Economic summit unlikely to burnish Bush's legacy

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 12, 2008 

WASHINGTON — This week's economic summit should offer President George W. Bush a chance to take a final, sentimental bow on the international stage and give historians the image of a man in charge.

That's not going to happen, however.

Instead, Bush limps into the meeting of 20 world leaders with a domestic approval rating of 24 percent in a new Ipsos/McClatchy Poll released Wednesday, worse than any president's showing since the advent of modern polling more than 60 years ago. He's nearly as low in a Gallup Poll: Only 27 percent approved of the way Bush is handling his job.

Bush loyalists would like this summit to be the final piece of his months-old bid to right the economy, after his February $168 billion economic-stimulus plan and last month's $700 billion financial-rescue package. However, his presidential legacy is unlikely to be even mildly affected by this weekend's effort to stabilize the world economy.

Instead, "he is in a weak position to play much of a leadership role at this point," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, in College Station.

"He's the lamest of lame ducks at this point," added Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

If anything, the Friday-Saturday Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy "puts Bush on the spot," said Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at Chicago's DePaul University, because it could underscore his inability to make a difference.

Bush, who majored in history at Yale University, has met routinely with historians in recent years, though White House aides say that the sessions reflect the president's interest in history, not an effort to burnish his legacy. Any last-ditch bid to affect history's judgment of his presidency is clouded by three challenges he probably didn't anticipate: an unforgiving public, two unfinished wars and a reeling economy.

The president's approval ratings tumbled during the administration's mishandling of the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina and never recovered.

Public attitudes toward Bush differ sharply from the sympathetic goodbyes that people have given recent presidents. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, enjoying strong economies, ended their eight years with approval ratings in the mid-60s. Even George H.W. Bush, who was soundly defeated for re-election in 1992, left office with a 56 percent approval mark.

However, the latest Gallup survey found his son's approval well below even Harry S Truman's 32 percent in December 1952, during the Korean War's third year, and Jimmy Carter's 34 percent in 1980.

Analysts say that Bush, who figured he'd be remembered mostly as the president who stood up to terrorists, instead is dogged by a legacy that he didn't expect: judgments on his stewardship of the economy.

"He's stunned by his legacy being compared to that of Herbert Hoover," Mezey said. "He was willing to be tied to the kind of legacy Lyndon Johnson had with Vietnam."

Of course, no president controls the economy, as some Bush sympathizers point out, but the federal government does have a large responsibility for helping it work.

"No administration can completely handle the economy in this day and age," contended Republican strategist Brent Littlefield.

His is a lonely voice, however.

"The president gets a lot of the blame," said William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. "He was willing to plunge the nation into debt."

Bush is indicating reluctance to go along with a second stimulus package this fall, even though majorities of both houses of Congress have signaled their support.

"He doesn't do the popular thing if he thinks it's wrong. This president is convinced history will judge that he's right,' said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Bush's legacy is in the hands of President-elect Obama," said Tim Blessing, the director of the Alvernia University Presidential Performance Study in Reading, Pa. "Say we get out of Iraq and everything holds together," he said. "And if Afghanistan goes well, and we don't slide into a depression or long recession, everything that came before Obama will get more of a glow."

The weekend's summit could fit into such a brighter image of Bush, but the legacy shapers doubt it.

International leaders simply aren't going to be eager to make a deal with a lame duck, Edwards said.

"Everyone knows someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office in two months, and that's who they really want to deal with," he said.

Bush has one flickering hope, Stewart suggested.

"If they can come up with something that produces fairly immediate results, it will temper the negative legacy somewhat," he said. "But I don't see the odds of anything like that happening as very good."

G-20 MEMBERS

The members of the G-20 attending the Friday-Saturday conference in Washington are the leaders of 19 countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. The European Union is also a member, represented by the rotating council presidency.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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