As President George W. Bush’s presidential library opens at Southern Methodist University, National Review Online asked some commentators, historians, and former administration officials to recap the highs and lows of his presidential years.
President Bush’s best moments were when he defied conventional wisdom. Of course the surge in Iraq tops the list. I would add his reaction to 9/11 regarding Middle East policy. Rejecting advice to blame Israel (“they hate us because we’re too pro-Israel”), he correctly saw the repression, absence of freedom, and lack of economic opportunity in Arab countries as the underlying problem. And he included the Palestinians in his demands for freedom and decent government, for which reason he refused to deal with Yasser Arafat.
The worst moments were in 2006: terrible violence in Iraq, the Hamas election victory, the results in our own fall elections, and the continuing fallout from Katrina. But all of that brought out the best in Bush. He was resolute, and cheered up his whole team. The troubles of 2006 brought out the best in his character.
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.
It’s one of the ironies of history that a man characterized by unusual integrity and honesty is remembered (at least for now) for having “lied” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — another triumph of the Left’s historical revisionism. Just add it to the list that includes “right-wing” Dallas being responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the New Deal ending the Great Depression, Al Gore winning the election of 2000, and many others.
George W. Bush made his share of mistakes. He expanded government spending, failed to steal a march on Democrats by proposing health-care reform when Republicans controlled Congress, moved to nominate Harriet Miers for a precious Supreme Court seat, and permitted his Departments of State and Defense to engage in a highly damaging public feud for the better part of six years.
Above all, Bush erred by failing to explain to the American people how our intelligence could have been so wrong about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The lowest moment of his tenure, I believe, was when he presented a “humorous” video to the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner showing the president searching under sofa cushions and in White House closets for the missing WMDs.
His best moments though, were deeply admirable. With a full heart and an open mind, he examined every side of the stem-cell question before making a decision. He found the courage, when the whole world was against him, to order the surge in Iraq. Most leaders don’t have the nerve to do things that poll less than 80 percent support. Remember Clinton, who commissioned a poll about where to vacation?
President Bush did what he believed to be in the best interests of the nation. Most of the time, his policy instincts were good. He withdrew from the ABM treaty, reduced taxes, declined to join the Kyoto charade, shunned Yasser Arafat, withdrew from the International Criminal Court (another corrupt U.N. body), and chased terrorists across the globe.
George W. Bush, vile caricatures notwithstanding, is a deeply honorable, well-read, witty, civilized, and brave man. He’s a darn good artist too. Viciously maligned, he deserves to be honored.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.
Congratulations, President Bush, on your new Library and Policy Center!
Let’s all celebrate the high points of your eight years. All in all, I’d give President George W. Bush a ‘B’ or ‘B-’ for his presidency. Especially as viewed from today, he looks pretty good. And, remember, I’m a tough grader.
High points: ‘43’ knows that economic growth really matters, both for the macro-economy and for individual freedom, and that tax rates should be cut whenever and wherever possible. And he did it, even when some of our own friends on Capitol Hill were wavering.
He voided the ABM treaty with the Soviet Union, which, of course, wasn’t there anymore, and thus enabled us to move ahead — albeit slowly — with missile defense.
He actually privatized a little bit of foreign aid (but then increased the AID governmental budget significantly, apparently forgetting that the private sector, and the voluntary sector of charities, could do it a lot better).
He was gutsy on the War on Terror, even if some of the details (TSA and other parts of DHS, etc.) didn’t come out right. The surge was vindicated, even if there were/are real questions about overreaching.
He reminded us of the centrality of the traditional family.
So, there were positive decisions and positive policy results in all three legs of the conservative policy stool.
Now for the low points. Lowest, that’s easy: signing McCain-Feingold with the excuse that while he didn’t like it, he’d let the Supreme Court decide on its constitutionality. (A major cop-out, a blow to free speech, and a blow to freedom generally, IMO.)
And, of course, I could mention No Child Left Behind, which certainly didn’t do what should have been done in terms of empowering real people for competitive choice for their kids’ education. There were other concessions to the slippery slope of the welfare state that were disappointing, too.
