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.
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.