Democrats, facing a U.S. electorate angry about the economy and other issues, still have one political asset: George W. Bush.
The former Republican president is blamed more than President Barack Obama for the budget deficit, unemployment and illegal immigration, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted July 9-12.
Most surprising is that 60 percent say Bush is primarily responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan. Just 10 percent point to Obama, who has ordered 51,000 additional troops to that country since taking office, doubling the number deployed by Bush.
When Obama entered office in January 2009, there had been 568 U.S. casualties associated with the Afghanistan conflict, a number that has grown to 1,086, as of yesterday, according to the Defense Department. The president has vowed to start withdrawing forces in July 2011, with the pacing determined by conditions on the ground.
“The public remembers the Bush years as a tumultuous time of costly wars, and the years when a budget surplus became a deficit,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the survey.
Katrina, Gulf Spill
Asked to compare Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina with Obama’s handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 51 percent say Bush’s performance was worse, while 35 percent name Obama. Republicans are more likely to pan Obama’s performance on the oil spill, with 69 percent saying he did worse than Bush.
Facing a tough environment in the November congressional elections, when their control of both chambers may be at stake, Obama and his fellow Democrats often mention the problems they inherited from the previous administration, which left the White House 18 months ago.
“They spent a decade driving the economy into a ditch,” Obama, 48, said at a Las Vegas fundraiser on July 8 for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “And now they’re asking for the keys back. And my answer is, ‘no, you can’t have the keys. You can’t drive. You don’t know how to drive. You drive in the wrong direction.’”
Still, Bush won’t be on the ballot and there has been no indication that he will campaign for congressional candidates. Democratic and Republican lawmakers share some of the blame for the country’s problems, including the increasing cost of Medicare and Social Security, as well the failure to fix the nation’s immigration system, according to the poll.
Blame the Predecessor
It’s been common in U.S. politics to blame previous presidents for problems. For generations, Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover’s Depression-era economic policies and some Republicans still talk about President Jimmy Carter’s supposed softness on foreign policy, three decades after the Democratic president left office.
Bush, 64, has stayed mostly quiet in public since leaving the White House. His book, “Decision Points,” is scheduled to be released around the November election.
Because Democrats are most likely to blame Bush for the problems the country is facing, the political benefits for their party may be limited, says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.
Still, Obama and the Democrats may be helped somewhat by voters’ attitudes toward Bush, especially on the issue of unemployment, Buchanan says.
“You could blame Bush for losing your job, even if you’re a Republican,” he says.
More blame Bush than Obama for the federal deficit, 32 percent to 24 percent. Among Republicans, 39 percent say Obama is to blame, while about a quarter of independents hold that view.
The Obama administration expects a record budget deficit this year of more than $1.5 trillion, or 10.6 percent of GDP, according to projections the White House released in February. It was $1.4 trillion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, which covers the end of Bush’s presidency.
Obama gets more credit for increases in the stock market over the past year, with 28 percent of Americans giving him recognition, compared with 13 percent for Bush. Even among Republicans, a quarter give Obama credit for the increases.
On unemployment, Bush is listed as most responsible by 32 percent, compared with 22 percent for Obama. Those with incomes below $25,000 are more likely to blame Bush for the unemployment rate, which was 9.5 percent in June.
“Bush was there for eight years and everything just kept getting worse,” says poll participant Kelly Redding, 31, an independent voter from Columbus, Ohio. “Obama can’t perform miracles overnight.”
Jeremy Dawson, 31, who has served three tours in Iraq, is among those who blame Bush more than Obama for some of the nation’s biggest problems.
“He focused so much on Iraq and Afghanistan and not enough on America,” says Dawson, who votes as an independent. “There was little or nothing being done in this country.”
The poll’s findings on Afghanistan contrast with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s comments July 1 that the war is “not something that the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” Steele later amended his remarks after he was criticized by both parties and some Republican leaders called for his resignation.
The poll also finds that almost 6 in 10 respondents say the war in Afghanistan is a lost cause.
There isn’t a lot of buyer’s remorse when it comes to the 2008 presidential election, the poll shows. Asked if things would be better or worse if the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, had been elected, 37 percent say worse, 27 percent say better and 32 percent say things would be the same.
The Bloomberg National Poll is based on interviews with 1,004 U.S. adults ages 18 or older. Percentages based on the full sample may have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.