Modern American presidencies do not end well.
Recent presidents have resigned in disgrace (Nixon), departed in unpopularity without seeking re-election (LBJ), been defeated seeking re-election (Ford, Carter, and Bush), or witnessed their party lose the White House after their own troubled second term (Eisenhower in 1960 and the impeached Clinton in 2000).
Most tragically, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, becoming the eighth U.S. president to die in office overall.
Since the election of Harry S. Truman in 1948, then, 60 years ago, only Ronald Reagan was successfully elected and re-elected (1980 and ’84) and then succeeded by a nominee of his own party (George H. W. Bush in 1988). Republican President George W. Bush is not alone in ending his two-term presidency with low popularity (though higher than the current, Democrat-controlled Congress) and an electorate seeking change. Modern wartime presidents are seemingly unable to maintain popular support (Truman, Johnson, Nixon and even Bush after the successful Gulf War).
The American people constantly seek the new, and democracies tend to shift quickly to the question: What have you done for me lately? After all, Prime Minister Winston Churchill helped liberate Europe and was then famously dumped by the British electorate.
So Bush’s political successes (increased Republican congressional majorities in the 2002 mid-terms and the 2004 presidential campaign), followed by his dropping popularity and party defeats (in 2006 and 2008), are not unusual.
True, Bush was never universally beloved. Urban, liberal opinion of George W. Bush (as too Texan, too Christian, too anti-intellectual) has been fixed since the controversial 2000 national election. He did win a strong re-election in 2004, yet received merciless left-of-center criticism ever since.
But the collapse of Bush’s poll numbers in his second term (from roughly 50 percent to roughly 30 percent) and their failure to rebound, resulted, notably, from conservative rejection of the Bush program (massive government spending without presidential veto, including the prescription drug entitlement, failure to secure the borders before promoting legalization/amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Dubai Ports homeland security debacle).
Bush is widely admired as a sincere and decent man. But, at the close of his Presidency, it also appears that the Hurricane Katrina crisis helped to define the Bush administration as less than competent. It is true that local officials failed, too, lessons were learned, and national FEMA efforts have since improved, (as have Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi state emergency preparedness and recovery efforts under GOP governors). But the always punctual and prepared George Bush never overcame the consensus that his management skills and personnel choices did not meet the promise of his Harvard MBA.
Among the major policy areas in which Bush was right in theory, but unsuccessful in practice: democratization throughout Araby, halting of genocide in Darfur, deterrence of Iranian nuclear development and domestic government-entitlement reform.
These are grand projects, and the president deserves credit for not kicking the can down the road. But presidents are not graded on a curve, and Bush would probably be the first to admit that his liberty/human rights agenda and constant search for security and prosperity remained elusive goals in a globe troubled with failed states, terror organizations and ideological foes. Also standing in his way was the purposeful avoidance of any serious conversation by the Democrats to meet him halfway in addressing growing national unfunded liabilities unfairly billed to our children and grandchildren.
History may record Bush, therefore, as dedicated and principled but ultimately hamstrung and unable to organize bipartisanship, global partnerships or even unilateral American achievements for many of his supportable goals. It is his fault? Are jihadists interested in compromise and peace? Is Putin? Is China? And, are big-government domestic liberals interested in fiscal discipline and solving the entitlement crisis?
Bush was powerfully eloquent in defense of liberty and was right about the threat of radical Islam. He got the big picture correct on the axis of evil: Iran, Syria, North Korea — all collaborating today on weapons of mass destruction programs and support of terrorism. The president disrupted rogue regimes and focused on asymmetric warfare, terror cells and modern enemy financing and communications.
As commander in chief, he responded to Sept. 11 by ordering U.S. forces to attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and then to oust the Saddam Hussein tyranny. History is likely to record both of these military efforts as complicated, messy, and ultimately morally and strategically correct. Evildoers were defeated and millions were liberated.
