WASHINGTON – It was December 2002 and war with Iraq was looming. In a meet-and-greet with new White House reporters in the Oval Office, President Bush was asked about his legacy.
He shrugged with unconcern. By the time history judges his presidency, he will be long gone, he said. Besides, Mr. Bush added, everyone who writes history is prejudiced. “Either they voted for me or against me, but they have an opinion,” the president said in off-the-record remarks, now released with permission from his press office.
Over the years, Bush has often expressed indifference to the way history books will treat him. But that side of the president – the side that eschews introspection – is matched by another dimension: one that relishes bold moves and that views his presidency as a launch point for initiatives he hopes will extend long beyond his time in office.
Whether it’s his single-minded determination to defeat Islamic extremism in the wake of 9/11, the unprecedented federal foray into education reform, or the biggest expansion of Medicare since its creation, Bush has made his mark on history.
He also leaves office with the economy on the brink of its deepest crisis in 80 years, and, fairly or not, that could be his biggest legacy. Whether Bush goes down as the next Herbert Hoover – a concern mooted by no less than Vice President Cheney – may well be determined by his successor, Barack Obama.
Vying for “biggest legacy” is Bush’s war on terror, which led to two foreign wars (one, Iraq, launched on the basis of faulty intelligence), bold assertions of executive-branch power that have alarmed civil libertarians, and a black eye for America’s image abroad. Osama bin Laden remains at large. Two years after a “surge” of US troops into Iraq, the country has become more stable, and the war has receded in American public consciousness.
Were it not for the economy, Bush might even be moving back to Texas on an up note. Instead, he leaves with historically low job approvals – below 30 percent – rivaled only by President Truman. In fact, two years ago, as Bush launched the surge, it was to Harry Truman that he invited comparisons. Truman fought communism in the early days of the cold war, while Bush has taken on Islamic extremism. History proved Truman right, Bush reportedly told members of Congress.
Bush can certainly hope for a similar rehabilitation in the history books. But for now, his assertions of indifference notwithstanding, the president and his White House have gone to unprecedented lengths in these final weeks to try to shape his legacy. Exit interviews with Bush and Mr. Cheney have blanketed the media. Top Bush advisers, current and past, including Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, have organized a “Bush legacy project,” according to conservative journalist Stephen Hayes. The White House has posted online a 50-page defense called “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.” Point No. 1: “Kept America Safe.”
“You’ve got something that is unusual – the degree to which they have marketed what their legacy will be,” says Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I think there’s a feeling more than in many presidencies that they weren’t appreciated.”
The absence of terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11 is a recurring theme on the farewell tour. Another is the economy – not all the terrible news, but the six years of economic growth that preceded the crisis. And don’t forget the across-the-board tax cuts, key to keeping the Republican base happy as the president strayed from conservative orthodoxy in other areas.
Bush also claims credit for trying to reform the immigration system and Social Security, two risky ventures, as he spent political capital on each and came up empty-handed. On immigration, he favored a plan to tighten border security, create a temporary worker program, and allow illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. A majority of Republicans balked at what they called “amnesty.” On Social Security, Bush wanted to allow workers to invest part of their payroll tax in private accounts – a plan congressional Democrats uniformly opposed. By this point in Bush’s presidency, the start of his second term, his popularity was on the wane, drifting below 50 percent as Iraq war opposition grew, and he could not get GOP congressional leaders to carry water for the plan. After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans that summer, Bush’s political capital was gone.
The two policy initiatives – which Bush now touts as helping shape debate for the future – illustrate the difficulty of placing an ideological label on Bush’s approach. At times, as with immigration and education, he can make common cause with Democrats. At others, he comes right out of the conservative playbook. In a way, the common thread is that the first MBA president is a friend to business, not only with immigration and Social Security, but also education, taxes, energy, and the environment.
But ideologically, he is hard to pigeonhole. “I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t fit into any discernible camp in the conservative movement,” says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation.
Other conservatives are less charitable. David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, slams Bush as a “big-government Republican,” over the explosion in federal spending and deficits.
Though Bush maintains 72 percent support among self-identified conservatives, according to Gallup, he seems to have few friends in the ranks of leading Republicans, at least in public. At a recent debate among competitors for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Ronald Reagan remained the gold standard of GOP virtue, with nary a kind word for the current president. Politically, Bush leaves behind a party in disarray.
His own image is also badly in need of repair. Never since the advent of modern polling has one president experienced such highs and lows in job approval. After 9/11, when he rallied a shocked nation, Bush hit 90 percent in Gallup. By last October, he was at 25 percent.
Many observers have spoken of the lost opportunity of 9/11, when Bush had the nation, if not the world, behind him. Bush had come to the presidency promising to be “a uniter, not a divider,” after the polarizing Clinton years and the contested election of 2000. Indeed, his record as governor of Texas, where he worked easily with Democrats, held promise. And the bipartisan education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, added hope.
But politics intervened. “The key moment was where he and Rove decided to take advantage of 9/11 in the midterm elections [of 2002],” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin. “It permanently alienated Democrats.”
After eight years in office, Bush leaves a legacy rich for historians.
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