"Worst. President. Ever."
That succinct judgment, received not long ago via e-mail from a political scientist, sums up a good deal of what conventional wisdom has to say about President Bush. In an unscientific online poll of 109 historians conducted in April and published by the History News Network at www.hnn.us, more than 60 percent rated Bush's presidency as the worst in U.S. history. In his 2007 book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski titles his chapter on Bush "Catastrophic Leadership." "A calamity," Brzezinski wrote. "A historical failure."
And he was referring to just the Iraq war. The litany of disasters and failures commonly attributed to Bush has grown familiar enough to summarize in checklist format: WMD; Guantanamo; Abu Ghraib; waterboarding; wiretapping; habeas corpus; "Osama bin Forgotten"; anti-Americanism; deficits; spending; Katrina; Rumsfeld; Cheney; Gonzales; Libby. In this view, George W. Bush is at least as destructive as was Richard Nixon, a president whose mistakes and malfeasances took decades to undo.
Though a smaller band, Bush's defenders parry that he will look to history more like Harry Truman, a president whose achievements took decades to appreciate. In this view, Bush will be remembered as the president who laid the strategic groundwork for an extended struggle against Islamist terrorism; who made democratization the centerpiece of foreign policy; who transformed the federal-state relationship in education; who showed that a candidate can touch the "third rail" of Social Security and still get elected (twice).
Antithetical as these two views are, notice what they assume in common: Bush has been a game-changing president. For better or worse, he has succeeded in his ambition of being a transformative figure rather than one who plays "small ball," in Bush's own disdainful phrase. Hasn't he?
Perhaps not. Today's debate overlooks another possibility: Bush may go down in history as a transitional and comparatively minor figure. His presidency, though politically traumatic, may leave only a modest policy footprint. In that sense--though by no means substantively or stylistically -- Bush's historical profile may resemble Jimmy Carter's more than Truman's or Nixon's. Recall that in 1980 many people wondered if the country would ever recover from Carter. Five years later, he was all but forgotten.
In other words, Bush may have accomplished something that seemed out of the question in January 2002, when he touched greatness, and in January 2007, when he touched bottom. Bush may have achieved mediocrity.
If that hypothesis sounds snide, it is not intended to. Had Bush left office at the beginning of last year, his tenure might indeed have gone down as calamitous. Winding up in the middling ranks, then, would be no mean accomplishment. Far from being happenstance, such a finish would reflect an unusual period of course correction that might be thought of as Bush's third term.
From Uniter To Divider
Odd as it may sound today, this president entered office as a proponent of bipartisanship. In his December 13, 2000, victory speech after Vice President Gore conceded the election, Bush called for a new politics of conciliation. Speaking from the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives, he said, "The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington, D.C."
To be sure, Bush was capable of aggressive partisanship and brusque unilateralism, as when in 2001 he pushed through large tax cuts with little Democratic support and tore up an assortment of treaties. But in the early days, he also brought off a bipartisan education reform, and after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he did what even his critics agreed was a masterful job of rallying the country. His public approval rose to a dizzying 90 percent.
The fruits of this early period of two-party government were considerable: a new campaign finance law, the USA PATRIOT Act's revisions to domestic-security law, the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accountability law, the creation of the Homeland Security Department, and more. "Seventeen major legislative acts were passed in the first two years of the Bush presidency -- the second-highest among first-term presidents in the post-World War II period," writes Charles O. Jones, a presidential historian.
Had Bush left office in January 2003, his reputation as our era's Truman might have been assured. His successor would have inherited not only the aforementioned laws but also a successful military campaign in Afghanistan, a set of broadly accepted policies for combating terrorism, and a United Nations still following America's lead in efforts to confront Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
But 2002 also marked the Bush administration's transition to a more rigidly partisan governing style. That January, Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, signaled that Republicans would "make the president's handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their strategy to win back the Senate," as The Washington Post reported. This represented a distinct change in tone: "Until now," The Post noted, "Bush has stressed that the fight against terrorism is a bipartisan and unifying issue for the country."
It was in this period, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College and the author of a forthcoming book on Bush's presidency, that "you get the idea of permanent political advantage based on national security, which becomes intoxicating to Republicans." That year's midterm election, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and consolidated their margin in the House, vindicated their strategy but also trapped the party within it.