Why does it matter? Because it’s always important to remember to go back to the Constitution. A real commitment to our principles would give you more of those high points, and fewer cop-outs or wavering.
— Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.
George W. Bush’s best moment is easy: the surge. With his party reeling after electoral setbacks, the public turning against a once-popular war, and the nation of Iraq staring into the abyss, Bush doubled down, committing the United States to becoming — in Bing West’s memorable phrase — Iraq’s “strongest tribe.” We went on to defeat a savage terrorist insurgency and leave behind a nation that — while still troubled — looks vibrant compared with many of its neighbors.
But even the surge may pale in historic comparison to his best decision: launching the world’s largest and most successful effort to combat the spread of AIDS. While there is much credit to go around, we must still be grateful for the man at the top, the one who made the call to commit the resources to save, ultimately, millions of lives.
As for his worst moments? George W. Bush governed in tumultuous times, bookended by two different man-made calamities: the 9/11 attacks and the near-collapse of our financial system. The fact that our nation absorbed both blows as well as it did is a testament to our resilience and, yes, to many of the administration’s reactive decisions. But the fact remains that we absorbed those blows on his watch, and the resulting moments were very bad indeed.
I suspect my nominations for the best and worst moments of President George W. Bush will be widely shared.
The horror of 9/11 presented a terrorist attack like no other, and it required a response like no other. Looking back, it is kind of amazing how casual and tolerant the West was about state-sponsored or state-supported terrorism — particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, with the bombings of discos, airport terminals, airliner hijackings, and Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. The symbiotic relationship between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban was perhaps the natural evolution of this blurring of the line between perpetrator and sponsor. The Bush response to 9/11 announced an end to the era of plausible deniability: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
Lest you think this was the natural approach of any president, we learned years later that the U.S. response to Iranian intelligence agents’ role in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing was to expose the identities of all known Iranian agents — effectively blowing their cover, but merely forcing those operatives into early retirement. You kill our guys, we expose your guys.
Ultimately, too many America-haters around the world believed that the United States had grown soft. The Bush response to 9/11 — Iraq and all — made clear that whatever our flaws, we were, and are, not soft.
The worst moment of Bush’s presidency came at the end, when an exhausted president and administration — having lost Congress, lost the public debate over the Iraq War’s being in the national interest, and been left unable to persuade the public of the value of the 2007 surge — finally accepted a massive expansion of the government’s role in the financial sector to save the industry from its own bad decisions. The housing market’s bubble was hardly a state secret, but the Bush administration was uninterested in mitigating a force that was, for a while at least, creating the impression of serious prosperity. “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system” is a jarring statement to hear from any president, but it was thoroughly dispiriting to hear it from a Republican.
— Jim Geraghty writes The Campaign Spot blog on National Review Online.
On economic policy, one big tax-policy success stands out as we look back at the Bush administration. We should all be thankful that President Bush had the courage to push a dividend-tax reduction. There are many sound reasons for such a policy, but none of them are attractive to the typical politician. Just after the proposal was made public, Speaker Hastert invited me and several other economists to meet with him in his office in the Capitol, and there wasn’t a single Republican official in that room who thought it was a good idea. But Bush understood that a lower cost of capital would increase growth, and that the increasing dividend payments would help solve the principal–agent problem. His team worked tirelessly to bring Congress along. To its credit, Hastert’s team became big supporters, and the policy was so successful that even Democrats agreed to keep the rate low in the most recent tax deal. All that despite the fact that “rich” people receive dividends, so the policy was lampooned as yet another giveaway to the rich.
While there were many more important events in those eight years, the dividend tax may be the best thumbnail sketch of the Bush presidency. Bush decided what he thought the best policy was, and then put everything into making it a reality, despite the political costs. In the fullness of time, even his critics have to concede that his choice was a sound one.
