History will be the judge. These are the words I hope George Bush remembers as he exits the White House and returns to Texas after the most difficult eight years of his life. He will leave with a low approval rating, lingering questions about Iraq’s future and an economy hanging by a thread. He will leave office and take his place among former Presidents, exactly where will be debated for years. Certainly, many have already formed their definitive opinion on the Bush presidency, but whether or not those opinions mimic reality is yet to be seen. Generally it takes a few years for opinions to overcome partisanship. For me, I firmly believe that Bush endured the most difficult presidency in modern times, only surpassed by those years of turmoil that Lincoln went through. In light of that, and remembering the immense resistance he faced both at home and abroad, I feel he did an overall good job. And I feel that history will eventually agree.
The deck was stacked against him from the beginning. In 2000, the Republicans were facing a popular administration and a tough-to-beat Al Gore. Conservatives weren’t pleased with the prospects of John McCain. They needed a strong conservative candidate, someone with a name, someone likable that could run well against the robotic Gore. They turned to Bush. I still remember those early days of Bush’s fledgling campaign. The hesitation was evident. I’m still not convinced Bush wanted the job and I think the GOP bullied him into running. And I can’t blame him. The guy who followed Clinton had a monumental task ahead and Bush knew it.
Then there was the election, arguably the most controversial in American history, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court after a shameful back-and-forth between the two candidates. In the end, Bush was vindicated with independent count after count confirming he had more votes, but that didn’t matter. His victory was tainted and the resentment would hover with every decision he made and every task he faced. In addition to this, he was stepping into an office plagued with immoral behavior, the butt of jokes worldwide. Europe and much of the world was weaning itself from America’s protection. The Soviet bear was gone and our “allies” no longer needed to be nice. Despite what some think, opinions of the US worldwide had begun to wane long before Bush. Before he took office, he was already facing an immense uphill climb.
His early days in office were some of the toughest. He inherited a recession left by Clinton. The dot com bubble had burst and the economy was dragging. Then there were the scandals at Enron and Worldcom. And, of course, the worst attack in American history on 9-11. Every indicator suggests the US economy should have folded, but it didn’t. No matter your opinion on the man, even the most critical of critics has to concede that Bush’s tax policy had something to do with the economy’s survival in those critical years.
But 9-11 was much more of an economic disaster, to risk stating the obvious. Attempting to describe the impact of this single day on US history is futile, but I will say that it completely changed US foreign policy and would define the entire Bush presidency. Without 9-11, there would have been no Afghanistan, and likely no Iraq (although this is arguable), and Bush would likely be leaving office with much higher approval ratings. Nonetheless, George Bush faced a task no leader before him had ever faced, a massive attack by an enemy without a country, without a face, without a definable target. Patriotism soared, as did call for action. But Bush was a realist. He urged Americans to be in it for the long haul and he warned that the war we were about to engage in was going to be very long and very difficult. He seemed to have some sense of foresight that the immense support for the war on terror would not last, and he was proven right.
Of course, this path led to Iraq, the other issue that will define Bush’s presidency, and the site of his greatest accomplishments and greatest failures. His motives will always be attacked, but I look at things from a common-sense viewpoint. Two years after 9-11 every intelligence agency was telling him that Saddam had WMDs. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle were calling for action. The UN was proving incompetent and perpetually bogged down in scandal and ineptitude. Europe was for the most part sitting this one out. In fairness, it was a lose-lose situation for Bush. No matter what he did, the prospect of coming out with favorable opinions was bleak. That’s why I don’t question his motives. He did what he felt was necessary in light of recent world events. He made a command decision and committed to it. The brutal thing about history is that people can’t see the outcome of decisions not made. If Bush hadn’t taken down Saddam we simply don’t know what would have happened despite the preponderance of speculation. What I respect is that Bush committed to victory and achieving a mission, and he did not back down even when his own presidency was placed at risk. He made a promise to the troops and to the people of Iraq. He could have pulled out when things got bad, and his approval would have undoubtedly soared, but he didn’t. As a result, the people of Iraq have a chance and our troops can come home under the banner of victory. Again, that should be admired. No doubt, President Obama will be thankful that he takes over the helm in a world without Saddam Hussein.
In the midst of all this, Bush faced crisis after crisis back home. There was the worst natural disaster in American history and the utter destruction of an entire major American city. Bush’s response was too slow, that can’t be denied. In his defense, the local leaders were responsible for taking action and asking for federal support, but none of that matters. He was the President and he should have acted faster. The shame of it is that his opponents exploited the issue to paint him as racist and indifferent. That’s simply unfair. But the perception lingered and is yet another thing that Bush will have to live with. I don’t for a moment think he has no regard for minorities, and any claim to the contrary is baseless.
