A Brief Assessment of the Bush Presidency
Yesterday, George W. Bush ended his term as president. He left under a cloud—by the end, his own party had little use for him and his final Gallup approval rating put him at thirty-four percent approval. Many believe that he is one of the worst presidents ever; few see him as anything above average.
As with all presidents, it will be decades before one will be able to get a clear-sighted assessment of Bush’s presidency. And any analysis will show he made some awful mistakes—Katrina, federal spending, the Harriet Myers nomination. But the memory of those mistakes will fade with time—nobody remembers whether or not Bill Clinton’s response to the 1993 Mississippi River flood was good or not, and the failed Bork nomination has done little to dim the luster of Reagan’s presidency. Mistakes that loom large now will be forgotten in a few years.
Bush’s record on the economy, for good or ill, won’t be forgotten so quickly. Under his watch, banks and corporations amassed huge quantities of debt. Bush did nothing. Even after it was obvious that the market couldn’t take much more debt, Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to act till it was too late. And the hastily passed 700 billion dollar bailout did little to pour oil on troubled financial waters.
And yet, perhaps there was little Bush could do. The entire economy of Iceland (which was based on banking) has collapsed due the credit crunch, and it is not inconceivable that England could follow. The leaders of neither country did anything to head off collapse. If Bush failed to prevent the credit crisis, so did virtually ever other world leader.
And in any case, Bush hardly shares all the blame for the state of the U.S. banking system. Congressional Democrats encouraged risky lending for years before the crash.
But the economy won’t, in all probability, be Bush’s most lasting legacy. His response to 9/11 will be. And his record there is mixed—and depends a great deal on what happens in the future.
The War in Afghanistan was, by all accounts, reasonably well fought, though the situation there could be (and must become) much better. But the initial invasion was handled well, and Al-Qaeda of Afghanistan was crippled (though not destroyed, since much of its leadership simply moved next door to Pakistan).
However, Bush’s legacy will be decided, in large part, on how future generations view Iraq. It is possible that they will view it as a rousing success, or as a forgettable little war, or as a dismal failure.
If the war is remembered as a success, then Bush’s legacy will look fairly good, and he will be remembered as a brave president who fought an unpopular but necessary war against all odds. If the war is seen as a failure, Bush will too. And if the war is forgotten, and eclipsed by other, more important events, Bush will be remembered as a relatively unimportant president whose main claim to fame was fighting a minor war. (The last is probably the most likely scenario).
But no matter how Iraq turns out, Bush deserves credit for preventing Al-Qaeda from attacking the nation again after 9/11. It’s not clear now how difficult that was (we know little about Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness as a terrorist organization), but we do know that virtually all terrorism experts agreed that America would be hit again sooner or later. But seven years on, there has not been a major attack.
That is impressive, and future events will determine exactly how impressive that is. (If Al-Qaeda were to strike again on Obama’s watch, that would represent a horribly costly endorsement of the effectiveness of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror policy). George Bush has made his share of mistakes, and some of them have been very costly. But on the issue that mattered most to him (preventing another 9/11), he succeeded, though at a very great cost. It will be up to future generations to decide whether or not the cost was worthwhile.