— Kevin A. Hassett is John G. Searle Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
STEVEN F. HAYWARD
It is hard not to single out, as Bush’s finest moment, that transcendent instant with the bullhorn at Ground Zero, while the dust and smoke were still settling. That might well stand up as the best spontaneous, unscripted presidential moment in the entire history of the office. But more significant in the grand scheme of things has to be Bush’s decision to prosecute the Iraq surge in 2007, when every node of opinion, including senior people inside the White House, was against the idea. Bush had to feel as lonely as Truman contemplating the use of the atomic bomb, or Lincoln waging the Civil War against ferocious opposition on every side.
Bush’s worst moment was his midnight arm-twisting of House Republicans to pass Medicare Part D. Although there are some laudable, market-friendly aspects of Bush’s plan to provide better access to prescription drugs for the elderly as a part of Medicare, it was an unfunded entitlement — the first ever enacted paid for entirely with borrowed money. It was clear the plan did not enjoy sufficient Republican support in the House on its own merits, and the strong-arming of the Republican caucus to ram it through contributed to the demoralization and subsequent lack of discipline (i.e., earmarks) that cost the GOP its House majority two election cycles later.
— Steven F. Hayward is Thomas Smith Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.
Best: President George W. Bush’s bold decision to change strategy and surge troops into Iraq in 2007 — demonstrating a courageous commitment to victory on the battlefield and fundamentally changing the trajectory of that war. In 2006, the war wasn’t going well and everyone in Washington was calling for the president to throw in the towel; instead, the commander-in-chief successfully doubled down in Iraq. The results spoke for themselves, and today even the harshest critics of the war — and the surge — have admitted that the surge worked, and was a courageous decision. Bush concluded his January 2007 surge announcement with words that still ring true today: “Fellow citizens, the year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve. It can be tempting to think that America can put aside the burdens of freedom. Yet times of testing reveal the character of a nation. And throughout our history, Americans have always defied the pessimists and seen our faith in freedom redeemed.”
Worst: President Bush’s overall response to the events of 9/11 was very strong — we’ll never forget the bullhorn at Ground Zero, the strike at Yankee Stadium, or the speech at the National Cathedral — but amidst his swift response was a missed opportunity. As our military was gearing up for war, President Bush missed a golden opportunity to mobilize Americans behind what would be years of long and difficult conflict ahead. The nation should have been engaged to contribute to the fight, in ways large and small; instead, fewer than 1 percent of Americans (the military) fought enemies overseas while the rest of the country went back to life as usual. Part of the reason political will for success in Afghanistan and Iraq eroded so quickly is that few Americans felt directly invested in the outcome.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.
I know some conservatives disagree with me about this, but I believe that George W. Bush’s worst moment was in 2003, when he signed the Medicare expansion that included the prescription-drug benefit. I admit the legislation had some merits, most importantly a broad authorization for health savings accounts. HSAs have proven to be a valuable and popular reform. But the legislation also took an entitlement program with a staggeringly high unfunded liability — and increased that unfunded liability. This severely weakened Bush’s credibility as a fiscal conservative (his credibility on the issue was then junked entirely at the end of the second term). The president should have fought for health savings accounts as a separate bill, or at least made a better deal for HSAs and Medicare Advantage with a lower overall price tag offset by budget cuts.
President Bush’s best moment was clearly the decision to implement the surge strategy in Iraq despite heavy criticism from Congress and the chattering classes. I think it turned out to be the correct strategy, but I suspect others will make that case more effectively than I could. So I’ll identify another praiseworthy moment: Halloween 2005. Earlier that month, the president made the disastrous choice to nominate Harriet Miers, his pleasant but unexceptional White House counsel, to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision was widely and properly criticized. To his credit, Bush didn’t let personal friendship or pride deter him from admitting error, withdrawing the Miers pick, and nominating Samuel Alito for the post on October 31. Alito has proven to be a fine, conservative justice.
— John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.
History will be kinder to George W. Bush than the last few years have been. There is no perfect solution to the challenge of Islamist terror. The British were smart enough to avoid direct rule in Afghanistan. (Then again, 19th-century Islamists couldn’t blow up London.) So we face an imperfect choice: intervene and deal with incessant low-level rebellion, or stay out and allow terrorists a foothold. Bush underestimated cultural barriers to democratization, and (initially) overestimated what a small number of troops could do. Yet there’s too little appreciation of the continuing deterrent power of our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s more to the long gap between 9/11 and later terrorist attacks than good police work. Our foes understand that an America stung by terror can and will strike back. Our difficult interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have supposedly eroded that lesson. Yet foes understand that America’s war-weariness has depended upon the dearth of successful terror attacks since 9/11. Potential terrorists have long memories — for their fears as well as their hatreds. Thanks to Bush, they still need to worry about the wrath of an America under successful attack.