In firm control of both branches, Bush and congressional Republicans embarked on an experiment in one-party government. Thanks to superbly honed party discipline, the plan worked for a while, but the price was high. Republicans had to govern from the center of their party, rather than the center of the country; Democrats were absolved from responsibility for the results.
What followed was a period of substantive excess and stylistic harshness that came to define Bush's presidency in the public's mind, obliterating memories of the "compassionate conservative." The list of setbacks in this period is long, merely beginning with Iraq's disintegration, North Korea's test of a nuclear bomb, and Iran's growing boldness and influence.
At home, profligate spending and a major Medicare expansion disgusted conservatives. Rising deficits troubled centrists, as did Bush's (unsuccessful) intervention in a dispute over ending the life of Terri Schiavo. His efforts to reform Social Security and immigration policy collapsed embarrassingly; his sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina cratered Americans' faith in his competence. Abroad, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding, and extrajudicial detentions called the country's basic decency into question. One could go on.
Whatever you may think of the administration's policies on those issues individually, their cumulative effect on Bush and his party are not in doubt. By 2006, the president's approval rating was in the 30 percent range and falling. The Democrats swept control of Congress in November. If Bush's presidency had ended in January 2007, his reputation as our era's Nixon might have been assured.
But, of course, Bush did not leave office then. Instead he embarked on what history may come to regard as the most surprising and interesting period of his presidency. Many presidents have had good first terms and troubled second ones; the pattern is conventional, and Bush's presidency approximately fits it. But Bush has used his last two years as, in effect, a third term, behaving as if he were his own successor.
Bush's Third Term
He began with some significant personnel changes. In 2006, Bush replaced the second of two mediocre Treasury secretaries with Henry Paulson Jr., whose performance has been lauded by the likes of House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- neither of them Bush fans.
Shortly afterward, ending what seemed an interminable wait, Bush got around to replacing the dysfunctional Donald Rumsfeld at the Defense Department with the far more adept Robert Gates. At Justice, Michael Mukasey, a respected federal judge, set about re-professionalizing a department whose independence and credibility had been compromised under Alberto Gonzales. At State, the president gave Condoleezza Rice her head, a trust that her predecessor, Colin Powell, had never been allowed.
"There was unquestionably a sharp change in their approach to the world and in their policies," says Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Frequently cited examples include:
* The Iraq surge. Against conventional wisdom, the administration sent more troops to Iraq and gave them a new commander with a new strategy. Even Bush's critics now acknowledge that Iraq is in far better shape than it was two years ago. The gains may or may not be sustainable, but if they can be preserved, Iraq has a shot at peace and stability. That seemed a pipe dream before the surge.
* Iran. Bush has been patient but, many critics have said, rigid in his dealings with this charter "axis of evil" member. Lately, however, he has softened his posture and attempted to cultivate new openings, notably by authorizing what The New York Times called "the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979."
* The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After years of keeping his distance from what he seemed to regard as a morass, Bush changed course in 2007, authorizing Rice to pursue diplomacy vigorously and presiding over a relaunch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last November.
* North Korea. Over hawks' objections, Bush struck a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang much like the one that conservatives, including some Bushies, derided the Clinton administration for making. "That is the really dramatic example of Bush doing toward the end of his presidency something he would never have contemplated or tolerated early on," says Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration and is now the president of Brookings.
* Global warming. Repudiating the Kyoto climate treaty was among Bush's first presidential acts, and he maintained his disengagement from the issue through most of his presidency. But in July he joined the other major industrial countries in promising to halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. A European environmental official told The Washington Post, "President Bush has moved considerably over the past one to two years."
What changed? "I think we learned a bit," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told reporters in June. He was speaking of U.S. forbearance in dealing with the always obstreperous North Koreans, but to outsiders the statement appears to have broader applicability. Liberals say that the administration became more flexible because it ran out of alternatives, conservatives that its resolve weakened, Kremlinologists that (as one aide told Carla Anne Robbins of The New York Times) "Condi wins."
Ever protective of Bush's trademark steadfastness, the White House takes issue with any talk of U-turns. "I think there's actually remarkable continuity," says Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary. He asserts that reality has caught up with the administration rather than the other way around. It took time to draw China, India, and other major emerging economies into global-warming negotiations, a prerequisite for any ambitious U.S. commitment; it took time to persuade China to lean on the North Koreans to make a nuclear deal; it took time to weather leadership changes and factional struggles so that Middle East peace negotiations could resume. The surge in Iraq, Fratto says, "was clearly a change of course. It was a new strategy." Elsewhere, he argues, the administration has been reaping the fruits of patient effort.
