Victor Davis Hanson
The theme of the president's 2012 re-election campaign is that George W. Bush left such a terrible mess that Barack Obama could hardly be expected to clean it up in four years.

In other words, 43 months of unemployment rates above 8 percent, $5 trillion in new borrowing, $16 trillion in aggregate debt, gas prices of nearly $4 per gallon, a dive in average family income and involvement in two wars were all due to George Bush and simply too difficult for anyone else to overcome. So Obama cannot be judged on his record between 2009 and 2012.

At first glance, this is a most unusual claim. Gerald Ford followed the mess of Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the Arab oil embargo. After serving for less than three years, he failed to win re-election. His successor, Jimmy Carter, seemed to make a bad situation even worse. He exited four years later, tagged with a high "misery index" fueled by rampant unemployment and roaring inflation.

Ronald Reagan took office under Carter's baleful legacy but ran for re-election successfully in 1984 based not on "Carter did it," but on the recovery he engineered.

Bill Clinton was elected on "it's the economy, stupid" in 1992, and he was re-elected four years later after claiming credit for boom times. George W. Bush inherited the aftershocks of the meltdown, and a country ill-equipped to respond to terrorist assaults after the nonchalance of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the 9/11 attacks, Bush was re-elected on the themes of a good economy and a safer country.

Blaming or praising presidents for their four years of governance is an American tradition. That is why Obama asserted at the outset that if he could not turn around the economy, his presidency would be a "one-term proposition."

Like all presidents, Obama inherited both positive and negative legacies. True, there was a war in Iraq, but the surge -- which candidate Obama opposed -- had by mid-2008 mostly won the peace. That is why Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker had already negotiated a timetable for American withdrawal. Obama followed that settlement; he no more ended the war alone than did he start it. For Obama to claim sole credit for ending the war in Iraq would be about as fair as blaming Obama for making things worse in Afghanistan -- given that more than twice as many Americans have died in that war on Obama's watch than were lost during the entire eight years of the Bush administration.

Obama did inherit a terrible economy in January 2009, but one not quite still in full free fall from the mid-September 2008 panic -- which abruptly gave Obama a four-point lead over John McCain in the polls after being down four points.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.