Photo credit: ZACH GIBSON/AFP/GETTY. George W. Bush speaks of his friendship with the Obamas.
I wasn’t a fan of George W. Bush when he was president. Bush looks better in retrospect. In comparison to Donald Trump and the fever in the Republican Party in 2016 and beyond, Bush’s stature has grown. His speeches were articulate, he had good speechwriters, his policies were rational, he disclosed all of his tax returns, there weren’t many charges that he and his aides had huge financial conflicts of interests, and he didn’t often impulsively speak or “tweet” without thinking of the consequences.
He understood the nation was not at war with Islam, tamped down Islamophobia after 9/11, reached out to Muslims in America and proposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” led the fight against AIDS in Africa, pushing a huge investment of $15 billion. Under his leadership, the US expanded Medicare to include a pharmaceutical drug benefit and preserved sprawling sea and island ecosystems, totaling more than totaling 195,000 square miles.
Bush’s faith-based initiatives — $189 million in Federal funding to support the work of organizations serving America’s needy — were a good idea in principle. He awarded $43 million through the President’s Compassion Capital Fund, $45.6 million through the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program, and $100 million through the Access to Recovery drug treatment voucher program, among other programs.
Response to 9/11
Bush rallied and unified the country immediately after 9/11, comforted victims’ families with talent and real compassion, kept the country safe for the next seven years when nearly everyone doubted that was possible. But he and his staff did not pay attention to intelligence warnings before 9/11 warning of an attack. That may or may not have made any difference in the long term, as a major terrorist attack on the US was probably inevitable due to the country’s vulnerability.
Despite the initial public relations disaster of Hurricane Katrina, in which 1,800 people died after Bush responded too slowly, he threw billions at the region, giving away $5,000 or more per citizen, offering free real estate through a new homestead act, and big tax breaks for business investments (that may have occurred anyway). He pushed through the biggest urban reconstruction program since the 1960s. And he did it largely with Republican support in Congress that they would not have given a Democratic president. As I wrote at the time, “a Democratic president couldn’t launch such a grandiose scheme without inciting waves of outrage from the right.”
Did it work? Ten years later, a lot of assessments were made. Clearly, the Bush Administration made the federal government more powerful in disaster relief. Some said the region made little progress, some said “it’s back,” economically thriving with a return in the population that fled, with a lot of new jobs and new investments. Yes, the city has seen population and job growth. But not what people hoped, and myths still exist.
New Orleans still has an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, the same as before the storm. The childhood poverty rate 10 years later was 39 percent, 17 percentage points above the national average and only a slight decrease from 41 percent in 1999.
Bush got a lot of blame for not anticipating the hurricane and acting quickly afterward. But even if he had fully funded levee repair, the levees would not have withstood a Class 4 or 5 hurricanes. And if his administration had ordered the construction of expensive new levees to withstand such destructive force, it’s unlikely they would have been completed by the time Katrina hit.
Climate Change and Global Warming
Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, and that caused political problems with allies who considered him too “unilateralist,” but the decision did not have much longterm effect on US environmental policy, as Peter Baker reported in The New York Times. Bush, he pointed out, “invested tens of billions of dollars in developing alternative fuels and clean energy technology, and he convened summit meetings of leaders from major economic powers to collaborate on reducing emissions.
“Over the course of his tenure, he became more convinced by the science of climate change. In his State of the Union address in 2006, Mr. Bush, a former oilman, declared that “America is addicted to oil,” and in the address a year later, he called climate change a “serious challenge.” In his final two years in office, he imposed tougher fuel efficiency standards on automobiles to reduce tailpipe emissions, and came around on the idea of a market-oriented cap-and-trade system, suggesting in a speech that he would be open to it,” Baker wrote in 2017.
Stewardship of Economy
Bush’s presidency was a time of low inflation, the lowest since the early 1960s. The average unemployment rate during his tenure was slightly above 5 percent, worse than during the Clinton years. He suffered in comparison. NYT:
During Bill Clinton’s administration, the number of new jobs created was greater than the growth in the population of working-age Americans, something that had happened in only one previous administration since World War II, that of Lyndon B. Johnson. Job growth also sputtered after Mr. Johnson left office.
Even so, economic growth wasn’t so bad in the Bush years. A president can only do so much to turn an economy around when there’s not a crisis.
Bush came to power during a mild slowdown in 2001 after five years of strong growth; 9/11 happened, shocked everyone and the economy. But by mid-2002 growth started recurring, and continued through 2007. Wikipedia:
From 2001 through 2004, GDP growth was clocked at 2.35%. The number of jobs created grew by 6.5% on average. The growth in average salaries was 1.2%.
While inflation was low, salary growth was also weak. Consumer spending since the 1980s was fueled by too much borrowing, especially from home equity. From 2001 to 2004:
Growth in consumer spending was 72% faster than growth in income. Investment in residential real-estate soared, growing 26% faster than average.
