One of my most hated memes is “Obama’s Katrina.” Any time anything happens that is bad or at least seems bad for Obama, the Katrina analogies come out. But here’s the thing: I was glued to the radio during Hurricane Katrina. While it’s certainly true that Bush got some bad press, it wasn’t that big a deal. In the pantheon of Bush’s screw up, it hardly makes the top ten. Bush came into office with a relatively low approval rating in the mid-50s. His approval rating only spiked twice, ironically, for two of his biggest blunders: the 9/11 attack and the invasion of Iraq. Otherwise, his administration is the story of a steadily declining popularity, primarily because, you know, he was a terrible president.
But after his re-election, it did look as though Bush would muddle on for the rest of his term in the low 50s and high 40s regarding approval. But then something happened that really turned the people against him. And it was not his response to Hurricane Katrina! The American people where quite used to Bush being at best ineffectual. Anyway, there was lots of blame to go around for Katrina. No, my friends, what turned the nation against him was his push to privatize the most popular government program in American history: Social Security.
Jonathan Chait discusses this briefly in a very good article about a more recent, but no less absurd, Obama meme, Barack Obama Is Not George W Bush. He point out that Bush’s approval rating started going down fast in 2005—before Katrina. I was glued to my radio at that time too, and I remember. It wasn’t just that Bush was trying to cram the Holy Grail of conservatism down the mouths of Americans. It wasn’t even that his PR campaign was so heavy handed and hyper-aggressive. It was that it was so hypocritical.
Bush campaigned primarily on keeping America safe from terrorists. (You know: the ones he hadn’t managed to keep us safe from?) And there was lots of Karl Rove work getting anti-gay-rights issues on the ballots of various states to get the Christians to come out. Bush certainly did not campaign on privatizing Social Security. And regardless, at least half the people who did vote for him did not vote for him thinking he would do so. People felt tricked. And that was especially fatal to Bush who was supposedly authentic. But here was clear proof: he wasn’t an earnest Christian who might thus have some unfortunate opinions; he was just a hack fronting for the rich and powerful.
Remember what conservatives said about Obama in 2012? Sure, he’s reasonable now. But just wait until he’s re-elected and then you’ll see the Kenyan socialist we’ve been telling you about! It’s called projection. Conservatives do it a lot: assuming liberals must be behaving some way because that’s how conservatives behave. And that’s exactly what Bush did. Suddenly “compassionate conservatism” was gone and in was “crony conservatism.” This was really helped by the widespread (and accurate) reporting that privatizing Social Security—while having unknown consequences for retirees—was going to be a huge windfall to Wall Street brokers.
Now, I understand. “Obama’s Social Security Privatization Scheme and Roadshow” doesn’t have the zing of “Obama’s Katrina.” But “Obama’s Iraq” might work. It at least has a little relevance. But I don’t even understand why anyone would seriously compare Obama to Bush. There are presidential comparisons that could be made: FDR, Johnson, Nixon, even Reagan. But Bush? You’ve got to be a very disappointed conservative to be thinking that Obama’s legacy will be anything nearly as bad as Bush’s. As I’ve written before, I don’t think history will be that kind to Obama. They’ll throw him in the middle. But Bush is like Hoover. Even after 5 years out of office, his approval numbers are under water. And this is before the historians really go after him.
The main thing is to stop using Hurricane Katrina as an analogy. It was not a major event in the eight dark years that Bush was president. It is not the primary reason we think so little of the man. And the only way that Obama becomes Bush is if extraterrestrial pods start showing up around the White House. (Actually, even that would be an improvement on Bush.)
 Let me be clear: Hurricane Katrina was a major and unnecessary tragedy. But when we are talking about Bush the junior, his administration’s incompetent reaction to it was about par for the course. But killing well over 100,000 people and starting a civil war in Iraq for no real reason is worse. In the case of Katrina, Bush mostly did nothing. Doing nothing was what he excelled at. And we saw the tragic consequences over and over. But when he actually did something was when things went really wrong.