So despite its flaws — many visible only in hindsight — George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 made this country more secure.
The financial crisis of 2008 happened on Bush’s watch, but the roots of that crisis in the disastrous housing policies of the Clinton years — aided and abetted by a raft of leftist community organizations — have been systematically obscured by the media. The financial meltdown had many sources, but Bush has unfairly taken most of the blame for a problem set in motion by his predecessor.
On the downside, I wish that I and other conservatives had done more to point out the dangers of nationalizing education policy through No Child Left Behind. NCLB helped open the door to a federalized curriculum under Obama’s Common Core. This was a mistake, and conservatives should have complained about it more at the time.
Any Republican president faces determined opposition from a hostile press and elite culture. George W. Bush managed to reach through the media screen and convey his fundamental goodness to the broader public. Now we’re remembering. History will too.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.
When I think about George W. Bush as a leader, my mind turns first and foremost not to the dramatic public successes and failures of his two terms but to a quick closed-door exchange in 2005 that I will never forget.
I was working for Bush then, as a member of his domestic-policy staff, and among the issues in my portfolio was the embryonic-stem-cell debate, which was then heating up again. The House would soon pass a bill overturning Bush’s funding policy, and we knew that the Senate would ultimately do the same and force the president to decide whether to veto this controversial but popular move. At the end of an Oval Office meeting on another subject, my boss (the president’s domestic-policy adviser at the time, Claude Allen) asked Bush if he wanted a memo and meeting laying out options for how to handle the bill, or if he had already decided he would issue an unequivocal veto threat and just wanted to discuss how best to arrange that process and any publicity around it.
The president looked at Allen for a moment and said: “You’re asking am I going to sign or veto it?” And after a brief pause in which Allen nodded, he said: “Are all men still created equal?”
It was perfectly clear to us all what he meant. His position was a matter of principle, the basic principle of human equality at the heart of the pro-life cause, and he was not about to change it. None of us was surprised that he would veto the bill, but the nature of the answer really caught me off guard. It was Bush at his plainest and most serious, saying some issues really weren’t about politics for him. It was a lesson in leadership.
— Yuval Levin is editor of National Affairs and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was a member of the White House domestic-policy staff under President Bush and executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ
Those last weeks of official summer in 2001 were unforgettable, for very different reasons. The remarkable stem-cell compromise President Bush announced drew an important line in the sand — and he held back those who wanted to rush into embryonic-stem-cell research and even cloning, a push that had become a shameless and merciless snake-oil campaign for all too many politicians.
As September 11 of that year came all too soon, the president’s faith and resolve were a comfort, drawing people deeper into a real, consoling, challenging faith, one that our nation was built to rely on.
I wish that the president and some administration officials hadn’t tonally approached conservative critics of comprehensive immigration reform as if they were racists. I wonder if there was a lost opportunity there, one we just don’t have with Washington’s current imbalance. In particular, because he very much does have a point: We all too often don’t speak like we’re talking about real people when talking about politics and policy. “Illegals” — a word I find jarring — are human beings, our brothers and sisters. They may have made bad choices, they may have made what they thought was their only choice. But it is our lack of enforcement of laws that let them in, and there needs to be a little humility on both ends.
But I’m more grateful we had George W. Bush as president than anything else. They were shocking, tumultuous, painful times. And he was a good man who led imperfectly but with a deep reserve of character, examination, and prayer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
JOHN J. MILLER
The best thing about George W. Bush was that he won elections, which is a quality that GOP presidential candidates and their supporters simply can’t take for granted — not at a time when Republican nominees have lost five of the last six popular votes and four of the last six Electoral College votes. The worst thing about him? His name wasn’t Jeb.
