George W. Bush had the misfortune to become president when two long-term trends that predated his presidency reached historical tipping points: First, decades of militant Islamic ferment culminated in 9/11. Second, a combination of a decades-long buildup of debt, reckless financial practices (abetted by government policies) established in the ‘90s, and habitual inflationary policies by the Federal Reserve System, finally culminated in the great financial panic of 2008. Twice, Bush reaped what he had not sown and, fairly or not, those historical events are what he will be remembered for. Of course, this is not to say he hasn’t made mistakes.
We are all armchair quarterbacks when it comes to the war in Iraq. I didn’t see how any president in a post-9/11 world could adopt a passive response to that attack. Whether toppling Saddam was the best possible alternative is something we can never know. What we do know is that Bush merely carried out the official U.S. policy, adopted under his Democratic predecessor, of removing Saddam Hussein because of his potential for providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. (In response, the not-so-loyal opposition twisted the CIA’s incompetent intelligence-gathering into vicious charges of “Bush lied,” rather than stimulating bipartisan efforts to shore up our intelligence capacities; like the far left’s pro-Viet Cong cheerleaders in the ‘60s, they embraced Saddam as more trustworthy than Bush; cynically, they repaid our troops’ sacrifices by prematurely declaring the war lost.) What we also know is that there have been no terrorist strikes on American soil since 9/11. Yes, it looks like we will have to play whack-a-mole with terrorists for a long time, but does anyone seriously believe that this wouldn’t be the case if we had allowed Saddam to continue his sadistic, terrorist-financing rule?
If Bush were a lesser man, he could have declared victory in Iraq once Saddam was captured and brought the troops home. Many politicians would have done so. Bush did not. He refused to break faith with two groups of people—the Iraqi population, who would have suffered massive bloodshed, and the American military, whose great sacrifices would have been for naught. Bush’s willingness to accept vilification rather than break faith with those most directly affected by the war showed great character.
In the economic realm, Bush has been a major disappointment. When government expenditures soared to finance the war, he never once proposed that Uncle Sam reduce other spending by even a token amount to help pay for it. His “compassionate conservatism” has helped bankrupt the country. He was the first president to preside over a $2-trillion budget and also the first to preside over a $3-trillion budget. A 50 percent increase in federal spending and a near-doubling of the national debt in only eight years is neither conservative nor compassionate.
On the positive side, Bush’s strategic tax cuts during his first term were his greatest economic achievement. They strengthened the economy. However, he allowed federal spending and deficits to soar out of control due to his own spending initiatives and his refusal to veto any of the pork-laden bills passed by the Republican-controlled Congress during his first six years in office. Thus, Bush must share the blame, both for his own party’s self-destruction and for the flood of red ink that he leaves behind.
To his credit, Bush tried unsuccessfully to rescue Social Security as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their collision courses (one still pending, the others already past) with bankruptcy, but Congress foiled him. By 2008, he was the lamest of lame-duck presidents, resigned to being unable to stop the political tide, and so he meekly went with the flow and signed on to the massive bailout scheme favored by Democrats and Wall Street insiders.
Bush has been likened to Truman (unpopular war) and Hoover (gigantic financial panic), but I think the most striking parallels are with the other president from Texas, Lyndon Johnson. Bush is the first president since LBJ to have created a new federal entitlement (the Medicare prescription drug benefit). Like LBJ, Bush conducted a “guns & butter” policy—waging an expensive, unpopular military war while massively increasing domestic spending. Like LBJ, Bush’s runaway spending has sown the seeds of stagnation and inflation. Future stagnation, the “War on Terror,” and the financial collapse of 2008 will comprise the legacy of our 43rd president.
Right now, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever long for “the good old days” when Bush II was president, although what happens in the future may alter our perceptions. If Barack Obama tries to conciliate Islamic militants and they, in turn, inflict a devastating strike on an American city, or if, in his zeal to be the second coming of FDR, Obama drives the economy into a second Great Depression, then the American people might gain a new-found appreciation for the presidency of George W. Bush.