Some news organizations are now taking a stand-back-and-look examination of President George W. Bush, and let’s just say that when they made their list of pluses and minuses they ended an extra page for the minuses – and their verdict will not make Rush and Sean very happy.
The good news for George Bush: they are not (yet) calling him the worst President ever. The bad news: its clear he is considered one of the most unsuccessful Presidents in recent times and perhaps in history — and historians’ views over the past year have largely coincided with those emerging assessments. Bush’s partisans may argue he will be considered “another Truman” but there’s little evidence so far that contemporary media pundits or historians see that parallel. If anything, some link his name to a President whose name began with “H.”
The latest to weight in: the AP and the Washington Post. And the AP didn’t mince words:
Wars. Recession. Bailouts. Debt. Gloom.
The unvarnished review of George W. Bush’s presidency reveals a portrait of America he never would have imagined.
Bush came into office promising limited government and humble foreign policy; he exits with his imprint on startling free-market intervention and nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was the president who pledged not to pass on big problems. Instead, he leaves a pile for Barack Obama.
Grading Bush’s performance has its limitations. History offers a warning about judging a president and his tenure in the moment: The wisdom and decisions of a leader can look different years later, shaped by events impossible to know now. Leaders are entrusted to act in the nation’s long-term interests.
That’s fine for history, but people lead their lives and make their judgments in real time. And it was one of Bush’s heroes, Ronald Reagan, who crystallized the way modern presidents are judged: Are people better off than they were when the president took office?
Based on that standard, the Bush report card is mixed at best. It is abysmal at worst.
And, indeed, to Americans not old enough to remember Republican Herbert Hoover (who was before this writer’s lifetime, and before the lifetime of the bulk of Americans) Bush will linger as as the worst President of their lifetimes. There was a time in the 60s where Democrats would still chant Hoover’s name while blasting Republicans in speeches. In the 21st century, they’ll be chanting the name of George W. Bush, a President who created nostalgia for other Presidents (among Democrats for Bill Clinton, and among some Republicans for the more traditionally Republican George H.W. Bush).
To be sure, there were many Presidents who didn’t leave office with their reputations intact, such as the truly hapless and often clueless Jimmy Carter, political suiciders such as Richard Nixon and the President who critics felt cheapened the majesty of the once-nearly-sacred Oval Office by using it as a pick-up pad, a guy with verbal impulse-control named Bill Clinton. The AP notes that with Bush, however, it’s not fair to say it was all sour notes:
This is his tenure: eight years bracketed by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and the worst economic collapse in three generations. In between came two wars, two Supreme Court appointments, a tough re-election, sinking popularity, big legislative wins and defeats, an ambitious effort to combat AIDS, a meltdown of the housing market, a diminishing U.S. reputation abroad, and more power invested in Dick Cheney than any vice president in history.
The Washingon Post in effect says don’t talk about the Bush economic record, since there isn’t much of one — and that Bush shouldn’t be eagerly anticipating the day when historians put his administration in perspective:
President Bush has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades, according to an analysis of key data, and economists across the ideological spectrum increasingly view his two terms as a time of little progress on the nation’s thorniest fiscal challenges.
The number of jobs in the nation increased by about 2 percent during Bush’s tenure, the most tepid growth over any eight-year span since data collection began seven decades ago. Gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic output, grew at the slowest pace for a period of that length since the Truman administration. And Americans’ incomes grew more slowly than in any presidency since the 1960s, other than that of Bush’s father.
Bush and his aides are quick to point out that they oversaw 52 straight months of job growth in the middle of this decade, and that the economy expanded at a steady clip from 2003 to 2007. But economists, including some former advisers to Bush, say it increasingly looks as if the nation’s economic expansion was driven to a large degree by the interrelated booms in the housing market, consumer spending and financial markets. Those booms, which the Bush administration encouraged with the idea of an “ownership society,” have proved unsustainable.
“The expansion was a continuation of the way the U.S. has grown for too long, which was a consumer-led expansion that was heavily concentrated in housing,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a onetime Bush White House staffer and one of Sen. John McCain’s top economic advisers for his presidential campaign. “There was very little of the kind of saving and export-led growth that would be more sustainable.”
“For a group that claims it wants to be judged by history, there is no evidence on the economic policy front that that was the view,” Holtz-Eakin said. “It was all Band-Aids.”
Meanwhile the LA Times notes that Bush came to office in effect seeking to be the anti-Bush — the opposite of his father. He would use his political capital. He would win over conservatives. And he would have a happier political ending. But in the end, the Times writes, his presidency in some ways parallels his dad’s:
Both Bushes saw extreme highs in public opinion. The first President Bush won accolades for his handling of the Gulf War in 1990, forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. The second President Bush calmed a frightened nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, taking up a bullhorn to promise that the world would soon hear America.
And both saw their presidencies swamped by a sea of public dismay. The elder Bush was castigated for being out of touch as the economy foundered and he seemed unable to relate. The younger Bush was pilloried for his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he was criticized for an ideological rigidity that delayed early, forceful intervention as the economy careened into a ditch far deeper than his father’s.
As George W. Bush prepares to return to Texas, historians will be judging his legacy in the context of his father’s single term as president.
“The likelihood is that the father will be looked upon as a steadier hand and better prepared for the job,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas who specializes in the presidency.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, calls the senior Bush “dramatically more accomplished” in both foreign and domestic policy than his son. Still, he said, “They are in fact going to be doing chin-ups on the bottom tier of presidents in modern history.”
Bush will continue to have his staunch steadfast defenders, just as Hoover had his, and Nixon has his and Jimmy Carter actually has his. They will continue to blame the media, liberals, mushy moderates, or don’t-get-it ivory tower educators. They’re the folks that now talk about the economy as being in “the Obama recession” even though Obama isn’t in office yet while for years insisted when there were economic bumps that it was in a “Clinton recession” even though Bush was in office.
Blame could and can and is often effectively deflected in America’s talk radio political culture. But that usually isn’t entirely effective once a President leaves office as the inevitable slew of books from associates and intimates come out, and historians get a chance to dig and get and reveal documents not disclosed during a President’s tenure.
The agenda-packed spins of partisans on both sides will begin to recede as the historians take over.
So if you look at the AP’s laundry list, and take into account how historians will begin to shape how future generations perceive Bush, you have to conclude this:
George W Bush’s image is unlikely to get better than it is on this day, today, January 12, 2009.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.