Bush Reconsidered
We’ve reached the point for some perspective on the much-derided 43rd president.


Victor Davis Hanson

Little more need be said about the hysteria over the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, other than that most of their critics went silent when the former critic President Obama, quite mysteriously, embraced or even expanded almost all of them — apparently on the post-election realization that something that had prevented another 9/11 for a subsequent seven years should not be summarily ended. Guantanamo is still open. Renditions and tribunals remain in effect. Predator-drone missions vastly increased under Obama, and are such a part of the current landscape that the president can joke about siccing drones on any potential suitors of his two daughters. The Patriot Act and its subsidiaries have become institutionalized. Meanwhile, early grand talk by the Obama administration of trying arch-terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court, indicting CIA officials for enhanced interrogations, and moving detained terrorists from Guantanamo to the Midwest all have come to nothing. Perhaps the chief anti-terrorism difference between the Bush and Obama administrations, at least as it has pertained to the vast majority of suspected terrorists, is that the former sought to capture and interrogate them, while the latter prefers blowing them up — along with anyone else caught in the general vicinity of a strike — through remote-control Hellfire missiles.

Over four years after the September 2008 financial meltdown, we are beginning to sense just how Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae empowered Wall Street greed, by guaranteeing profitable but risky subprime loans in an inflated housing market. The cast of culpable characters involved in that tragedy is now well known, including, on the congressional end, Representatives Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, and Senator Chris Dodd, who not merely demanded more federal guarantees, but also berated any who doubted the viability of such massive borrowing. Dodd is now gone from office and Frank soon will be, and Waters remains under suspicion of influence peddling. Their careers are bookends to those of parasitic hacks and cronies like the Carter and Clinton retreads Franklin Raines, James Johnson, and Jamie Gorelick, who occupied the top jobs at Fannie Mae. None of the three had much if any banking experience, but all three walked away with millions of dollars in bonuses after all but destroying their agency.

The Bush administration was not culpable for creating the mess, though it may have been for not more resolutely trying to stop it — an effort, however, that would have been caricatured in the liberal Congress as an insensitive attempt to deny the poor their God-given rights to buy a house. We also forget that Barack Obama did not take office on September 21, 2008, but four months later, when the stock market was calming and the panic mostly over, while the federal TARP mechanisms for stabilization were in place and found useful by the incoming Obama administration.

What helped to sink Bush’s ratings among conservatives, however, was the chronic budget deficits that over two terms added more than $4 trillion to the national debt. Barack Obama seized on that profligacy, calling Bush “unpatriotic” for it and promising to halve the Bush annual deficit by the end of his first term, while blasting the “Bush tax cuts” that supposedly were the source of fiscal shortfalls and had only benefited the rich.

But Obama more than equaled Bush’s eight-year borrowing in just four. Apparently, he also conceded that the once-derided Bush tax cuts had actually increased federal revenue while spurring the economy, since he soon insisted upon retaining them for all but those making over $250,000.

A comparative analysis of the Bush and Obama deficits between 2001 and 2012 proves disadvantageous to the latter: George Bush averaged a 2.7 percent ratio of deficits to GDP (less than those of Reagan or George H. W. Bush), Barack Obama so far 8.9 percent. Under Bush, quite excessive federal spending reached about 20 percent of GDP, but under Obama it has already grown to 24 percent. Such comparisons are controversial, given that budgetary responsibility for presidents includes incoming and outgoing years, in which they are not fully in charge of spending. Yet whether we count Bush’s responsibility from 2001 to 2008 or 2002 to 2009, and Obama’s from 2009 to 2012 or 2010 to 20012, we are nevertheless arguing whether the latter doubled or nearly tripled the Bush rate of borrowing. As far as unemployment goes, every month of the Obama administration has seen jobless rates higher than they were in any one month of Bush’s eight years.

All this is not to defend the irresponsible Bush deficits, which grew federal spending astronomically and diminished the reputation of his tax cuts, which had raised greater revenue. The cataclysm of, and reaction to, 9/11 and the 2008 meltdown accounted for some of the expanding debt, as well as the Democratic Congress after 2006, but in the end the Bush administration devalued the reputation of conservatives as fiscal hawks and enabled Obama to borrow as never before.

Bush was often awkward in public expression, but his “nucular” seems no worse than Obama’s “corpse-men.” He mangled sentences and aphorisms, but Obama has more than trumped that with his bows to foreign monarchs and strange pronouncements, from referring to 57 states to mocking the Special Olympics. An Internet search of Bush and Obama gaffes yields comparable results to a search for those committed by Bush I, Reagan, Carter, and Ford. Bush’s time-off chain-sawing on his arid Texas ranch was a far cry from the Obamas’ vacations in chic Costa del Sol or Martha’s Vineyard, and Bush ceased playing golf in 2003 in deference to American soldiers fighting and dying abroad. In contrast to Bush’s 24 rounds of golf in eight years, wartime president Barack Obama has now played 110 rounds in four years.

What is different is not the degree to which the two Harvard alumni at times seemed confused in the limelight, but that the partisan media were determined to suggest that the similarly accruing lapses were incidental to Obama’s genius, but a window into Bush’s imbecility. Scandal-wise, Bush experienced no Watergate, Iran-Contra, or impeachment. The Scooter Libby media circus — a trial for a crime that was not a crime, and to which someone else had earlier confessed — seems minor in comparison to the secretary of the Treasury’s avoiding his taxes, the HHS director’s being mired in several controversies, the EPA director’s using an alias to hide official communications, and assorted lethal scandals like Fast and Furious and Benghazi, along with the tawdry GSA and Secret Service disclosures.

Bush’s aid to Africa to combat the AIDS epidemic saved millions of lives. He was a strong proponent of increasing gas and oil development, and he made good appointments to the Supreme Court. The work of Justices Roberts and Alito so far is more impressive than that of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.

Obama’s “millions of green jobs” has led to boondoggles like Solyndra, the cancelation of the Keystone pipeline, and inane administration quips about wishing for American gas prices to match European ones and for skyrocketing rates for coal-produced electricity. In his debates with Mitt Romney, Obama did not refer to his wind- and solar-power subsidies, but instead took credit for increased U.S. fossil-fuel production — although oil and gas companies had found huge new finds on private land despite, rather than because of, the Obama administration.

George W. Bush was not as dismal a president as the popular culture and media once assumed — a fact that will grow clearer as the age of Obama continues.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.