With America’s eyes (and the eyes of others here in Canada and around the world) focused squarely on Washington for Barack Obama’s inauguration, some have taken a break to wonder about outgoing President Bush’s legacy. By the way, I hereby declare “outgoing President Bush” to be the finest three-word combination in the English language.
Anyway, The Economist‘s take on the Bush years — entitled The Frat Boy Ships Out — is probably the best and most comprehensive yet.
Other facets of Mr Bush’s personality mixed with his vaulting ambition to undermine his presidency. Mr Bush is what the British call an inverted snob. A scion of one of America’s most powerful families, he is a devotee of sunbelt populism; a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads. Mr Bush is a convert to an evangelical Christianity that emphasises emotion—particularly the intensely emotional experience of being born again—over ratiocination. He also styled himself, much like Reagan, as a decider rather than a details man; many people who met him were astonished by what they described as his “lack of inquisitiveness” and his general “passivity”.
This take in the Globe and Mail is hard to take seriously, as it asks the question ‘Has Bush been judged too soon?’ and turns for an answer to David Frum, Bush’s former speech writer, who may be just the tiniest bit biased — though no more so than the two quoted counterpoints: an historian at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy, and Jimmy Carter.
A failed presidency, two unfinished wars, an economic mess unmatched in decades, America’s reputation sullied and most of his party, the nation and the world glad to see the back of him. When George W. Bush boards the big blue-and-white Boeing 747 that will fly him back to Texas tomorrow, the conventional wisdom will deem him among the worst of presidents.
Yet history tends to soften the harshest of early judgments. Even Richard Nixon, who after the Watergate scandal became the only president ever to resign in disgrace, has been partially rehabilitated by the passage of time and sober second thought.
Could it happen to Mr. Bush?
His admirers think so. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum expects the “assessment of history will be surprisingly positive.”
It all turns on Iraq, which far more than the economy, hurricane Katrina or anything else defines the Bush presidency.
I think that to hang Bush’s legacy solely on Iraq is wishful thinking, a hope I’ve heard repeated elsewhere among Republicans and conservative commentators. This seems less about logic than it does about pinning all hope for Bush’s reputation on his one endeavour that may have a fighting chance at turning out well. I actually think that, over time, Bush’s handling of Katrina will become even more damaging to his legacy…that he ineptly presided over the worst natural disaster in his country’s history will haunt him for decades.
However, what Bush may eventually be best known for bungling is the economy, and the infallible reputation of capitalism he inherited from past presidents like his father and, most especially, his hero Ronald Reagan. As The Economist puts it:
Finally, Mr Bush also demonstrated the limits of capitalist triumphalism. The Bush administration was as business-friendly as any in American history: Mr Bush was the first president with an MBA (from Harvard) and he appointed four CEOs to his cabinet, more than any previous president. The administration was also wedded to the fundamental tenets of Reaganomics: cut taxes and free the supply side and everything else will take care of itself. Mr Cheney even argued explicitly that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.”
Mr Bush now leaves behind a tax system in some ways less efficient than the one he inherited, in need of annual patches, and unable to fund the government even in good times. He also leaves behind a broken budget process. Any economic triumphalism is long gone. Many of the CEOs, most notably Donald Rumsfeld and Paul O’Neill, proved to be dismal administrators. Reaganomics helped to produce a giant deficit. The financial crisis has made re-regulation rather than deregulation the mantra in Washington, while government has acquired a much bigger role in the economy through its backing of banks and car companies.
“I inherited a recession, I’m ending on a recession,” he noted at his press conference on January 12th. He wasn’t asking for pity, only to be judged on what happened in between. Unfortunately, that economic legacy is littered with wasted opportunity, bad judgments and politicised policy. The budget surplus he inherited is now a deficit, the fiscal hole in America’s retiree programmes is bigger than ever, the tax system is an unstable, patched-up mess.
All that to say, he was a rubbish president. Good riddance. To put a soundtrack on this trip down memory lane, here’s my favourite story so far about Bush’s legacy: Eight Years Gone, in which blogger (and rock god) Carrie Brownstein lists
the music that arose during the last eight years — the bands and songs that wrestled with the fear, uncertainty, disenchantment and frustration that for many people defined the Bush era and the events that unfolded during his tenure.
My favourite song from her list was Bright Eyes‘ performance of “When The President Talks To God” on the Tonight Show, a sharp and caustic swing at the man Conor Oberst could scarely believe was leading his country, in the Dylan-est moment of his somewhat Dylan-ish career. If you haven’t heard it, you can hear it over at YouTube. Listen to it. Listen, and heave a sigh of relief.