Historians may judge his presidency differently but even putting the best possible face on it, George Bush leaves the presidency with the country in a mess largely of his making.
The economy is in recession, the worst since at least 1982, and the last eight years have been marked by the most anemic growth in decades in the economy, jobs and personal income.
He took office with the budget in surplus and leaves with the government facing a $1 trillion deficit. The national debt increased by more than $4 trillion, the largest increase in our history. Per capita government spending, even leaving the cost of two wars aside, is the highest since the guns and butter days of the Great Society.
We are coming up on the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq that we needn’t have fought. The Bush administration ignored intelligence that didn’t support its war aims and the obsession with Iraq distracted us from winning a war that we did have to fight — and are still fighting — in Afghanistan.
The president’s supporters say Bush has kept the country safe the seven years since 9/11. This is a selective setting of the historical clock — we were safe the seven years before 9/11 — but that safety was achieved at great cost.
We are saddled with a massive, cumbersome new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, and until a new administration gets a look at Bush’s signing statements, where he basically exempted himself from certain laws, we don’t what protections we’ve lost.
Under Bush’s doctrine of a unitary executive, the president during wartime — and he got to define when are at war — was unfettered by law, treaty or the Constitution. Among the more chilling assertions under that doctrine was that the president had the power to jail Americans indefinitely without trial.
We still don’t know the extent of the government’s warrant less eavesdropping on domestic communications.
The Bush administration was philosophically averse to regulation and seemed to have a disdain for the nuts and bolts of governance. Additional regulation might not have prevented the recession but effective regulation could have given us early warning and time to act.
The administration was staffed with inexperienced young political operatives who politicized the Justice department, rewrote the work of government scientists that contradicted party doctrine and led to the government’s tragically inept response to Hurricane Katrina.
Bush had notable legislative successes, the No Child Left Behind Act, which however you feel about it represents a major federalizing of public education, and the prescription drug benefit, the largest and costliest new entitlement since Medicare itself.
He failed at Social Security reform and immigration reform, the latter at the hands of his fellow Republicans.
He finished his presidency with record low approval ratings and even his own party seemed relieved when he and Vice President Cheney chose not to come to the Republican convention.
Throughout his travails he radiated an infectious optimism and good humor. He said pointedly in his last press conference that he did not find the presidency a great burden.
Historians have reversed judgments on other presidents, notably Truman and Eisenhower, and one day they may look at Bush in a better light but it’s not going to be any time soon.