At 11 AM EDT this morning, the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University will open. All living presidents past and present will attend to "salute one of their own" at the opening ceremony.
Key moments and themes from Bush's presidency — the harrowing, the controversial and the inspiring — won't be far removed from the minds of the presidents and guests assembled to dedicate the center, where interactive exhibits invite scrutiny of Bush's major choices as president, such as the financial bailout, the Iraq War and the international focus on HIV and AIDS.
On display is the bullhorn that Bush, near the start of his presidency, used to punctuate the chaos at ground zero three days after 9/11. Addressing a crowd of rescue workers amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush said: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
Analysts have used this occasion to look back on the legacy of America's 43rd President. As Dan wrote earlier this week, while President Bush left office with a very low approval rating, a poll showed that the Dubya rehabilitation has already started. President Bush always said that his judgment would not be left to today's pundits but to future history. When asked to defend himself, he said "don't hold your breath."
Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Jim Pethokoukis takes a look at the economic legacy of George W. Bush and concludes that Bush got a bum rap. The financial crisis was a crisis event that Democrats would love to pin on a Republicans president, but in reality there were a myriad of different factors that contributed. Most of the downturn was out of his hands - and outside of the downturn, the Bush record isn't all bad:
The dedication of the Bush library is as good a time as any for some mythbusting. Hetzel’s key insight: Not only did the Fed leave rates alone between April 2008 and October 2008 as the economy deteriorated, but central bankers “effectively tightened monetary policy” in June by pushing up the expected path of the federal funds rate through hawkish statements. Without the Fed’s foul up, the housing slump might have led to a mild downturn at worst and no financial collapse. Indeed, from the end of the peak of the housing market through April 2008, the unemployment rate was virtually unchanged.
The Bush administration policy response was actually more or less the right one: Reform education, entitlements, healthcare, and the tax code. Some plans never got off the drawing board, others died on Capitol Hill, still others didn’t work quite as well as hoped. Katrina and the war consumed massive amounts of political capital. The Bush administration did make some key mistakes, particularly in adding to Bill Clinton’s housing miscues. As AEI’s Peter Wallison has put it: “Regulators, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, were the enforcers of the reduced lending standards that were essential to the growth in home ownership and the housing bubble.”
The point here isn’t a Bush restoration or to nudge W up a couple of spots on some Ivy League historian’s presidential ranking. The Bushies can handle that task themselves. Rather, it’s so America draws the proper lessons from the Bush years: Free markets aren’t fragile. But a free-market economy works best when it operates against a stable monetary background. Bush didn’t fail America. The Fed failed Bush — and us.
This isn't to absolve President Bush of all error. His legacy is certainly a mixed one. He spearheaded a health entitlement that will help accelerate Medicare's strain on the federal budget. He waged two wars that - by choice or by necessity - did not exactly go according to plan, and Iraq did at the time and does now have a sizable amount of opposition from conservatives. But the push from the left to label President Bush as the worst President in history - indeed, even in recent memory - is an ideological crusade meant to tarnish all Republicans. President Bush was not one of our greatest presidents. He was not one of our worst presidents, either. And the occasion of the opening of the Bush center is a good opportunity to reflect on his mixed record.