When I used to blast President George W. Bush for being the nation’s biggest big-government president in history, my fellow conservatives would remind me that “Bush kept us safe.” In other words, despite doubling the Department of Education thanks to No Child Left Behind giving us the largest entitlement expansion since Lyndon Johnson with Medicare Plan D, and spearheading TARP and the bank and auto bailouts — not to mention doubling the national debt — Dubya is considered to be a success by Republicans simply because he prevented another 9/11.
It doesn’t matter to these apologists that the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, happened on Bush’s watch. And it certainly doesn’t bother them that the same could also be said of Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. Even worse, many Republicans continue to believe this narrative.
By this same logic, Barack Obama has kept us safe and deserves to be re-elected. President Obama can not only brag that he has prevented another 9/11 from taking place on his watch, he can make the biggest boast of all — he killed Osama bin Laden.
Using the “Bush kept us safe” logic, Republicans should be casting their ballots for Obama, but this is not happening. Conservatives accuse Obama of being a disaster, and by most conventional measures — unemployment numbers, tax increases, skyrocketing spending — Obama has been. The bureaucratic nightmare we call Obamacare could dwarf Bush’s entitlement expansions while also wrecking the American healthcare system. And the president has given us an economic stimulus plan that didn’t stimulate the economy while the “change” he promised has yet to materialize. Even on the issues that once animated the Left against Bush — our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the loss of civil liberties at home — Obama has managed to trump his predecessor, giving us more war and increasing domestic spying and drone strikes. Obama just might be the worst president in American history, but he has kept us safe.
Make no mistake, the “kept us safe” mantra is a study in partisanship. By any rational assessment, Bush was a disaster for conservatives, that is if limited government icons like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan still have any claim to the label. Likewise, with the arguable exception of Obamacare, liberals really don’t have many reasons to cheer for Obama. Yet Republicans and Democrats believe their respective leaders’ records are successful based on premises that both conservatives and liberals would reject if they were detached from the personalities — and parties —involved.
If you had asked most Republicans back in 2000 if they would have supported a Republican president who made Bill Clinton look conservative, you would have gotten a resounding “no.” And in 2008, if you had asked most Democrats if they would have supported a Democratic president who made Dick Cheney look liberal, you would have gotten an equally resounding “no.” But majorities of Republicans and Democrats do, vociferously. This is a triumph of partisanship over philosophy, politics over principle, faith over fact.
When it comes to foreign policy, the best argument that Obama can possibly use against Romney will be rhetoric rooted in the Bush-era. He kept us safe and he killed Bin Laden. Those two things will make it next to impossible for Romney to convince most Americans that the president is “weak.” However, this particular defense forces conservatives to acknowledge that measuring success by what hasn’t happened is not only a bizarre method of judging success, but it’s certainly not good enough to excuse the rest of Obama’s record.
Think about it like this: Imagine a husband and father who manages to feed and shelter his family, but who also cheats on his wife, ignores his children, depletes his savings, and racks up credit card debt, leaving his family with an uncertain future. No rational person would think this man was a good husband or father simply because no one had broken into his house and harmed his family under his watch. That would not be good enough.
When it comes down to it, the government is not our keeper. If the best praise we can give presidents is that they “kept us safe,” we exhibit the mind-set of frightened children. We are essentially giving leaders credit because nothing happened while allowing this praise to obscure what they do that is demonstrably horrible.
Obama is demonstrably horrible, but he has kept us safe. So what?