Over and over, President Bush confidently promised to “solve problems, not pass them on to future presidents and future generations.” As the clock runs out on his eight-year presidency, a tall stack of troubles remain and Bush’s words ring hollow.
Iraq, budget deficits, the looming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, high health and energy costs, a national immigration mess — the next president will inherit these problems in January 2009. With Bush’s popularity at an all time low and relations with the Democratic-led Congress acrimonious, he has little or no chance of pulling off a surprise victory in his time left.
“We’re in a worse place than we were in 1999” before Bush became president, lamented Matthew Dowd, a former pollster and chief campaign strategist for Bush who has become disillusioned with his old boss.
When Americans are asked to choose national priorities, they most commonly name the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, terrorism and gas prices. Consider the state of play on these and other issues:
_The economy is relatively sound and deficits are falling after peaking in 2004. But an entire presidency of red ink has ballooned the overall federal debt from $5.7 trillion when Bush became president to $8.9 trillion now. The Iraq war, including providing medical care and disability benefits to veterans, as well as expensive new programs like a Medicare prescription drug benefit threaten to drive deficits back up. Economists fear growing odds of a recession.
_The nation’s health care spending, public and private, totaled $1.5 trillion when Bush took office. By the time he leaves, it is expected to be $2.6 trillion — a 75 percent increase. Meanwhile, the nation’s number of uninsured has swelled, from 14 percent of the population in 2001 to 16 percent last year, or a total of 47 million people.
_Now in its fifth year, the Iraq war has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 members of the U.S. military and more than 73,000 Iraqi civilians, wounded over 28,000 U.S. military personnel, and cost nearly half a trillion dollars. Even if combat ends, Bush says the United States will need to provide military, economic and political support beyond his presidency and have “an enduring relationship” with Iraq.
_No domestic terrorist attack has followed those of Sept. 11, 2001. But the intelligence community concluded in July, nearly six years after the attacks, that al-Qaida has been allowed to re-centralize and rejuvenate itself in Pakistan, where the still-missing Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
_Energy prices are volatile, and high. The cost of a barrel of oil has soared during Bush’s presidency, from $29 to about $80 a barrel. Gas prices averaged $1.45 a gallon in 2001 and now are running about $2.80 — a 93 percent increase.
_With 78 million baby boomers beginning to retire, Social Security and Medicare move closer to insolvency each day. The Social Security trust fund is expected to last until 2041, while Medicare’s will be exhausted much earlier, by 2019. Bush tried to overhaul Social Security but couldn’t find enough votes even when Republicans controlled the Congress.
_Bush tried unsuccessfully to make dramatic changes in the nation’s immigration laws. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country and a few hundred thousand more come in each year.
_Bush promised to be “a uniter, not a divider,” but instead, the partisan warfare has gotten worse.
“It’s hard to find something he has done that really has improved the situation a great deal,” said Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University presidential scholar.
On June 23, 2003, Bush said: “I came to the office of the presidency to solve problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations. I came to seize opportunities instead of letting them slip away.” He was in New York, for the opening swing of his 2004 re-election campaign.
This get-the-job-done approach to governing had been a bedrock of Bush’s first presidential race in 2000. The particular line appeared only briefly, though, as a rebuttal to Democrat Al Gore’s Social Security plan. It was only with that New York speech that it became a staple, as the president sought a return to the White House in 2004 and stumped for fellow Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections.
“It’s definitely part of his self-image to be a doer, and to be a person who throws the long pass and does big things, not just small things,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist.
The image was effective with voters. It also hinted at Bush’s more sweeping political aspirations. He had hopes of governing in a way that would attract new constituencies into the Republican Party, transforming it into the nation’s dominant political force far beyond his time.
This new agenda for an ascendant GOP included rigorous national educational standards, more market-based approaches to health care and retirement, increased emphasis on religious providers of government-funded social services, and radical changes in immigration policy to enhance enforcement and legitimize millions of illegals.
Only small bits have come to pass.
They include an expansion of health savings accounts, the addition of the prescription drug benefit, along with other modernizations, to Medicare, and increased government money to religious charities.
A sweeping new education law now requires regular testing of children and penalizes many schools that fall short. There are serious doubts, however, that the law has enough support to be renewed this year — much less expanded as Bush wants.
On the foreign policy front, the president set the grand goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” But early signs of progress on spreading democracy gave way to many setbacks. And the entire project has largely been eclipsed, some say hobbled, by continuing instability in Iraq.
The war looms over everything. The on-again, off-again debate about bringing troops home is likely to divide Washington for the remainder of Bush’s presidency, leaving little room for other things.
Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett acknowledged disappointment that many big problems will remain unresolved when Bush leaves office. But he said Bush will get credit, eventually, for at least reaching for “fundamental, systemic reforms” on tough issues.
Bartlett pointed to Bush’s tax proposal as Texas governor that would have shifted most public school funding away from property taxes. He was unsuccessful, but Bartlett argued Bush’s approach was vindicated years later when the Texas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to find non-property tax funding for the state’s schools.
“Big change like that doesn’t happen in the first go-round,” said Bartlett. “He will be remembered as the one who put the issues at the centerpiece of the debate.”
Dowd said Bush has only to look at himself for why he didn’t fulfill his promise. His unwillingness to admit mistakes and inattention to building relationships with lawmakers of both parties helped put success out of reach, Dowd said.
“Most of the responsibility — I don’t want to use the word blame — is at his doorstep. It has to be,” Dowd said. “In the end, he is the leader, elected twice, with Congress at times in his own party.”
Jennifer Loven covers the White House for The Associated Press.