Here's a question: Which U.S. president has done the most in history to help Africa? President Clinton, you say? Remember his much ballyhooed six-country tour in 1998, a trip in which President Clinton came close to apologizing for America's role in slavery? Of course, the most memorable picture to emerge from that visit was a glimpse of the president in his Dakar hotel room banging on a conga drum, a fat cigar in his mouth, apparently celebrating the news that a judge had dismissed Paula Jones' lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment.
No, President Clinton may have been the first black president, as novelist Toni Morrison dubbed him, but aid to the continent during his tenure didn't come close to the mark hit by Africa's true champion -- President George W. Bush. When President Bush took office in 2001, U.S. aid to Africa was less than $1.5 billion a year. By 2006, the Bush administration was spending more than $4 billion a year, and that aid will more than double under President Bush's initiatives by 2010.
Most of the money has been directed at fighting diseases: HIV/AIDS, which has devastated a continent where one third of the population of some countries is affected; tuberculosis, which remains a killer in Africa; and malaria, with more than 25 million Africans receiving prevention and treatment for this life-threatening disease. And the president has also increased trade with Africa, which has doubled during his tenure. Yet you don't hear much about President Bush's African legacy.
President Bush came into office promising he would govern with his own style of compassionate conservatism. And he's largely lived up to that promise, but he gets little or no credit. Aid to Africa is only one aspect of that compassion. This week, an annual report to Congress on homelessness in the United States reports a historic drop in the number of chronically homeless people over a two-year period: a 30 percent decline between 2005 and 2007.
The study, which is mandated by Congress, was conducted by researchers from Abt Associates and the University of Pennsylvania Center for Mental Health Services and Research. It showed that a new policy enacted to promote "housing first" for chronically homeless people -- most of whom are either mentally ill or substance abusers -- actually works. Instead of allowing these individuals to shuttle between the streets, shelters, and hospitals in a vicious cycle, the new policy called for intervention to get them into permanent housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has financed 10,000-12,000 additional permanent housing units every year for the past four years -- which may explain the more than 50,000 fewer chronically homeless persons detailed in the report.
But don't expect President Bush to get any credit for shifting priorities in this arena either. Bush isn't likely to get an award from the National Coalition for the Homeless or other liberal advocacy groups. And Bush's lack of recognition isn't confined to liberals. Many fiscal conservatives grouse that Bush's emphasis on beefing up foreign aid and financing expensive new social programs makes him one of the biggest spenders in history. Indeed, federal aid to education increased 58 percent in the first three years of the Bush administration -- more than in all eight years of the Clinton administration, according to the nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check. But the teachers unions still detest Bush for pushing tougher standards for students and teachers.
Bush's true legacy won't be known until he's been out of office for a number of years. So much depends on progress in Iraq that all else may be obscured. Just as Watergate defined President Nixon's legacy and the Vietnam War largely determined the way President Johnson was regarded by history, Iraq will be the defining issue that establishes President Bush's place in history. But no matter what happens in Iraq (and signs are certainly encouraging since the surge in U.S. troops has helped secure stability there), President Bush has left a positive mark in other areas as well. In time, he'll get the credit he deserves.