brought up Bush to defend the president from attacks on foreign policy and his handling of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program for renewable energy.

The Democratic National Committee has, like Obama for America, slowed down on its Bush name dropping. In a three-page memo issued before the last Republican presidential debate, it never mentioned the former president. Nor did it do so in its pre-buttle to the debate the week prior, or in its attacks on Romney's foreclosure statements.

But the DNC did send out a CNN video on Oct. 7 titled "Romney's foreign policy sounds just like Bush's" along with an Atlantic Wire piece titled: "Romney's Ready to Bring Back Bush's Foreign Policy." Three days prior to that while hosting a conference call, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz argued that Romney thought "it was a good idea to create personal investment accounts out of Social Security -- like those touted by George W. Bush." A review of a month's worth of emails shows that the committee's rapid response arm has attacked Romney four times with the same Bush-related bullet point: that he would extend the Bush tax cuts "for the wealthiest Americans."

But this hardly echoes the Bush-centric focus of the last three campaign cycles. Increasingly, it seems the gratuitous Bush fear-mongering is being left to those groups who operate outside the official reelection circle. Bill Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary who spearheads the Obama-allied Priorities USA, remains a maestro at the tactic. In an Oct. 22 memo he accused Romney and other Republicans of praising "President Bush’s go-it-alone approach for the ground invasion of Iraq." Two days earlier, he put out a statement arguing that the country "tried Romney's economic vision with President George W. Bush and it failed miserably for the middle class."

Burton's job, in the end, is to build campaign narratives. Obama must do that and reach out to voters, advisers caution. And so, while the temptation to bring back Bush as a campaign cudgel will and has surfaced, the theory appears to be that he's better off simply alluding to his predecessor.

"I think the president is properly focused on what he is trying to do, which is to fix the economy now and focus in on the fact that Republicans are preventing him from taking those steps," said Mark Mehlman, another prominent Democratic pollster.

With Reporting By Jordan Howard

Check out this slideshow for more details on Obama's reelection campaign:

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  • Campaign Announcement

    With a <a href="" target="_hplink">video</a> emailed and texted to supporters, President Barack Obama <a href="" target="_hplink">announced</a> he would be running for reelection on April 4, 2011. "We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block by block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build," the email read.

  • Fundraising

    In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised a <a href="" target="_hplink">staggering $750 million</a>. The president is <a href="" target="_hplink">promising to hit</a> the billion dollar mark this time around, which would make him the first president in U.S. history to do so. In his 2008 bid for the White House, Obama ran a famously grassroots campaign, securing a record four million individual donors. With a disenchanted base, the grassroots efforts in his 2012 campaign have been less successful; the campaign failed to meet its goal of 20,000 small donors by the end of September 2011, <a href="" target="_hplink">reported ABC</a>. Many of Obama's early supporters have become disheartened with the president, and many are in worse financial shape than they were three years ago. Losing small donors, however, still leaves Obama with the corporate backers he won over in 2008. Of his <a href="" target="_hplink">top ten donors</a>, eight were major corporations and banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Obama has the weight of the presidency behind him this time around. "His 2012 campaign will be a bigger, slicker machine likely to dwarf that of his eventual Republican opponent," <a href="" target="_hplink">Reuters reported</a>. Successful fundraising can also help the Democratic Party win back seats in the House and Senate. From the Associated Press: <blockquote>Obama gave millions from his campaign war chest to Congressional candidates in 2008. Every seat in the House will be up for grabs again in 2012, as well as one-third of the seats in the Senate, and many experts say the battle for Congress -- particularly for the Senate -- could be the real fight.</blockquote> The president has held several fundraisers this fall, reaching out to key voting blocks like African Americans and progressives. In October the president's reelection campaign announced they surpassed 1 million donors since collections began in April. The campaign and Democratic National Committee reported a total of $70 million for the third quarter.

  • Approval Ratings

    President Obama's approval ratings hit a new low at the end of October. A <a href="" target="_hplink">Gallup poll</a> found Obama's approval had fallen to 41 percent, a new low and a big drop from the previous quarter rating of 46.8 percent. But despite voter frustration over high unemployment rates, <a href="" target="_hplink">Obama's likability</a> as a person has kept him afloat in the polls. Americans' approval of the president has risen and fallen over the past year: It spiked after a budget deal with Republicans was reached, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and of course again after Osama bin Laden was killed. The numbers dipped in August during the debt ceiling debacle. Check out HuffPost Pollster's <a href="" target="_hplink">interactive tool</a> tracking Obama's approval ratings through time.

