The president has had a tough few months. Many of his defenders wish to shift blame for the big policy problems to his detractors. I have a question for them.
What if McCain had won in 2008 and 2012? What if the current scandals, power grabs, and policy disasters occurred under Republican stewardship? Would you brush them off? Lament them as regrettable but inevitable and blown out of proportion, as you seem to today?
Consider the Affordable Care Act. In 2008, Obama opposed the individual mandate, while many Republicans supported it. Now, the two parties have switched. So this isn't the most untenable hypothetical: What if McCain had won, and signed a law forcing Americans to buy health insurance, then decided to delay the mandate for corporations but not for individuals? What if McCain repeatedly and unambiguously promised that if you liked your current insurance policy, you could keep it? What if that promise revealed itself as impossible, as millions saw their policies dropped and the president had to unilaterally enact an ad hoc fix that could only work temporarily and introduced a whole new set of problems?
What if all over the country, many saw their premiums skyrocket? What if President McCain rolled out a clunky health care website riddled with bugs week after week? What if the McCain administration overestimated the number of initial signups by a factor of five or more, and only one out of 254 who visited the site effectively signed up for health care in the first month? What if McCain, on the national stage, pointed to a woman as a health care success story, and weeks later, due to a confusion in pricing, she realized she might not be able to afford insurance at all under the new plan? What if we found out that thirty to forty percent of McCain's federal exchange system, including its payment processing, had yet to be built a little over a month before the program was to launch?
Yes, there are ways to spin each problem for maximum charity toward the current president. But what if that president were McCain?
Obama beat McCain in 2008 due to two major areas: the economy and the Republicans' disastrous foreign policy. And what about the economy? The Democrats warned at the beginning of Obama's term that Congress needed to pass the stimulus to prevent a 9% unemployment rate. Some of us arguing against stimulus conceded that the country might suffer high unemployment rate for a year or so to allow the liquidation of malinvestment. That was considered callous.
Over two years later, in May 2011, Nancy Pelosi was describing a 9% unemployment rate as "good news." When the figure was 4.4% under Bush, Pelosi called it "the worst jobs record since the Great Depression." Today unemployment lingers around 7%--five years into the Obama presidency.
You might have all sorts of explanations for the high unemployment rate. But if McCain presided over an average unemployment rate of 8.9% for nearly five years, would you just shrug it off, especially if Wall Street was booming while inequality skyrocketed? Would you give McCain a pass? Or would you blame the president and tolerate no excuses?
Moving to foreign policy, Obama's supporters continue to credit the president for ending the Iraq war. At the end of 2008, the Iraqi government essentially forced President Bush into accepting the Status of Forces Agreement withdrawal timetable that Obama basically adopted. What if McCain had won in 2008, oversaw an end to the war as determined by his predecessor, took credit for it, and then, ten years after the war began, started considering military aid that could conceivably lead to a replay of American intervention? If McCain did this, would you praise him for ending the war?
When Obama took office, about 33,000 U.S. troops served in Afghanistan. Neither Bush nor McCain planned to significantly increase that number. Obama did. He came to power, tripled the U.S. troop presence to around 100,000, and now plans by next year to draw it back down to the same number that were there when he took office. At other times, he has pondered having a significant presence there for another decade. About three-fourths of American casualties in Afghanistan took place under Obama, and Afghan casualties have mounted on his watch as well. In short, Obama vastly expanded a war and now plans to bring it down to the level it was when he inherited it--and for this he's taking credit for "a decade of war. . . now ending."
What if McCain did that? What if McCain tripled U.S. forces and casualties in Afghanistan, gradually brought them back down to the levels we saw at the end of the Bush years, and took credit for this maneuvering for peace? Would you praise him for that, or blame him for inflicting extraneous bloodshed?
What if McCain bombed more countries than Bush, and even tried to start a war with Syria, only to back down when the American populace expressed its strong opposition and Russia brought forward a negotiation scheme? Would you credit McCain for avoiding a major war, or blame him for nearly fumbling into one?
Or consider civil liberties. What if McCain had promised to close Guantánamo by January 2010, and almost four years after that target date he still kept over 160 prisoners there? What if McCain was releasing detainees far slower than Bush did? What if McCain's expanded war in Afghanistan led to thousands more war captives? What if McCain's first military commission for terrorism was condemned internationally as a crime against human rights because it involved the persecution of an injured and tortured child soldier? What if McCain had vowed to protect whistleblowers, only to turn around and wage an unprecedented war against them?
What if McCain claimed not only the right to detain terror suspects and prisoners of war without due process, but the power to target anyone the executive branch deemed a terrorist, even within the United States, American citizens included, and summarily execute them by drone?
What if McCain, after initially promising as a Senator to fight against Bush's warrantless wirtetapping program, oversaw its vast expansion? What if McCain's NSA director and other high officials were caught lying over and over again about the surveillance program and what the president knew about it? What if President McCain oversaw the most systematic, comprehensive, and powerful surveillance state in world history?
Is the reason Obama's defenders hold him to a different standard simply because they don't want Republicans to take over? One wonders how much a difference it would make. Before the last presidential election, I predicted George W. Bush would win a fourth term. My point was to show the commonalities among Bush, Obama, and Romney. We focus on their rhetorical disagreements, but for whatever differences we can identify, on major questions of policy, war, and human rights issues, the two parties govern very similarly.
The major distinction would be who defends the president, and who protests most loudly.
Had McCain been president for the last five years, a lot of things would probably be the same, and some would be different. The biggest difference would be that many Republicans would stand by the president, and just as many Democrats would be calling for impeachment.