Then the bubble burst and the Great Recession hit in 2008. Bush’s administration led efforts to bail out the big banks and financial institutions, taking on massive government debt and causing free market fundamentalists to abandon him and John McCain.
Bush Tax Cuts Were Progressive But Expanded the Deficit
The Bush tax cuts made the code more progressive, according to economist Steven Landsburg. “It is one of the great myths of the 21st century that the Bush tax cuts made the tax code less progressive; the opposite is true. If you are in the bottom 38% of taxpayers, you now pay zero income tax.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment, though progressives might. He thinks the economic policies of Obama and Bush were alike.
Bush claimed, however, that his supply-side tax cuts would generate revenue, and that did not happen, as many economists pointed out. They expanded the deficit.
One can argue the pros and cons of bipartisan Homeland Security and education (“No Child Left Behind”) legislation that passed during his tenure, but they were popular at the time.
Just as Barack Obama used executive actions to temporarily change immigration and health care policies when Congress refused to act, Bush defied a Democratic Congress by refusing to enforce more than 750 laws, including affirmative action and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research. Both asserted they had the legal authority to do that. Conservatives attacked Obama for abusing his authority, and Democrats claimed Bush did. Now the legal authority of the president is an issue for scholars to debate.
Moderately Conservative Supreme Court Appointments
Bush’s nominations of John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Samual Alito as Associate Justice were reasonable. Roberts and Alito are thoughtful, respectful of diverse points of view, conservative but not ideological zealots who can be predictably pegged before they even hear a case. The “conservative” court reaffirmed the legality of the Affordable Care Act and legalized gay marriage.
Foreign Policy: Disastrous Iraq Invasion, Unending Afghanistan War
Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on false pretenses — Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — looks like an ongoing disaster. Yes, the intelligence was wrong and that wasn’t his fault. But we have learned that a great deal of intelligence was skeptical of the WMDs, and Bush chose to believe what he wanted to believe. And he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam without an understanding of the culture, the consequences of toppling Saddam, and without a clear plan for how to rebuild and stabilize it, pouring trillions of US tax dollars into an unaccountable waste.
The Afghanistan war is unending.
As a result of Bush’s actions in Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein, Iran gained power, ISIS emerged, Syria fell into civil war, refugees flooded into Turkey and Europe, and radical Islamic terrorism spread to Europe and the United States.
If that results in World War III, Bush’s ranking might decline to one of the five worst. If somehow radical Islamic terrorism is crushed, Iraq stabilizes into a strong country and remains an ally of the US, Bush’s ranking will improve.
Evaluations During Presidency
These evaluations of Bush in 2006 were pretty harsh.
Move Over, Hoover (By Douglas Brinkley, Tulane)
He’s The Worst Ever (By Eric Foner, Columbia University)
Time’s On His Side (By Vincent J. Cannato, University of Massachusetts )
At Least He’s Not Nixon (By David Greenberg, Rutgers)
He’s Only the Fifth Worst, by Michael Lind, New America Foundation
Instead of ranking him as the fifth worst president, a complete and total disaster, I would rank in the low average range of presidents, primarily because of the Iraq fiasco. He ranks higher than before because of his generous immigration proposals — he did not sink into nativism or Islamophobia as his successor Trump did, and his speeches were far more thoughtful.
Obama, too, engaged in executive actions of questionable legality. Every president wants as much power as possible.
We think of the five or six best presidents, the five or six worst presidents, and the rest in the middle somewhere. We rank them based on future events that they had no control over, but that were shaped by their actions. Future events will change Bush’s ranking.
- Posts about George W. Bush on my old blog, 2004-2008. I gave him my respect and I wanted him to succeed, unlike a lot of hyper-partisans against Barack Obama.
- Dubya and Me, by Walt Harrington. A journalist and classmate of George W. Bush observes his transformation from 1986 to 2011. Surprising anecdotes: Bush stopped drinking, cold turkey, in 1986. He read 186 books between 2004 and 2007, consisting mostly of serious historical nonfiction. He was always a reader, in the hour before bed, for example, books by John Fowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gore Vidal, biographies of Willa Cather and Queen Victoria, along with a cover-to-cover reading of the Bible. Bush majored in history at Yale.
- Harrington, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a column about Bush: “I have told various George W. haters that they had best not underestimate the man,” I wrote, “that he’s smart, thoughtful in a brawny kind of way and, most of all, a good and decent man. … What I’ve never mentioned is that I didn’t vote for George W. I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action. So I voted against this good and decent man. It pained me to do it. … It baffles me that grown people must convince themselves that those with whom they disagree are stupid or malevolent.”
- In 2005, on my old blog, I critiqued Bush’s second inaugural address, saying “If Bush is wrong, we all lose.”