  • GOP Candidates

    The current pool of candidates in the Republican primary race may be one of the best things President Obama has going for him in his re-election bid. The GOP has been hesitant to rally around any one of the contenders, and a number of high-profile Republicans decided against a run. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been a steady frontrunner, but hasn't garnered widespread excitement from members of his party. Instead Republicans urged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a bid for the White House, and many conservatives were hopeful Sarah Palin would join the race. (Both decided not to run.) Romney has picked up key endorsements from Christie and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. However a <a href="" target="_hplink">HuffPost analysis</a> shows that the number of GOP endorsements is much lower than is usual at this point in the race, indicating the Republican party is far from a consensus. Attendees at a Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting in May found the field of candidates "uninspiring," <a href="" target="_hplink">CNN reported</a>. "I am not seeing lightning striking for any of the candidates at this point," said Nevada Republican Chairman Bob List at the event. "But Republicans are eager to find the right candidate to coalesce around."

  • American Jobs Act

    President Obama announced the <a href="" target="_hplink">American Jobs Act </a> in September, a sweeping $447 billion bill to boost the country's sinking economy. The White House says the <a href="" target="_hplink">bill would create</a> 1.9 million new jobs -- just a fraction of the 15 million unemployed Americans. Republicans and some Democrats oppose Obama's plan to pay for the jobs bill by hiking taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. Though many aspects of the legislation had been <a href="" target="_hplink">previously supported</a> by Republicans in Congress, the bill was blocked in the Senate. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) <a href="" target="_hplink">accused the Republican Party</a> of purposefully allowing the economy to struggle in order to score political points for the 2012 elections. Obama has vowed to continue to fight to pass individual pieces of the bill, beginning with a provision to protect the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police. The Senate voted down the provision in October.

  • Mobilizing The Base

    As campaign season heats up President Obama has been reaching out to the key voting blocs the helped get him elected in 2008, such as African Americans and liberals. In September the <a href="" target="_hplink">president addressed</a> the Congressional Black Caucus at an annual awards dinner and called on blacks to "put on your marching shoes" to follow him into battle. "I need your help," he said. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do." Though Obama was speaking about the economy and his jobs bill, the undercurrent of the speech was that without African American support he might not secure a second term. Black leaders, as well as progressives generally, have been increasingly critical of Obama for giving away too much in talks with Republicans, and not doing enough to fight black unemployment, which is nearly double the national average, <a href="" target="_hplink">the <em>Associated Press</em> reports</a>. Obama also took a trip to the West Coast to speak to progressive Democrats, who have been growing disenchanted with the president. Hoping to reinvigorate the liberal voting bloc, Obama said during fundraisers up and down the West Coast that the GOP vision of government would "cripple America." The president's rhetoric has shifted from a spirit of compromise, to attacks on conservatives, <a href="" target="_hplink">reports the <em>Associated Press</em></a>.