The president went on offense in the war on terror and the United States has not been successfully attacked on Bush’s watch since Sept. 11, an unexpected but hard-won triumph. Not shabby stuff there.
At home, however, Bush was not a trusted communicator of the ideals of limited and effective government, nor seen as deeply relevant to middle-class anxieties over global economic competition.
Many Republicans and Democrats have been articulating a range of 21st century opportunities to incentivize and inspire energy independence, security and diversification, for example. And, the president properly stated that we were addicted to foreign oil‚ but where was the grand project to drive us to energy freedom?
On trade, taxes, counterterrorism, African AIDS funding, the Proliferation Security Initiative and working with countries to promote economic liberalization and human rights reforms, the president did well.
The left-wing trope that the United States lost allies globally is flat wrong. Nations from India, Japan, South Korea and Australia to Germany, France, England, Poland and Italy to Canada, Mexico and Columbia all elected and re-elected center-right governments whose leaders worked well with Bush. He was deeply admired by pro-American leaders such as Tony Blair, John Howard and José Maria Aznar, as well as Israeli leaders Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Bibi Netanyahu. One way to assure greater international popularity would have been for Bush to dump our special relationship with Israel. He would not do so.
Bush’s friendship to the Jewish community was sincere and consistent. His efforts to confront anti-Semitism and his sympathy for the Jewish people are well known.
He was comfortable with Jewish friends and advisers and issues. His close associates included, among others, the popular Ari Fleischer (press secretary), the efficient and drama-free Josh Bolton (chief of staff), the hard-working Michael Chertoff (secretary of homeland security), the respected Michael Mukasey (attorney general) and the powerful Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke (Federal Reserve chairmen).
He relished the annual White House Chanukah party and his trips to Israel, and his close friendships with the Israeli political establishment and Jewish thinkers and leaders. His relationship with Zionist hero Natan Sharansky led him to deep interaction with human rights advocates around the world. He honored with great emotion the family and memory of Daniel Pearl.
The president made a very clear determination early on that Israel had a right, consistent with the Bush Doctrine, to defend itself with the security fence to prevent suicide bombers, and with pre-emptive military incursions in response to Hezbollah and Hamas rockets and missiles terrorizing her civilian populations.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly expressed the strategic calculation and the moral judgment that Israel was a unique and valued ally in the war on terror, a sister democracy and a brother front-line state against radical Islam. By rejecting Yasser Arafat as a peace partner, appointing Bolton as our U.N. Ambassador and endorsing Israeli military response to Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the Bush administration repeatedly stood against international opinion and European pressure, and stood by Israel. It has done so again with great sincerity as Israel confronts Hamas in Gaza.
While elite consensus is that Bush’s second term reflected more admirable nuance and realism, this observer grants high marks to the Bush administration’s first-term foreign policy, and low ones for Secretary Condoleeza Rice and State Department policy regarding Arab governance reform and the rise of Hamas in Gaza; North Korean and Iranian proliferation; managing troubled Pakistan, and lax attention paid to a fast-growing concern, the drug cartel assault on the sovereignty of Mexico.
After Sept. 11 the president was singularly serious and engaged in international affairs, but far less effective with GOP approaches to energy, the environment, education and health care. Voters appreciated his security focus, but long years have passed, resulting in the public’s taking for granted national safety while expressing understandable concern about personal savings.
For seven strong innings, then, the president oversaw economic growth, rising productivity and export success for American workers. There were, after all, 73 straight months of economic growth. But the economy, and the White House, faltered in the late innings, and the 2008 election was therefore not about foreign policy. Maybe it is to Bush’s (at least) partial credit that Iraq was no longer a priority issue for the fall electorate.
Our grade of Bush should be balanced, our view of him honest and hopeful. History will judge his national security leadership during a time of terror. It may be a higher grade than contemporaries expect.
Larry Greenfield recently completed five years as the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition and is now vice president and fellow in American studies at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.