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review.
JOHN j. PITNEY jr.
President Bush’s best moment was his address to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, he had seemed shaky. But day by day, his confidence grew stronger and his resolve grew deeper. By the time he entered the House chamber nine days later, he looked and sounded quite different. For a brief time, at least, his firm words and confident demeanor inspired the country. “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain,” he said. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
Perhaps his worst moment came at a time of triumph. “Let me put it to you this way,” he said in a press conference right after his 2004 reelection. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” In fact, he had won a very narrow victory that would provide him with no political capital at all. His boast revealed a sense of overconfidence that would lead to serious errors in domestic and foreign policy.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.
JAMES S. ROBBINS
One of George W. Bush’s best moments — not really a moment but a series of decisions — concerned launching the surge strategy in Iraq in 2007. Public approval of the war effort had sagged, along with Mr. Bush’s popularity, and he faced an aggressive, newly elected Democratic majority in Congress that solidly opposed the plan. Yet he believed in the strategy and implemented it, ignoring the many naysayers (including Senators Obama, Clinton, and Biden). Mr. Bush’s strong leadership allowed him ultimately to hand his successor a win in Iraq, instead of the loss it would have been had he simply pulled out, as his Democratic opponents demanded.
Ironically, this best moment was necessitated by one of Mr. Bush’s worst moments, the failure to plan for or adequately to understand the postwar environment in Iraq. The series of bad decisions taken when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003 — including the removal of retired Army lieutenant general Jay Garner as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the radical de-Baathification of Iraq’s government, dissolving what remained of the Iraqi army, defaulting on the pensions of retired officers from Saddam’s service, cancellation of the early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, and alienating the Sunni tribal leadership — created the conditions for insurgency to flourish. Had the United States co-opted Iraq’s traditional power brokers and swiftly transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi people the outcome would have been very different, and Mr. Bush’s presidency would not have ended with the lowest sustained public-approval ratings of any president since detailed polling records have been kept.
— James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.
“This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.” These are the words of a man who believed what he was saying, in the aftermath of 9/11, at the National Cathedral, and, pace the Left, did not go on to “demonize a whole religion.” Indeed, at the Washington Islamic Center days later, he called Islam a religion of peace. (You can look it up.) But he also spoke bluntly of Islamic terrorism.
Much as I dislike how presidents have become pastors-in-chief or public theologians, better this than much of what transpired before and after. Because President Bush’s finest moments always came when he attended to — as he often did — the world’s “moral design.” True morality sees reality and acts accordingly. You can see Islam as largely peaceful and still pursue jihadists vigorously.
Bush also brought that sense of the need to protect innocent human life to his decision on embryonic-stem-cell research (partly flawed, but courageous), fighting AIDS in Africa, and immigration reform.
His cowboy swagger sometimes went too far. In an emotional moment, he foolishly dared the jihadists to “bring it on.” And his “we don’t do nuance” remark, a weak joke to anyone who understands Texans, was often thrown at many of us on foreign soil by critics of American foreign policy — an unnecessary gift to opponents.
The Iraq War will always be debated (even though U.N. inspector Hans Blix and several European governments also believed Saddam had WMDs). But for me his weakest day was when he announced he was nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — a lightweight crony in a period where Court decisions are rapidly changing American society. It still doesn’t compute. In the end, he did the right thing: Sam Alito.
Future historians may yet discover some of this story.
— Robert Royal is the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute.
In his first term, President Bush and congressional leaders knew there was a strong political imperative to add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, and they enacted the Medicare Modernization Act with a squeaker of a vote in November 2003. The law continues to draw criticism from conservatives for adding a $400 billion drug benefit to Medicare. But because the benefit was created by conservatives and not liberals, it relied on competition and consumer choice, not government price controls. It has demonstrated over time that these market forces can drive down government spending (40 percent below estimates) while increasing consumer satisfaction. Medicare Part D was the model and continues to be the model for overall Medicare reform going forward.
The law also created health savings accounts, the fastest-growing health-care option in the private sector (threatened with annihilation under Obamacare). And it saved the private-plan option in Medicare (which Obamacare is also trying to suffocate).
