Was George W. Bush a "Bad" President?

Daniel Doherty

4/28/2013 4:00:00 PM - Daniel Doherty

That certainly seems to be the general consensus on the Left. Consider, for example, this piece by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. Responding to Keith Hennessey’s must-read editorial debunking the so-called “Bush is stupid” myth (a contention, I might add, he doesn’t necessarily dispute), Klein had this to say about our 43th president:

But all this just goes to show that raw intelligence is overrated. Bush was smart. Plenty of the people around him were smart. But he was a bad president. Presidential scholars rank him 38th — and, remember, there have only been 43 presidents (Barack Obama is the 44th, but his term isn’t up yet). He left office with dismal approval ratings, though he’s since rebounded from unbelievably unpopular to merely unpopular.

No industry on earth had the IQ-scores-per-capita of the financial industry in 2007. And we saw how that turned out. To see Bush’s failures — or Wall Street’s failures — as a failure of insufficient intelligence is comforting, but very wrong. These are stories about how smart people can lead themselves and others down the wrong paths. To a large degree, they wouldn’t be able to do it if they weren’t smart, but that just proves that not all mistakes are dumb, and that being smart isn’t the same thing as being wise, right or capable.

One could make the case that President Bush made his fair share of mistakes -- as all presidents do. But to unequivocally assert four short years after leaving office that he was a “bad” president strikes me as overly simplistic. Sometimes it takes decades -- even centuries -- for president’s to be vindicated by history. (Calvin Coolidge is perhaps a good example of this phenomenon). Yes, the invasion of Iraq is regarded by many as a mistake -- but what happens if in, say, fifty years from now Iraq rises from the ashes of violence and hopelessness and becomes a free, stable, and prosperous democracy? Do you think that would have any impact whatsoever on how posterity remembers the Bush years?

Of course, this is not to say that Bush belongs in the American Parthenon; I’m merely pointing out the fact that he made many controversial decisions during his years in office, and whether or not those decisions were the right ones still remains to be seen.

Which brings me to my next point: Over at The Corner, historian Victor Davis Hanson makes the case that the Bush years weren’t all bad, and that his much-deserved and forthcoming “rehabilitation” will almost certainly come sooner rather than later:

The 2006–7 decision to surge in Iraq under David Petraeus, when the Congress, the Iraq Study Group, and many in his administration and the Joint Chiefs were against it, was Churchillian and saved Iraq from a Somalia-like fate. Bush’s efforts to fund and deliver new anti-AIDs drugs to Africa to ward off a continental pandemic saved tens of millions of lives. Historians will argue over the catalysts for the September 2008 meltdown, but [not] about the fact that up to that point the economy had performed well for the first seven years of the Bush tenure, or that we were on a trajectory of radically reducing the deficit to a very small percentage of GDP without stalling the economy or spiking unemployment. The real problem, however, was the increased rate of federal spending in the first term, not just for the 9/11 response, but the vast jumps in discretionary domestic spending; the $4 trillion total in new debt over eight years (small in Obama terms) discredited both the tax cuts that had actually increased revenue, and the conservative brand of fiscal restraint. …

… Even Bush’s critics are shrugging that he was generous and well intentioned; he certainly lacked the petty vindictiveness of both his predecessor and successor. That may be why Bush is a model ex-president (unlike Carter or Clinton) and, in terms of presidential history, following the rehabilitative model of Harry Truman — a similarly blunt-speaking centrist who kept us safe in dangerous times and left office unappreciated because of an unpopular, indecisive war, wild unhinged demagoguery against him, a lack of eloquence, and a subsequent presidential candidate of his own party who campaigned as much against as for the sitting president.

In Bush’s case his warranted rehabilitation will come even more quickly than Truman’s, in part because in comparative terms his successor, Barack Obama, is no Ike.

There were certainly “bad” elements of Bush’s presidency -- the deficits, the spending, the federal response to Katrina, and so forth -- but to suggest Bush was a “bad” president is wildly presumptuous in my view and impossible to know at this point in time. Perhaps this is why President Bush himself isn’t too concerned about his own legacy; he’s confident future generations will vindicate him.

Hopefully some of us will still be around to see if he was right.