Inauguration Day is traditionally the day when Democrats and Republicans put aside partisan differences and become AMERICANS FIRST, celebrating respect for law and the rightful choice of the American people in the previous November’s election. In January 2001, that traditional ritual really didn’t occur — there were thousands of passionate protesters on the street, still angry at the “selection, not election” of the President just a month earlier.
This time, George Bush gets from ardent Democrats what they would not give him as he began his last term — grudging respect — a concession that this time, his Presidency is NO ACCIDENT, a concession that their portrayals of him as dumb and stupid were too harsh, a willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt on Iraq and the economy for a period of time. For if he is wrong, WE ALL LOSE. We all have to hope he is right and those of us who have been his critics have been wrong, for our own sakes, for the sake of our nation.
The cartoonist Herblock on Richard Nixon’s second inauguration day in 1973 gave him a “clean shave” — no longer portrayed him with shifty eyes, crooked-looking “five o’clock shadow.” It didn’t last, of course. Within six months, eye-deep in the Watergate scandal, Nixon grew a new “five o’clock shadow,’ from Herblock’s point of view. But the “clean shave exercise,” offering an olive branch to those we disagree with politically, is an important tradition.
Witty cynics have described the ritual of marriage as “the triumph of hope over experience.” The ritual of inauguration day might also be described as “the triumph of hope over experience.” Most presidencies in my lifetime have started out with high hopes, and ended in disappointment, if not downright disillusionment.
Perhaps our stance should be to EXPECT very little good from this President, then we are unlikely to be disappointed. We might even be pleasantly surprised. Four years from now, maybe we will be able to say, “he wasn’t as bad as i expected him to be.”
- President William Henry Harrison in 1841 gave a 8000 word-inaugural address, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes. He wore no hat, no overcoat, caught pneumonia, and died a month later — the nation’s shortest presidency.
- On my old blog, in 2004, I wrote about Bush’s religious beliefs, from “self-help Methodist” to “Messianic Calvinist.” It seems a little harsh today:
Growing up in Midland, Texas in the ’50s, Bush attended the First Presbyterian Church, where his father was an elder and a deacon. At 40, with a drinking problem and a marriage in trouble, he had a born-again experience, became a “self-help Methodist” who followed “a 12-step God,” observed Jim Wallis, editor of the progressive evangelical publication Soujourners. He joined a weekly men’s prayer group, and stopped drinking completely. In Austin, he and Laura attended Tarrytown United Methodist, a traditionally Protestant church “with an implicit disapproval of any overt emotional display.”
While he became vocally “pro-life” on abortion, he was a zealous proponent of the death penalty. As governor of Texas, he presided over a record 152 executions, including the 1998 execution of fellow born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who later led a prison ministry. Bush ignored the Pope’s plea to spare the life of Tucker. In an interview with Talk magazine, Bush imitated Tucker’s appeal for him to spare her life – pursing his lips, squinting his eyes, and in a squeaky voice saying, “Please don’t kill me.”
On issues of concern to religious conservatives, he favors re-instituting prayer in public schools, laws against abortion, publicly-funded faith-based initiatives, bans on cloning and genetic research, censorship of pornography, and a marriage amendment to the Constitution. In 2000, he spoke frequently of a “compassionate conservatism” that offers “severe mercy.”
(He made no progress on re-instituting prayer in schools, had little success in restricting abortion or censoring pornography online, the bans on genetic research were temporary and opposed by Nancy Reagan, a marriage amendment was declared unconstitutional with the high court’s acceptance of gay marriage in 2013.)
After 9/11, he became “an almost messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America,” Wallis observed. He called for a “crusade” against Islamic terrorism, a phrase which made Europeans cringe. the Christian Science Monitor reported. Bush promised to “rid the world of evil.” Later, when asked if he consulted his father before going to war in Iraq, he said instead, “I consulted my heavenly father.”
He invokes God and his faith in his stump speeches and in official pronouncements on the war, suggesting that God is on his side. Bush presents himself as “a man with Jesus in his heart.” When a reporter asked him who his favorite philosopher was, Bush replied: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” He said he had been “called’ to seek the presidency. After 9/11, he said the war on terrorism would be “a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.” He later gave a speech saying five nations — Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, constituted “an access of evil.” To explain the motivation of terrorists, he simplistically said, “there are people who hate freedom.”
In September 2002, Bush used Biblical themes to justify his war against Iraq: “And the light [America] has shone in the darkness [the enemies of America], and the darkness will not overcome it [America shall conquer its enemies].”
It is bad theology, Wallis says, to call others evil and ourselves good. He quotes the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Why do you see the evil in them but not in yourself?”
Perhaps Bush’s language about Iraq is not so different from President McKinley’s language justifying invasion of the Philippines, to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” its people.