George W. Bush left office in January 2009 with one of the lowest job-approval ratings for a president (34 percent) since Gallup started compiling them — as compared to Harry Truman’s low of 32 percent, Richard Nixon’s of 24 percent, and Jimmy Carter’s of 34 percent — and to the general derision of the media.
At times the venom accorded Bush in popular culture reached absurd — and even sick — levels. Alfred A. Knopf, for example, infamously published Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, a pathetic riff on shooting Bush. Gabriel Range’s unhinged 2006 “docudrama,” The Death of a President, focused on an imagined assassination of President Bush (imagine the outcry should any filmmaker today update that topos). A sick Charlie Brooker op-ed in the Guardian called for another John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald to kill Bush. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic more or less permanently ruined his reputation by writing an adolescent rant on “the case for Bush hatred,” one that began creepily with “I hate President George W. Bush.” Try substituting another president’s name for Bush’s and see what the reaction of The New Republic would be.
All that hysteria once led to Charles Krauthammer’s identification of “Bush Derangement Syndrome” — a pathology in which the unbalanced seemed to channel all their anxieties, frustrations, and paranoias onto George W. Bush. And yet, following 9/11, Bush had calmly led the nation and enjoyed one of the highest positive appraisals of any president since the advent of modern polling, when for months he registered a 90 percent approval rating; indeed, he averaged a 62 percent approval rating over his first four years.
Yet, as with all presidents, with time and a successor come perspective. So it is not hard to see why the out-of-office Bush’s likability ratings are slowly inching back up — most recently to 46 percent. For reflection on Bush’s eight years in office, take a look back at the six aspects of his presidency that harmed his popularity most — Iraq and its attendant controversies, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the so-called Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, the September 2008 financial meltdown, the chronic budget deficits, and the general impression that Bush was singularly inarticulate and prone to embarrassing gaffes.
“Bush lied, thousands died,” was a popular mantra that followed from the absence of stockpiles of WMD in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — the chief casus belli of the Iraq War. But looking back, quite apart from the politics of the moment, we now remember that Congress had approved 23 writs authorizing the removal of Saddam Hussein. The pro-war speeches of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were simply amplifications of President Clinton’s signing into law of the 1998 “Iraq Liberation Act,” in which were outlined in graphic detail the dangers of the Hussein WMD arsenal. We do not know what exactly happened to those weapons, but perhaps the end sometime soon of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria — amid rampant rumors of a sizable WMD depot — could shed some light on prior cross-border traffic between Assad and Hussein. More important, Saddam Hussein’s oil-rich Iraq never became another North Korea or Iran. His removal also had a salutary effect in convincing Moammar Qaddafi to dismantle his own WMD program, and may have helped to convince Assad to leave Lebanon. In any case, Saddam was the first of many Middle Eastern strongmen to fall.
The 2007 Bush decision, opposed by most in Congress and many in his own party, to implement the surge proposed by David Petraeus and his advisers saved Iraq — at least in the sense that at the time of the abrupt departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011, Iraq was a mostly quiet country, with a burgeoning rate of GDP growth, and that it escaped the violence of the Arab Spring. For all the conspiracy talk of “No blood for oil,” the United States seems to have ensured both that Iraqi petroleum bidding was transparent and that American oil companies were not much involved.
Barack Obama in 2008 ran on Iraq as the “bad” Bush war (he had called for all U.S. troops out by late 2008), while supporting Afghanistan as the necessary UN/NATO–sanctioned conflict. Yet Obama’s tenure coincided with an enormous upswing in American deaths in Afghanistan (630 total fatalities during Bush’s eight years; 1,543 during Obama’s first four), with relatively light fatalities in Iraq (264 deaths) from 2009 through 2012. Indeed, Americans were to die in Afghanistan during the Obama administration at over five times the monthly rate during the Bush years — for a variety of reasons still poorly understood.
Such data are not to suggest that the occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2009 was not flawed, or that Afghanistan could not have been better managed from 2001 to 2009 — only that challenges as diverse as intelligence about WMD (whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Iran) and putting ground troops anywhere in the Middle East plague any president confronted with them. The Obama “lead from behind” strategy in Libya, for example, did not result in a more stable, more democratic nation, but began a chaotic trajectory that led to the murder of an American ambassador and three others in Benghazi, amid mayhem in a country overrun by Islamic insurgents.
Few cared to hear the arguments that there was more to the Hurricane Katrina fiasco than Bush-administration incompetence, despite the fact that next-door Mississippi, for example, seemed to employ state and local services far more effectively than did the largely incompetent New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. Both botched the evacuation and the recovery, well apart from the inexcusable and chronic lapses of FEMA. The recent Hurricane Sandy response reminds us both how much an effective governor, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, can do in a natural disaster — and, again, how sluggish and unresponsive are federal agencies, whether overseen by Bush or Obama.