We have come to the end of the Bush Presidency. There are many ways to think about the last eight years. Like all presidents, things were mixed. Bush did some things well, others badly. Overall, with the exception of the war on terror, things went pretty much as I expected, or rather as I feared. The defining issue of the Bush Presidency will be the war. In fact, there were almost three Bushes, Bush the Commander in Chief leading the war on terror, Bush the domestic President, and Bush the leader.
In the end, I believe that serious and objective historians will have a hard time faulting Bush the commander in chief. While his detractors quibble about various missteps here and there, more sober historians know that no serious war is fought without problems and missteps, and that the current one is no exception. Yet while the attacks of the critics are much louder, often to the point of hysteria, than in past conflicts, in comparison to past conflicts, this one has really gone amazingly well.
The big point of disagreement will be over the invasion of Iraq. But I believe that as time passes people will see that Bush was right, for the choice was really not, as it is so often portrayed a choice between removing Saddam or containing him. It is very clear now to any who care look, that the sanctions were not working as they had been thoroughly corrupted by the oil for food program. While it is true that Saddam had no large stockpiles of WMDs at the time of the invasion, it is likewise true that he did not need them, as he had plans and mechanisms in place to create them in a little as a few weeks, once the sanctions collapsed, which they were close to doing. So the belief that we could have simply contained Saddam was at best an illusion, and illusions do not make for good choices in history.
Most important, Bush was completely successful in preventing further attacks in the United States, something no one thought was even possible in the months following 9/11. So as commander in chief, Bush gets a B. The reason for B instead of an A, will be explained a little later.
This brings us to Bush the domestic President. Here the record is much more mixed. When Bush first started running in the primaries, I did not support him. While more of a conservative than his father, he still was at best moderately conservative. In addition, he kept talking about “compassionate conservatism.” This was a phrase I first heard from Pete Wilson when he was running for Governor of California. Wilson, a liberal Republican, who won the election, went on to massively increase state spending, and to destroyed the Republican Party in California.
Now I did not expect Bush to be as bad as Wilson. He did after all seem firmly committed to tax cuts. Still I believed that he would increase social spending. Looking back on the last eight years, one of the biggest problems of the Bush administration has been his lack of concern about spending. I would normally write this as a failure, but failure would imply that Bush had attempted to restrain spending and while he did this to some extent, it was too little too late. Instead he was active participant in much of the spending increases.
In fact on a whole range of domestic policy issues from spending to illegal immigration to education, Bush has been much more of a moderate standing in opposition to his party than anything else. The biggest successes have been his solid appointment of Judges, particularly to the supreme court, and his tax cuts which, despite the claims of his detractors, resulted in solid economic growth throughout most of his presidency.
The current economic problems are a major failure for his Presidency. The Bush administration early on saw the looming problems that were resulting from the sub-prime housing market pushed by Fannie-Mae and Freddie-Mac. But all his attempts to fix these problems were blocked by the Democrats, the last major effort being in 2005. When the Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, any possibility of averting the current crisis became impossible. So as domestic President gets a C-.
During the early primaries, I saw some of Bush’s father in him and this brings me to Bush the leader. The elder Bush struck me as a good executive but without vision. He was great when dealing with a particular problem once it landed on his desk, as Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait demonstrated, but did not really have any clear idea of where to lead the country. George W seemed to have a little more of this “vision thing”, but still was more of a manager than a leader, and ultimately seemed more geared for getting along, rather than leading.
This, I believe, is Bush’s most serious weakness as President. A President is not just a good executive, someone who can make tough decisions and see them through. The President is the leader of the nation, and in a democratic government it is incumbent on Presidents to not only say what they are doing but to present a case and argue for it in the public square. Bush did not do this.
That he could do it was demonstrated in the election of 2000, and 2004. But following the election Bush for the most part abandoned the public square to his opponents, leaving his supporters often puzzled as to why While House was not even attempting certain arguments, or presenting certain information, or in some cases saying anything at all. This was particularly true following the 2004 election. With no more elections to win, in many respects the Bush Presidency went AWOL from the public square, and his low approval rating are the results.
Now with no more elections to win, low approval rating may seem irrelevant, but again we live in a democracy, and a democracy that will go on after Bush leaves. Part of the process of governing as President in a democratic system is making the case for your policies before the people. Bush’s failure to lead on the war on terror, for example, has allowed his opponents to define our actions, resulting in a lessening of support for our current efforts and virtually precluding future ones.
As a result, the leaders of dangerous regimes such as Syria and Iran can relax, as Bush’s failure to lead on the war on terror in the public square has made it far more difficult that any real action would be taken to stop them. This is the reason for Bush getting only a B on the war, instead of an A, for this too is an important part of being Commander in Chief.
While of far lesser importance, but important never the less, Bush’s failure to lead and resulting low approval rating have translated to the Republicans as a whole. Bush is not only the President, he is the leader of the Republican party. But what can an organization do when its leader will not lead? Thus on leadership I give Bush a D.
Bush 41’s lack of the “vision thing” gave us Clinton. Pete Wilson’s “compassionate conservatism” destroyed the Republican party in California. So as I considered Bush the candidate back in 2000, while clearly for me better than Gore, I was concerned that whatever positives a Bush presidency would bring, they would be wiped out by a resurgent Democratic party resulting from the weakness I saw at the time. Sadly, these fears turned out to be correct.