Whatever the explanation (the various versions may all be partially right), in the past couple of years Bush has significantly changed the starting point for his successor. He now hands President McCain or President Obama a healing rather than a broken Iraq, diplomatic processes rather than deadlocks in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, and a position on global warming that is widely viewed as moving the United States past obstructionism. Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, it seems fair to guess, would rather follow than precede Bush's late-term adjustments. Whatever you may think of Bush's abilities as a sailor, he has proved pretty good at bailing.
Meanwhile, despite his abysmal popularity and the Democrats' control of Congress, Bush managed to win approval, on essentially his own terms, of a new wiretapping law and funding for the war in Iraq, the last things anyone expected a Democratic Congress to give him. "I think what you see here is a guy who has learned to be as effective as possible in reduced circumstances," says Schier, the Carleton College political scientist. Paradoxically, this chief executive who prided himself on assertive, even aggressive, leadership proved to be a weak strong president but a surprisingly strong weak one.
Back To The Future
To what end?
That Bush has improved his legacy over the past couple of years is an easy case to make. True, the economy has declined, oil prices have risen, and the mortgage crisis has loosed a Category 4 storm on Wall Street. But the economy and oil prices are not under Bush's control, and both he and Congress have leaned aggressively into the financial gale, adopting a bipartisan stimulus package and intervening forcefully to support the mortgage market. With unemployment rising and Wall Street wondering where the mortgage fallout may end, no one much likes the economy's condition today, but not many people would trade the policies of late 2008 for the policies of late 2006.
The harder question is where Bush will leave matters after eight years, not after just the past two. The only honest answer is: It depends. What do you measure? How do you think a President Gore would have done? Those are the sorts of questions that keep historians and journalists in business. You will find no definitive answers here.
But you will find a hypothesis, one at odds with the prevailing wisdom that Bush, whatever you think of him, has been a president of major consequence. Consider, again, the five problems mentioned earlier, this time comparing their likely status in January 2009 with where things stood in January 2001.
* Iraq. The situation in January 2001 was unstable and dangerous but not critical. Then, for a time, affairs in Iraq became critical, verging on catastrophic. Now the situation is again unstable and dangerous but not critical. Obviously, Iraq today is a very different kind of problem than it was eight years ago, one more pregnant with both promise and risk. But the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq that Bush inherited in 2001, and that he intended to dispose of once and for all, will instead continue into its fourth presidency, if not beyond. (Iraq will soon have been a sinkhole for U.S. foreign-policy energy for 20 years, almost half the length of the Cold War.)
* Iran. This rogue nation was a problem in 2001 and remains a problem now. In the interim, Iran has raced ahead with uranium enrichment, elevated an apocalyptic demagogue to its second-highest office, and expanded its regional influence. At the same time, however, Western powers have edged toward a consensus on confronting Iran, and the United Nations has imposed several sets of sanctions, some of which -- the financial ones -- appear to be biting.
* The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Bill Clinton left office, the United States was struggling against long odds to broker a peace deal; as George W. Bush leaves office, the United States is struggling against long odds to broker a peace deal. Whether the situation is more intractable today than it was eight years ago is an open question, but Bush's reluctant conclusion that the U.S. must mediate an agreement all but guarantees that no future president will try to walk away from the problem. If Bush couldn't walk away, no one can.
* North Korea. A tenuous denuclearization agreement was in place eight years ago; a tenuous denuclearization agreement is in place again today. Now, as then, the agreement may or may not be worth the paper it is written on. In the interim, Pyongyang acquired a few more nuclear bombs and tested one, but the two sides are still playing the same game.
* Global warming. Eight years ago, the United States had committed itself to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, though rhetorically rather than substantively; today the United States has again committed itself to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, though rhetorically rather than substantively. As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush's attempt to disengage from the climate-change issue merely established that the United States cannot do so. The next president will pick up more or less where the Clinton-era Kyoto Protocol left off.
Bush may have made these problems harder or easier to solve, a question that partisans can contest to their hearts' delight. What is clear, however, is that all five were large and difficult challenges in 2000 and all five remain large and difficult challenges in 2008.
Two other areas, the war on terrorism and fiscal policy, deserve a closer look. Bush's defenders stake their claims heavily on the former, his detractors on the latter. Has Bush built a lasting architecture for the "long war"? Has he wrecked the country's finances?