In his second term, President Bush outlined a health-reform initiative to expand coverage to the uninsured that was bold, visionary, and undeniably free-market. It would have solidified the U.S. as the leader in high-quality health care while addressing the growing problem of the uninsured and middle-class anxiety about high health costs. It offered new incentives for consumers that would have made our health sector more efficient, more responsive to consumer needs, and more affordable. (I explained the details in this lecture for the Heritage Foundation.)
The president described his basic philosophy to enthusiastic applause on both sides of the aisle during his 2007 State of the Union Address, saying, “In all we do, we must remember that the best health-care decisions are made not by government and insurance companies, but by patients and their doctors.”
The president won support from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and experts from think tanks as traditionally divergent as the Urban Institute and the Heritage Foundation. But Republicans had lost control of Congress in the 2006 elections, and his proposal never got a hearing. Had the president pushed harder for health reform earlier in his presidency, the nightmare of Obamacare likely could have been avoided, because Americans would have had access to what they really want: personal, portable, affordable health insurance that they own and control.
— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.
President Bush’s best moment was during his first visit to Ground Zero after 9/11. He had not yet given an inspiring post-attack speech when he joined a retired firefighter named Bill Beckwith on top of a destroyed fire truck. He began slowly, and someone in the crowd shouted: “We can’t hear you!” This seemed to inspire Bush, who replied: “Well, I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
The forceful comments reassured a worried nation, and the crowd at Ground Zero responded with chants of “USA! USA!”
His worst moment, alas, was being photographed on Air Force One flying over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There were sound logistical reasons for not taxing the city with the pressures of a presidential visit, but the picture gave the false impression that the president didn’t care enough to land. It was a shame, since all of us working at the White House at the time knew that he cared very much indeed.
— Tevi Troy was a senior official in the Bush administration working on domestic policy, at the White House and at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the upcoming What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.
HANS VON SPAKOVSKY
President George W. Bush’s best moment was his confident, capable, and aggressive response to the 9/11 attacks. It was the worst attack suffered by the United States since Pearl Harbor, and it came as just as great a surprise. Bush did not hesitate. He immediately implemented the steps necessary to find those who had carried out what FDR would have described as “this dastardly attack.” And he remained steadfast even under brutal criticism of some of those actions.
His exemplary conduct was epitomized by his visit to New York, where he made clear the uncompromising resolve of the U.S. and its people to punish those responsible.
His worst moments arose from his unwillingness to confront the members of his own party when they sent him bloated budget after bloated budget, starting us down the road to fiscal ruin. Yes, Barack Obama has vastly accelerated the speed at which we careen down that road. But President Bush’s refusal to exercise the veto pen was a detriment to the otherwise bright record of his presidency.
— Hans von Spakovsky was a Justice Department official during the Bush administration.
President George W. Bush’s finest moment was when we became, through no choosing of his own, a war president. Americans may think that presidents always rise to the occasion of war, but that is not always true. Consider James Buchanan, who, as I describe in my 2010 book, Crisis and Command, responded to secession by claiming the president had no constitutional powers to stop it and asking Congress to solve the problem. President Bush defied the expectations of those who thought him a spoiled rich kid with no foreign-policy experience and charted out the fundamental policies against Islamic-extremist terrorism — in the face of much criticism and insult from the academic and media elites — that succeeded in keeping the country safe to this day. He will be remembered in much the same way as Truman, who established the strategy of containment against the Soviet Union.
Perhaps President Bush’s worst moments were in his management of Congress and his response to the financial crisis. When it came to domestic affairs, President Bush had a strong interventionist streak and did little to restrain overspending by Congress, the growth of the administrative state, and ever-new mandates. This was put on display in his response to the financial crisis, which set the stage for the Obama administration’s mismanagement of the economy by calling for large-scale intervention in the markets, the nationalization of companies, and the government takeover of financial institutions. It is still an open question whether any of these tactics worked, but they certainly did much to launch the federal government to yet a new plane of intervention in the private markets and civil society from which it shows little sign of retreating.
— John Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley.