President Bush infamously couldn’t or (more likely) wouldn’t identify mistakes he’d made during his presidency at a 2004 press conference. In a newly self-reflective mood in his twilight hours in the White House, Bush has opened up about what went wrong.
In a jaunty performance at his final press conference, he said pursuing Social Security reform instead of immigration reform immediately after the 2004 election was a “mistake,” as was hanging the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the tower of the USS Abraham Lincoln. As he heads to Texas, Bush should reflect on these 10 more important mistakes that shaped his presidency:
– Not getting congressional buy-in on detention policy immediately after 9/11. Going to Congress would have forced more deliberation when the administration was rushing into the hasty improvisation of Gitmo and made it harder for Democrats to grandstand once it became controversial.
– An ineffective management style. Bush the “CEO president” wisely wanted to delegate. Alas, the quality of some of his Texas loyalists wasn’t particularly high, and when people under Bush failed, his first instinct was to stand by them stalwartly (see Rumsfeld, Don) rather than to hold them accountable.
– Not replacing George Tenet after 9/11. Someone should have taken responsibility after the terror attacks. Tenet’s exit wouldn’t have prevented the WMD debacle, but at least he wouldn’t have been around to give his dramatic “slam-dunk” demonstration in the Oval Office.
– Deferring to his generals. Bush believed that his job was to listen to his generals and give them what they wanted. This made him overly passive during much of the Iraq War. It wasn’t until his generals had nearly lost the war that Bush fully stepped up to his role as commander in chief, going around the brass to order the surge, the most successful and consequential initiative of his second term.
– Not taking charge during Katrina. As soon as the National Weather Service bulletins were warning of the possible destruction of an American city, Bush should have rode herd on the tangled homeland-security bureaucracy and, once the storm hit, federalized the response to save New Orleans from the incompetence and limited capabilities of its state and local governments.
– Too much accommodation of a GOP Congress. Bush got what he wanted out of Congress at the price of looking the other way from burgeoning earmarks and a creeping culture of corruption. More triangulation at the expense of his own party’s leaders would have served Bush — and perhaps the ill-fated GOP majority — well.
– Not reading enough history. Bush has admirably applied himself to an extensive reading program as president, but if he had absorbed more history before taking office — particularly about military matters — he’d have had a better grounding to make important decisions.
– Refusing to settle the internal war within his administration. The acrimony between the State Department and CIA on the one hand and the Defense Department and vice president’s office on the other was poisonous and debilitating. It hampered the prosecution of the Iraq War and led to the “Scooter” Libby mess that was the highest-profile “scandal” of an otherwise relatively clean administration.
– Underestimating the power of explanation. By temperament and ability, Bush was more a “decider” than a “persuader.” He’s not naturally drawn to public argument, giving his administration its unfortunate (and not entirely fair) “my way or the highway” reputation at home and abroad.
– Ignoring health-care reform too long. By the time Bush unveiled a serious and sensible health-care reform in 2007, it was DOA, leaving Democrats with the initiative on this crucial issue.
Oddly enough for a president denounced as an executive monster by his perfervid critics, many of Bush’s mistakes involve not being active enough or taking a stronger hand. How that came to be so with a president who believed so deeply in strong leadership should long occupy Bush, and fair-minded historians.