  • First Term Accomplishments

    A run-down of the president's accomplishments and how the most controversial among them were received. <strong>Health Care Reform:</strong> The Affordable Care Act is arguably Obama's most contentious legislative accomplishment. Most Democrats praise the law for aiming to provide all Americans with access to affordable health care, while the Republican party wishes to repeal the law, saying it ups taxes and government spending, while increasing government control over health care. Some question the constitutionality of an individual mandate. <a href="" target="_hplink">The Supreme Court </a> will be the judge of that. The president faced the most sustained criticism from his base during the health care debate, as he <a href="" target="_hplink">negotiated away</a> and belittled the public insurance option, and made <a href="" target="_hplink">back-room deals</a> with major industry players. <strong>Economic Recovery:</strong> Obama's $789 billion <a href="" target="_hplink">economic stimulus package</a> has faced scrutiny from Republicans since passing Congress with little Republican support. However, supporters credit the legislation -- one of the largest in history -- with pulling the economy back from the brink after the 2008 financial collapse and preventing a second Great Depression. Republicans criticized the plan for relying too heavily on spending rather than tax cuts, though a third of the package consisted of the latter. As early as February 2009, <a href="" target="_hplink">HuffPost explained </a>why the stimulus was too small and would fall short of its goal. <strong>Withdrawing from Iraq:</strong> Fulfilling a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, <a href="" target="_hplink">Obama announced Oct. 21</a> that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. <strong>DADT Repeal:</strong> Obama repealed the <a href="" target="_hplink">Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy</a> that forbid gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military, a law he called "discriminatory." The repeal was a historic moment for the gay rights movement. Some Republican candidates have promised to reinstate the policy. <a href="" target="_hplink">Fair Pay Act:</a> The first bill Obama signed into law is aimed at achieving equal pay for women. <strong>Stem Cell Research:</strong> Obama overturned the Bush-era ban on funding embryonic stem cell research, offering federal support for scientists researching cures for disease. <strong>New START treaty:</strong> Obama signed a <a href="" target="_hplink">bilateral treaty </a>between the U.S. and Russia that aims to cut the number of nuclear weapons around the world in half. <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Child Nutrition Act:</strong></a> Obama signed into law a bill to combat childhood obesity and promote child nutrition in schools. <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Food Safety Act:</strong></a> The food safety act to help prevent deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness was the first major overhaul of America's food safety system since the 1930s. <strong>Wall Street Reform:</strong> Obama's financial industry reform bill left the major banks in tact, but promised to create a mechanism whereby failing institutions would be seized and unwound by federal regulators. That element of the law has yet to be tested. The signature achievement of the bill was the creation of the Consumer Financial Product Bureau, an agency crafted by consumer advocate and now-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, which was fought energetically by Wall Street, the GOP and powerful Democrats. <strong>Supreme Court Justices:</strong> Obama appointed two justices to the United States Supreme Court: Justice Sonya Sotomayor in 2009, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and Justice Elena Kagan in 2010.

  • Killing Osama bin Laden And Ending The War On Terror

    In May 2011 President Obama announced that <a href="" target="_hplink">Osama Bin Laden had been killed</a> by a U.S. operation launched in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The president said U.S. intelligence operatives received a tip of bin Laden's hideout and took action. "Justice has been done," Obama said <a href="" target="_hplink">from the White House</a>. Upon taking office Obama distanced himself from the <a href="" target="_hplink">"War on Terror"</a> he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. He ordered an end to the phrase, instead calling it a "Global Contingency Operation." Despite the name change, the assault on civil liberties that was central to Bush's "War on Terror" continues under President Obama's "operation." He pledged to bring the Iraq war to an end, and has withdrawn roughly 120,000 troops since taking office. <a href="" target="_hplink">Obama announced</a> Oct. 21 that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, fulfilling a long-held campaign promise.

  • Budget Fights With Republicans

    The 2009 stimulus negotiations, in which Republicans got several hundred billion dollars worth of tax cuts without agreeing to vote for the bill, were a sign of things to come. Negotiations over the 2011 budget reached a climax in April, with a <a href="" target="_hplink">showdown</a> between Republicans and Democrats that threatened to shut down the federal government if the two parties could not reach a deal. At the eleventh hour, Congress pushed through a deal that was hailed as a <a href="" target="_hplink">victory for Republicans</a>, because of the spending cuts Democrats agreed to. Democrats strongly opposed any <a href="" target="_hplink">cuts to spending</a>. Republicans initially asked for $61 billion in cuts. Democrats later refused to go over $33 billion. The deal settled on $38.5 billion in cuts. Republicans had also tried to force social issues as part of the deal, hoping to defund Planned Parenthood and to stop government regulations on greenhouse gases, without success. However these and deeper cuts to spending are likely to be issues in the next budget fight. Months later Democrats and Republicans again went head to head over the <a href="" target="_hplink">raising the debt ceiling</a>. The U.S. government reached its borrowing limit - $14.3 trillion - and risked defaulting on payments if they didn't if the debt limit wasn't raised. Republicans refused to raise the limit without drastic cuts, which Democrats chastised political grandstanding that cause the country to default. Again a last-minute deal was struck in which Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to keep borrowing through 2013 in exchange for spending cuts. A super-committee was created to come up with a plan to trim the federal budget by an additional $2.4 trillion. In September the U.S. narrowly averted a government shutdown once more over <a href="" target="_hplink">negotiations on a spending bill</a>. Republicans wanted to offset funding for disaster relief with cuts; Democrats refused. In the end Republicans caved on the cuts, but got Democrats to agree to give less cash to FEMA than they had wanted. The budget fight isn't over yet. In November Congress will have to figure out the rest of the 2012 federal budget. At that point the super committee created to save 1.2 trillion from the budget will reveal its plan.

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