The War On Terrorism
September 11, 2001, it is often said, "changed everything." It certainly changed Americans' attitudes, convincing the public that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are a threat rather than a nuisance, and that the United States must apply military as well as civilian tools to confront terrorism. September 11 thereby triggered a cascade of policy changes, ranging from the PATRIOT Act to the Iraq war.
The threat was pre-existing, however, as Bush's supporters tirelessly repeat (adding that the Clinton administration failed to deal with it). The Qaeda-Taliban-jihadi nexus has relocated its headquarters from Afghanistan to the nearby borderlands of Pakistan, but whether and how much it has been weakened is hard to say. The absence of attacks on the American homeland is to the Bush administration's credit, but it seems only fair to guess that a Gore administration would have worked domestic security just as hard. And to the extent that the United States is safer because jihadists shifted their attention to the softer targets of Iraq and Afghanistan, that is not altogether reassuring. Might a different administration have attained better results with less damage to the American brand overseas? Maybe.
A more intellectually interesting question is whether Bush, like Truman, has set up a lasting strategic and institutional architecture for managing the conflict. Bush's defenders argue that a return to either the pinprick responses of the 1990s or the cynical realism of the Cold War is inconceivable. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said in June 2002. That statement, the core of the Bush Doctrine, is hardly controversial today.
"None of the key elements of the Bush Doctrine -- [U.S.] primacy, prevention [of terrorist attacks], coalitions of the willing, and democracy promotion -- will be abandoned in practice by successor administrations, whatever their rhetorical recalibrations and tactical adjustments," write Timothy J. Lynch and Robert S. Singh in their new book, After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy. Similarly, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Military Commissions Act, the PATRIOT Act, and the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have put in place mechanisms that subsequent presidents may revise but will not repudiate.
Such is the strongest upside case for Bush as a turning-point president, and it may well prove correct. The retort, however, is also strong: What was most striking about Bush's attitude toward the long war was his perverse reluctance to create a sustainable institutional architecture. In marked contrast to Truman, Bush treated Congress and U.S. allies as afterthoughts, running the war on jihadism as a permanent emergency in which the president could single-handedly make up the rules as he went along. He regarded the war as an opportunity to build a political base, not an institutional one.
Result: It took nearly seven years to finish the first trial of a Guantanamo detainee. The courts have shredded Bush's claim that he could detain almost anyone practically forever, leaving the presidency, in some respects, with less power than it had before. (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both used Guantanamo Bay to hold detainees without judicial oversight; the Supreme Court recently revoked that authority.) The country still lacks coherent and indisputably constitutional structures governing the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects. The sad fact, in this view, is that it will be largely up to the next president to construct the durable, consensus-based structures for the war on terrorism that Bush could and should have built.
As for strategy, this retort continues, what is new about the Bush Doctrine is not sustainable, and what is sustainable is not new. President Gore would likely have moved toward pre-emption and democratization, but without the rhetorical and military excesses that have widely discredited both approaches. Indeed, Bush has been forced to become a reluctant realist, collaborating with exactly the sorts of tyrannies -- in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- that he has condemned. The Bush Doctrine's worst enemy, in this view, has been Bush.
This argument can't be settled any time soon, if ever. What seems fairly clear, however, is that the jihadist threat is still very much present and that Bush's role has been ambiguous, erecting while also partially discrediting a militarily focused, executive-driven approach that may prove more vigorous than sustainable.
Red Ink Rising
Bush's critics, meanwhile, argue that he trashed the country's finances. He cut taxes steeply, waged an expensive war without paying for it, engineered a costly expansion of Medicare (also without paying for it), and untethered federal spending, thus turning healthy surpluses into chronic deficits--all while failing to come to grips with an imminent crisis in entitlement programs.
"We're in much worse fiscal shape today than we were in 2001," says David Walker, who until recently headed the Government Accountability Office and is now president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. According to GAO figures, the country's fiscal exposure -- the long-term shortfall in its finances, in present-value terms -- more than doubled between 2000 and 2007 from $20.4 trillion to $52.7 trillion. Walker says, moreover, "Our $53 trillion hole grows $2 trillion to $3 trillion a year even with a balanced budget," because of rising health care costs, demographic changes (fewer workers supporting more retirees), and accumulating interest on the national debt.
Fiscal recklessness is probably the strongest downside case for Bush as a turning-point president. Here again, however, there is a challenging counterargument.