In addition to corporate corruption, there was also the lagging economy of the last 1-2 years. The mortgage crisis and high oil prices have driven this lag, yet Bush has shouldered the blame. Irresponsible lending/borrowing practices and decades of Congressional inaction are more to blame than Bush for this, but again that matters little. The President will always be first in line when fingers start pointing in a sour economy. Then there is the controversy over Gitmo, the horrendous behavior at Abu Ghraib, the failures at Walter Reed. Overseas, there were the standoffs between nuclear powers in India and Pakistan, the emerging economic giant in China complete with their usual human rights abuses in Tibet, a resurging aggressiveness in Russia as Yeltsin left and Putin stepped in, and the insane dictators in Venezuela, Iran and North Korea who seemed determined to maintain turmoil in their respective regions.
Couple all of this with a combative left-leaning media and an unprecedented level of unabated hatred and venomous attacks from Hollywood and political opponents and the difficulty of Bush’s presidency becomes more evident. In the context of fighting a difficult war against an invisible opponent, Bush also had to deal with rogue politicians who weren’t afraid to criticize US policy from abroad, even if the audience included some of our enemies. I think Bush woke up every morning wondering what the newspaper headlines would bring. I know I would have.
Among his failures, the misjudgment with Iraq ranks highest, followed closely by the bailout fiasco of the past 6 months. Simply put, he thought the Iraqi people would embrace freedom and post-war security would be an afterthought. This was the opinion of Rumsfeld, a man whom Bush trusted a great deal and who would eventually be proven terribly wrong. To Bush’s credit, he admitted his mistake and worked to correct it, although he did take too long to do so. Had he listened to the State Dept and Sec Powell rather than Rumsfeld, the success would have come quicker. Along the way there was the “mission accomplished” banner. I know the story behind it, but that doesn’t matter. It will forever be viewed as a premature declaration of victory by an arrogant leader who refused to acknowledge reality. It will be remembered as a mistake.
He was clearly duped by Putin and to be honest I was never comfortable with Bush’s apparent fondness for the guy. He also failed to rescue Social Security and I think he gave up on it way too soon. He failed to solve the immigration problem. He failed to address our dependence on foreign oil and the energy crisis. He failed to promptly respond to Katrina. He exercised very poor judgment in some choices for judges. He practiced, to some degree, cronyism within his administration. He failed to properly execute his No Child Left Behind program, something that enjoyed great success in Texas but has proven difficult to implement nationwide. And he failed to reel in a spend-happy Congress that was absolutely out of control. He should have used the veto pen against his own party much more often than he did. But most disappointing for me as a conservative is his bailout for the banking and auto industry. I can accept mistakes made in war, that is the nature of war, the plan often goes awry once the first shot is fired. But to abandon cornerstone capitalist principles like Bush did is simply inexcusable. The precedent he set will be hard to break and I fear that his recent economic policies will plague us for decades. Because of this – and despite my fondness for the man – his image and legacy will always be tainted in my mind. The bailout was a disastrous mistake that we have yet to fully comprehend.
In his list of triumphs, his tax policy was instrumental in maintaining economic prosperity in troubling times. He passed a medicare drug plan that, despite forecasts of doom, is proving to be helpful for many seniors (although my conservatism makes it tough to swallow). He passed No Child Left Behind, which unfortunately was only half the battle. He appointed more minorities to high government positions than any other President before him. And he brought morality and family values back to the Oval Office.
But his greatest achievements are in the foreign policy realm. He has shattered Al Qaeda and put them on the defensive, disrupting their operations to an incredible degree. He toppled a horrible dictator and gave the Iraqis a chance at liberty, and a chance at democracy in a part of the world where it didn’t exist. He did the same in Afghanistan. He brought about the disarmament of Libya and forged some strong relationships in the Middle East that have proven extremely beneficial in our fight against Islamic extremism. But, hands down, his greatest achievement is the miraculous fact that since 9-11 the US has not been attacked. His tactics will forever be questioned, but no one can deny this simple fact. After 9-11, there were very few people who would have ever believed that we would not be attacked in the next seven years. This is to Bush’s credit and should never be overlooked nor forgotten by his successor. It will undoubtedly stand out as a great part of his legacy.
Bush will be the second consecutive President to leave office during a recession despite enjoying economic prosperity for the majority of his term. Clinton’s presidency is remembered for those prosperous economic times. One wonders if Bush’s will be remembered similarly in these times of a Leftist media. My guess is that it will depend on how well Obama does. If he fails, the blame will undoubtedly be placed on Bush. If he succeeds it will be despite Bush’s final economic years. This is how the elitists will remember George W Bush. How will we as citizens remember him? We will look back on his presidency from the context of a future time, a time that may or may not be better than it is now. That is how we will frame our opinions of the man. Through new experiences and new challenges we will either look back and yearn for a return of the Bush days, as we now do with Reagan; or we will wonder how we ever endured his time in office, as we now do with Carter.
History will be the judge.
Until then, WEP offers thanks for President Bush’s service in very difficult times and wishes him all the best. God bless you, Sir.