On Thursday President Obama and the four living former presidents will travel to Dallas to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University. Everyone will no doubt say kind things about the 43rd president, who left office four years ago.
And a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a big improvement in his approval rating, from 33% when he left office to 47% now, while his negative ratings have shrunk from 66% then to 50% now. His approval rating, by the way, is equal to President Obama’s.
Yet I believe historians will view President Bush as the worst president of the last 50 years. This is a tough one for me, as I think President Nixon was a criminal who tried to trash the Constitution. But Nixon had some real accomplishments (the opening to China, the creation of the EPA), as opposed to President Bush, who barely had any.
Among those accomplishments: His efforts to combat AIDS in Africa saved millions of lives. He supported efforts by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to rescue the financial system in the midst of the 2008 crisis (though he did little to prevent it).
And he did keep the US safe from another terrorist incident after 9/11, although quite frankly, his Administration had ample warnings that one was coming in the months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the negative side of the balance sheet weighs far more heavily:
- The Iraq War was a catastrophe. Yes, Saddam Hussein was deposed, but the Bush Administration handled it so badly it wound up being a huge blow to U.S. prestige. Iraq is now a mess, with bloody sectarian warfare, and is a reliable ally of Iran. And, oh yes, there were no weapons of mass destruction.
- His administration’s obsession with Iraq caused him to take his eye off the ball in Afghanistan, where the small number of US troops war kept us from catching Osama bin Laden or crippling the Taliban early on. Twelve years later, we face another long-term defeat in that benighted country.
- The two wars have cost Americans “$3.1 trillion and counting,” according to the Costs of War project at Brown University.
- In the name of the War on Terror, the Bush Administration authorized warrantless wiretapping, renditions to secret prisons overseas, detention without due process, and torture, severely eroding the Constitution and violating international law.
- While we were at war, President Bush nonetheless continued the 2001 tax cut and actually accelerated those cuts in the 2003 tax cut. The tax cuts, the president said explicitly, were aimed at eliminating the surpluses achieved during the Clinton Administration. They failed to promote economic or employment growth.
- The president also promoted the Medicare prescription drug plan, which had no source of funding. The cost to taxpayers so far: $300 billion and counting.
- And then there was Katrina. The president’s confused, delayed response to the disaster shocked the nation and his backing of an incompetent like FEMA director Michael “Heck of a Job” Brown paralleled his support for the even more dangerously inept Donald Rumsfeld and Iraq administrator Paul Bremer.
I could go on—the Terry Schiavo fiasco, the failed effort to push through partial Social Security privatization just before the stock market crashed, etc., etc.
But why bother? Anybody looking at President Bush’s record objectively must come to a similar conclusion: He was simply the worst president of the last 50 years.
If they want to win again, Republicans will have to renounce his legacy just as they needed to exorcise the ghost of Herbert Hoover.