Thanks mainly to a growing economy, but also partly to tighter budgets, the deficit shrank relative to the economy in Bush's second term. In fiscal 2007, the deficit was 1.2 percent of gross domestic product, which was below the average of the last 40 years. The 2008 deficit will rise to about 2.9 percent of GDP, according to administration projections; but that is still only slightly above the 40-year average, and the cause is primarily cyclical rather than structural, because the economy is slowing down.
For all the talk of runaway spending, moreover, outlays are also right at the 40-year norm. The exceptional federal spending policies were Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's, not Bush's.
As for Bush's tax cuts, viewed in historical perspective they were a blip, not a turning point. Overall, taxes went down early in this decade but then bobbed back up again, though not all the way. In 2007, federal receipts were 18.8 percent of GDP, slightly above the 40-year average of 18.3 percent. Even assuming that Bush's tax cuts are all extended when they expire after 2010, and assuming that Congress "fixes" the alternative minimum tax by permanently stopping its upward creep, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that taxes will stay at about 19 percent of GDP.
Bush and Congress, then, didn't smash the revenue base; they just returned it to its well-worn groove. That groove seems to track the public's comfort zone, as suggested by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center's recent report that Obama's tax program would keep revenues at about 18.4 percent of GDP through 2018 -- again, right at the historical norm.
As for how the tax burden is allocated, Obama promises to cut taxes at the bottom and increase them at the top. He would raise the top income-tax rate to 39.5 percent, right back where Bill Clinton left it. You can make a plausible case that the end result would approximate what would have been President Gore's tax code.
No question about it: Bush failed to deal with the long-term entitlement problem. He left the ledger in worse shape than he found it, and his botched effort to reform Social Security may have made entitlement reform more difficult politically. "I think we've lost a tremendous opportunity during the Bush period and, really, over the last part of the Clinton period," says Stuart Butler, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
Still, as Butler's comment implies, Bush's failure in this regard is not unique. His predecessors ducked the entitlement problem and his would-be successors are all but promising to do the same. McCain's pledges to reduce taxes, and Obama's to increase spending, would likely make the problem worse. Bush's fiscal failing, in short, arguably lies not in being exceptional but in being all too ordinary.
Disaster, Or Detour?
The point of this article is not that the Bush years were uneventful or barren. Far from it. In the realm of foreign policy, the last eight years have seen a nuclear pact with India, a passel of bilateral trade agreements, a redoubled commitment to fight HIV/AIDS, and an innovative foreign-aid program (the Millennium Challenge Account). In social policy, the Bush presidency has brought education reform, restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research, and incentives for faith-based programs. In finance, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley law and the government's current scramble to contain the mortgage-market turmoil have arguably done more to extend Washington's control over Wall Street than anything since the Depression era. The creation of the Homeland Security Department represents the biggest bureaucratic reorganization that Washington has seen in two generations. Bush's two Supreme Court appointments have nudged the Court to the right.
None of those changes is trivial. But few if any are outside the boundaries of ordinary policy-making in an eventful eight-year presidency. It seems fair to guess that most will get sentences or paragraphs, rather than chapters, in the history books.
Indeed, what is most striking about the Bush presidency is not the new problems it has created (though Iraq may yet change that verdict) or the old problems it has solved (though Iraq may yet change that verdict, too). What is striking, rather, is that Bush will pass on to his successor all the major problems and preoccupations he inherited: Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, North Korea, global warming, Islamist terrorism, nuclear proliferation, health care, entitlement costs, immigration. What is remarkable, in other words, is not how much Bush has done to reshape the agenda but how little.
Reagan removed inflation from the agenda; he and George H.W. Bush (still sadly underrated) removed the Cold War; Clinton removed welfare and the deficit. Bush, as of now, ends up more or less where he started--not exactly, of course (he resurrected the deficit, for example), but about as close as history's turbulence allows. The biggest surprise of the Bush presidency is its late-breaking bid to join the middling ranks of administrations that are judged not by their triumph or tragedy but by their opportunity cost: What might a greater or lesser president have done with Bush's eight years?
In his recent book The Bush Tragedy, Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post Co.'s Slate Group, mentions the he was "originally going to call this book The Bush Detour, thinking of the Bush presidency simply as lost time for the country." His original title may have been closer to the mark. If so, history's ironic judgment on this singularly ambitious president will be that his legacy was small ball, after all.
This article appears in the September 20, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.