Time has been kind to Harry Truman, who has steadily risen in stature over the years. Will history be so kind to George W. Bush? Not long ago I was asked how I would grade George W. Bush as president. Readers know that I have been a staunch supporter of the war on terror and the war in Iraq. I have given the president much credit for his steadfastness in the face of domestic and international opposition. In comparison to the Clinton years, when policy and polling went hand-in-hand, President Bush has placed principle ahead of popularity. It has been both refreshing and often courageous.
But I've also been harshly critical of the president as well, in particular for how he has waged the war in Iraq. Many of you may have read this past week that President Bush's disapproval rating is now at an all time high: 71% of Americans polled don't approve of the job he is doing as president. It is the highest disapproval rating of any president since they began such polling, topping Nixon's 68% disapproval just after Watergate and Truman's 67% negative rating in 1952, as voter fatigue with the Korean War reached its zenith. In fact, the Bush disapproval numbers are tracking closely to the declining support for the war in Iraq, with 68% of Americans polled opposing the war and only 30% in support.
These numbers appear to bear out the conventional wisdom that the Bush presidency is defined by the Iraq war -- at least on the surface. But, look a bit deeper and you begin to see a disconnect: as conditions on the ground in Iraq have improved, polling numbers on both President Bush's performance and the war have actually gotten worse instead of better. This seeming contradiction points to the degree of "Bush fatigue" in the country, the effect of the endless Democrat party primary season, and a media that is bent on casting Iraq as a failure. It is also a cautionary tale for John McCain, who is counting on the conditions in Iraq to -- if not propel him to victory in November -- at least not derail his candidacy. Time will tell if this is true or not.
The polling comparison to Harry Truman is somewhat fitting, because I've read that President Bush sees a lot of Harry Truman in himself. It isn't an outlandish comparison, actually: Bush has some of the folksy, non-Washington attitude that Truman brought to the White House. Truman was president during another unpopular war, when his own unwillingness to control his subordinates (MacArthur) led to improper planning, poor execution and disastrous consequences when the Chinese entered the war without warning. Both Bush and Truman ultimately made timely course corrections; Bush replaced the ineffective General George Casey in Iraq with the hard-charging David Patraeus, while Truman sacked MacArthur for Mathew Ridgway. The improvement in Korea was both immediate and dramatic, though ultimately the war ended in a stalemate that needlessly cost the lives of some 33,000 American soldiers. In Iraq, of course, it is still too early to tell the outcome, though it is clear that Patraeus has made great gains in stabilizing the nation and improving the overall security situation.
Time has, in fact, been kind to Harry Truman, who has steadily risen in both stature and popularity over the past 50 years. Will history be so kind to George W. Bush? For three reasons, I believe it will not be:
1). A lack of vision, poorly executed. It has been said -- correctly, I believe -- that the Bush administration found its raison d'etre on September 11, 2001. Prior to that day, the Bush presidency had been struggling to make sense out of its "compassionate conservative" mantra. While there were elements of true conservatism in Bush's policies -- tax cuts, judicial nominations and talk of an "ownership society, for example -- the president has lacked a cohesive set of governing principles. His stewardship of the economy has been largely rudderless. His failure to veto a single spending bill during most of his administration let the porkers in the House and Senate run amok. Bush became after 9/11 a president with a single purpose: to combat terrorism. And yet even there his policies have been erratic and often counterproductive.
A perfect example of this was the decision to go into Iraq in 2003 -- a move made before the gains in Afghanistan had been fully consolidated, and before the U.S. military and civil affairs organizations were ready to deal with the repercussions of the rapid toppling of Hussein. Even if one accepts the justification for invading Iraq as valid, it still begs the question as to whether this was the right strategic move in fighting Al Qaeda and the forces of Islamic terror. And, while it is clear that we are now battling hardcore terrorists in Iraq, these battles are a product of the U.S. invasion, not a justification for it. The focus of the Bush administration on the "war" aspect of the war on terror seems significantly out of proportion to the soft components of battling terrorism, including cooperative intelligence gathering and public diplomacy. In fact, the president has been exceedingly poor at using the bully pulpit to both explain what we are doing in Iraq and why it is (now, in particular) vital to our national interest that we succeed.
2). Placing loyalty above judgment. President Bush is someone for whom loyalty means a great deal. He surrounds himself with people he knows well and trusts implicitly. It creates an environment that is cozy and secure, but it also can lead to a lack of critical analysis on politics and policy. Everything that has been written to date on Bush seems to reinforce the notion that the president prefers clean decision-making, where the so-called "principals" have already hashed out competing views into a consensus analysis before it hits the the president's desk. Such a process may be highly efficient, but tends to leave nuance and dissent on the cutting room floor. It also tends to shield the president from the messiness of real debate, when contrarian views can be heard without filtration. Many presidents have chosen to insulate themselves from both dissent and debate -- so this in itself is not that unusual. But it is more significant in the Bush administration, because of the degree to which the president has chosen to delegate major initiatives to his cabinet and staff.
The significance of Bush's tendency to delegate is magnified by the president's own loyalty, and his refusal to make changes to his staff even when it is clear that changes are needed. It is an admirable trait in many areas of life, but not necessarily in the president of the United States, who must modify both policy and staff when the situation requires it. The famous Bush resolve was missing when it was clear that Donald Rumsfeld's leadership of the Iraq war was failing him, and that both General George Casey and General John Abizaid at Central Command were pursuing a failed policy in Iraq. Inexplicably, when those like John McCain were calling on Bush to replace Rumsfeld after the 2004 election and pursue a troop surge in Iraq, Bush loyally hung on to his team. Rumsfeld, in particular, had become a dead weight around the Bush presidency and the Republican party in general, representing the kind of arrogant, closed leadership that kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
We all know what happened in November, 2006 -- the Republican party lost a devastating mid-term election, giving back the House and the Senate to the Pelosi/Reid Democrats. Only then, two days after this defeat, does President Bush announce the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. It was as if the president didn't understand the deep and polarizing anger in the electorate until after the election. Would the results have been different had the president acknowledged in early 2005 that it was time for a fresh approach, removing Rumsfeld and Casey in favor of Gates and Patraeus? Sadly, we will never know.
3). An historic opportunity, lost. The devastation of the 2006 mid-term elections was a lost opportunity for the Bush presidency of epic proportions. Having won decisive control of both the House and Senate in 2004, the president led a resurgent Republican party that was on the verge of a "permanent majority". The message of the American people was clear: protect America, win in Iraq, lower taxes, decrease regulation, control spending. Create an "ownership society" that is more self-reliant and less dependent on government. These were all attainable goals for the Republican party. It could have changed our politics for the next generation.
Instead, Republicans in Congress went on a spending spree, buoyed by a surging housing market and economy and given cover by President Bush who refused to wield his veto pen. The Republican majority lived on pork, spending money with utter disregard and becoming embroiled in a host of ethical lapses and highly publicized scandals. Meanwhile, the Iraq war cast an ever-growing shadow on everything, as sectarian conflict began to boil over into chaos. It didn't take long for the American people to understand that the Republican party wasn't worthy of the keys to the family car. So they repossessed it.
In the end, much of the Bush legacy will be determined by how Iraq turns out -- something we may not know for a decade or more. But even now it is clear to me that Bush has been a middle-of-the-pack president. While he deserves much credit for his resolute stand after 9/11 and the fact that we have not been attacked here in the United States since, his leadership on Iraq and a host of domestic issues leaves much to be desired.