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Why Obama Should Copy Bush (really!)

You hear lots of talk about which former president Barack Obama should use as a model. Bill Clinton comes up regularly. Franklin Roosevelt, too. But what about the guy in the White House now?

I know, President Bush’s approval ratings are hovering around 30 percent. This election was in many ways a referendum on his tenure and the verdict could not have been more unambiguous. The voters didn't like it. “Saturday Night Live” got an entire skit (and a pretty funny one) out of John McCain trying to escape the stigma of his failure.

But was Bush really a “failure”? That depends on how you define it.

Consider what Bush has accomplished. He has overhauled the tax code, tilting it towards the wealthy and significantly reducing federal revenues. He signed a landmark education reform that changed the curriculum in virtually ever public school. He gutted the regulatory state and hollowed out the bureaucracy. He added a drug benefit to Medicare, thereby enacting the largest single entitlement expansion since the 1960s. He tipped the Supreme Court’s ideological balance with two strongly conservative appointees.

And that’s just what he did on domestic policy. Bush also sponsored a massive program to help treat AIDS in under-developed countries. He rewrote long-standing doctrine on foreign policy and human rights. And, oh yeah, he engineered--and then prosecuted--a war that overthrew a dictator, destabilized a region, and committed the U.S. to an occupation whose end is still unknown.

That’s quite a tally--arguably, one that no president since Lyndon Johnson can match. (Before that, you'd have to go back to FDR.) And with the exception of the Medicare drug program, every single one of those accomplishments represent a realization of goals that he, his fellow travelers in the conservative movement, or both had sought for years or even decades.

America today looks radically different than it did in January, 2001. And it looks that way because Bush made it so.

Now, for the most part, the country doesn’t seem to think Bush’s changes have left us better off. And I’d agree, with a few key exceptions. (High on the list would be that AIDS program, for which I believe Bush deserves more credit than he's received.) But he still achieved quite a lot. And, simply in terms of leadership style, President-elect Obama could do worse than to take a page or two from Bush’s playbook.

One of Bush’s most remarkable qualities--and one, I admit, that I frequently admired--was his stubborn focus on goals and willingness to push political boundaries aggressively. It took a president of uncommon gumption and boldness to push such a radical agenda; America, after all, is not a radical country by nature. But Bush understood political opportunity when it presented itself and he seized it. And while I’d hate to see Obama systematically ignoring policy experts and manipulating intelligence--or deliberately stoking partisan division for the sake of winning elections--I wouldn’t mind if, like Bush, Obama showed the same sort of singular focus.

Like Bush, Obama is pursuing an ambitious agenda: Re-organizing the country’s economy and infrastructure to fight climate change and achieve energy independence; overhauling its massive health care system; undoing all of the tax changes Bush signed into law and, in the process, addressing the country’s long-term fiscal crisis; beginning unprecedented levels of investment in young children’s education and well-being; repairing America’s image in the world and, in the process, finishing the fight against Islamic extremism.

Already, the opinion class is tut-tutting. It’s too expensive, they say, and too radical. But it’s not all that different from what Bush tried. The difference is that Obama would be pushing in the opposite ideological direction and, if the polls are to be believed, in a direction that the country happens to favor.

Not only does that mean Obama should, if anything, have an easier time achieving it. It also means that, if he accomplishes those goals, he can leave with his party’s majority intact--and his approval ratings higher than 30 percent.

Fortunately, Obama seems to get this. He hasn't given up the talk of "changing Washington" and bipartisanship; I imagine he believes it, too. But he's also made it clear he's not about to back away from goals just because they'll encounter initial resistance.

When asked repeatedly in the final weeks which of his legislative goals he planned to discard, because of the financial crisis, he refused to play along, insisting his agenda remained the same. Just today, incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said something similar on ABC's "This Week." After making the case for energy independence and health care reform, even in the midst of an economic calamity, Emanuel said "This opportunity, this crisis, provides--as the president-elect has said repatedly--the opportunity to do things Americans have pushed off for years." President Bush couldn't have said it better. 

--Jonathan Cohn