Even to his defenders, Bush's legacy is 'debatable'

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2009 

MBR

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at St. Stanislaus school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast region's recovery from Hurricane Katrina, January 2006.

JOHN FITZHUGH — John Fitzhugh / Biloxi Sun Herald / MCT

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush was supposed to be a president schooled in consensus building and tough, effective management.

However, the first chief executive with a master's in business administration — from Harvard, no less, and the son of a president known for his foreign-policy expertise — is leaving President-elect Barack Obama a nation that's arguably in the worst shape since Herbert Hoover left Franklin Roosevelt the Great Depression and a world in which fascism was on the march 76 years ago.

"Obama gets Pearl Harbor and the Depression all rolled into one," said Gleaves Whitney, the director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Mich.

While scholars estimate that it takes at least a generation before a president's legacy can be analyzed objectively, many already are unflinching in their assessment of Bush.

The 43rd president presided over a "free-for-all in which powerful insiders . . . have played roles as policy entrepreneurs," said Karen Hult, a presidential expert at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

"We can certainly talk about his remarkably sloppy decision-making process. That did have consequences," added George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

To be sure, Bush has defenders. Conclusions that Bush was a stubborn, often clueless partisan "suffer from the same flaws the critics say they see in the president: They're too lazy, they're too simple and they're too lacking in nuance," said Kasey Pipes, a historian and former Bush speechwriter.

Bush's presidency faced four defining moments. Each time, he had to overcome a strong negative perception. Only once did much of his constituency embrace him.

SEPT. 11, 2001-APRIL 30, 2003

Not only were people wary of how Bush won his first term after five weeks of legal wrangling in 2000, but many also mocked his verbal skills and intellect.

By the end of his first hundred days, though, "He was doing well and had established himself," said Stephen Wayne, a presidential expert at Georgetown University.

The public warmed to his personality, and soon his signature tax cut and No Child Left Behind education overhaul found bipartisan congressional support.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks redefined the Bush presidency. Wayne said that Bush "acted in a way that certainly enhanced his image. He allowed our nation to grieve." He also oversaw a successful international military operation in Afghanistan, beefed up airport security, got the struggling airlines a financial lifeline and won approval of the USA Patriot Act, which increased law-enforcement and surveillance powers.

Even his 2002 appeal for authority to invade Iraq, while sharply criticized by some Democrats, won solid bipartisan backing.

"His presidency had changed forever overnight, and there was simply no guideline for him as to what to do," Pipes said.

To the public, Bush seemed to be making the right moves: No terrorists were attacking the country, the Afghanistan mission seemed successful and the economy had rebounded from a brief slump. Those moves, however, would foreshadow difficulties to come.

"People would assume Iraq would go in a similar fashion," Pipes said.

MAY 1, 2003-AUG. 28, 2005

"Mission Accomplished."

However, it wasn't. And so, almost from May 1, 2003, when Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," his popularity and credibility began to erode.

Bush projected an image that day that was reinforced over the next six years: a president who presented himself as a strong commander in chief but who was detached from reality.

The Iraq war not only became difficult and endless, but the White House's decision-making process also was exposed as deeply flawed. "There was a failure to have a systematic debate," Edwards said.

Bush has disputed this notion, telling a Washington audience in December, "People say . . . do you ever hear any other voices other than, you know, like, a few people? Of course I do. And I have enjoyed listening to the debates among people I work with."

The evidence suggests otherwise. Bush was quoted in 2004 as saying that he didn't even ask Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or then-Secretary of State Colin Powell whether to go to war with Iraq because "I could tell what they thought."

Meanwhile, administration officials were writing internal memos to provide a justification for harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists. They used the Patriot Act to justify warrantless wiretapping of domestic terrorism suspects. Members of Congress were largely unaware of the policy — even though they'd approved the underlying law.

Hult found a pattern of "exclusion and marginalization of key Cabinet members or the White House staff."

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, saw the policies as having harsh implications that are likely to reverberate for years: "Bush's catastrophic occupation of Iraq has set America's world position back with such scope and intensity as to require a divine intervention if it is ever to be wiped off the books," he said.

AUG. 29, 2005-SEPT. 6, 2008

Hurricane Katrina provided Bush's most staggering blow.

The storm made landfall on the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, 2005, and its aftermath seemed to confirm what increasingly skeptical Americans had thought about the president for some time: The MBA was a lousy manager.

Bush told "Brownie" — Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — that he was doing a "heckuva job" in New Orleans. However, the dramatic accounts of poor people, most of them black, displaced from their homes and sleeping in squalid conditions in the city's hurricane-damaged Superdome, "showed the president's downright incompetence," Whitney said.

Bush's approval rating sank to the low 40s and never recovered. Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in 2006.

By 2007, the president had lost support on Iraq even from some key Republicans, and his bid to get control of the nation's burgeoning immigration problem was scuttled by his own party, which thought he wasn't being tough enough.

Where he once seemed resolute, he now seemed stubborn. His effort to change course on Iraq by authorizing the "surge," a buildup of U.S. troops there, sent his popularity tumbling even further.

Perhaps the most stinging assessment of his legacy came from Republicans, who nominated his longtime nemesis, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as his successor and barely mentioned Bush at their September nominating convention in St. Paul, Minn.

SEPT. 7, 2008-PRESENT

The president couldn't escape a final act, one that would test what he kept calling his strength: his ability to stick his principles.

One of his key beliefs is that government regulators and policies should stay out of the way of free enterprise.

As the economy collapsed in mid-2008, however, the Bush administration bailed out mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae on Sept. 7 and agreed a few days later to an $85 billion rescue of insurance titan American International Group. By early October, Bush signed into law a $700 billion financial-industry rescue plan, and he said in mid-December that Washington would lend up to $17.3 billion to desperate U.S. automakers.

"This is a difficult time for a free-market person," he told an American Enterprise Institute forum on Dec. 18. "Under ordinary circumstances, failed entitles should be allowed to fail."

He couldn't let that happen, however. "I make the case that I didn't want to do this," he said. "It's the last thing I wanted to do."

He explained that he had no choice, not with a widespread economic collapse looming. "And so as you can tell," Bush said, "we're all in, in this administration."

These decisions could muddle his legacy even further. With his national-security and management credentials in tatters, the president's best hope for being judged warmly is to be seen as adhering to his beliefs.

If the war on terrorism brings a working democracy to Iraq and surrounding countries, and if the 2008 bailouts help revive the economy, Bush may be lauded for his decisiveness. However, it's too soon to tell.

"He's a very debatable president," Pipes said. "The last word has not been written on this for many, many years to come, and how it's going to turn out, I have no idea."

ON THE WEB:

Bush remarks at American Enterprise Institute

Bush talks about his national security record

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