President Bush is a forgotten man. Giving his last State of the Union speech, he was overshadowed by a tempest in a teapot. (Did Barack Obama snub Hillary Clinton or merely turn to talk with another senator?)
We need a breather from the campaign, so we will focus on why history is likely to record George W. Bush’s eight years in office as a failed presidency.
Ideology has nothing to do with it; Bush had the opportunity to be a great president.
Former President Clinton famously complained that his term could never be acclaimed as “great” because he never presided over a war. (Instead he had peace and prosperity and squandered them, accomplishing little of moment.)
After 9/11, Bush could have become a great leader. But the very day that hell spewed from the skies, Bush did not know whether or not to return from Florida to Washington. His eventual leadership in those terrible weeks was steadfast but he used up the good will of most of the world by pushing his doctrine of preemption. Invading Iraq on false pretenses, he has overseen a war that has lasted longer than our participation in World War II with far less to show for it.
Bush’s contribution to education (aside from mangled syntax) has been the No Child Left Behind Act. But it has amounted to an unfunded mandate on the states and embroiled thousands in angry confrontation by making teachers teach only what children need to pass tests and forcing cutbacks in such subjects as art and music.
Bush leaves the country with a $9.2 trillion debt, largely because of the war in Iraq, which he defends against all criticism. In an infuriating gesture, he waited until this month — seven years too late — to declare war on earmarks, the congressional practice of quietly tucking money away in the budget for special home-state projects.
He espoused the philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” but then abandoned it, leaving a few desultory “faith-based initiatives” and a larger gap between rich and poor. Not a thing has been done to help people with no health insurance, but he vetoed a plan to expand children’s access to health care. He vows to cut out 151 popular programs to save $18 billion but has spent $609 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan.
He demanded that Social Security be privatized, but when the country vigorously protested, he gave up trying to keep entitlements from eventual meltdown.
With the nation fighting to stave off recession as food and energy prices soar and home foreclosures mount, he didn’t have his own stimulus plan but endorsed a too-little-too-late plan devised in the House to give taxpayers rebate checks and incentives to businesses. He vowed to veto one-time checks for seniors dependent on Social Security or extension of unemployment assistance for the jobless. And how did his administration miss the signs that financial institutions were in crisis over sub-prime mortgages?
Bush’s foreign policy dissolved into gauzy nothingness, victim of the endless war in Iraq. His legacy will be insisting, without factual basis, that democracy would spring “sui generis” to life in the Middle East and that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were an “axis of evil.”
With evidence indisputable that the world faces a serious challenge in global warming, Bush abrogated what should have been U.S. leadership to deflect tomorrow’s catastrophe. As for pursuing energy independence, for years he gave little but lip service.
Federal agencies are in disarray. Those supposed to guard the public’s health, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Administration and Food and Drug Administration, are widely conceded to be broken.
With debate raging over immigration, Bush could not even stake out a leadership position in his own party. Having stirred up a hornet’s nest on the issue, he went inside the house and left it to others to deal with the stingers.
Hurricane Katrina and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis were stark testimony to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. But Bush had no plan to prepare the country to face fixing its roads, bridges and levees or care for its victims.
After the exhausting Clinton presidency, Bush had a strong economy and Americans’ good will. The last eight years have been tumultuous, marked by arrogance, Bush’s refusal to listen to the oldest and wisest in his own party and staggering incompetence.
It is difficult to believe that the e-mails the White House purposefully deleted, or the thoughtful letters Bush never wrote or the memoirs of disdained members of his Cabinet, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, will cause historians to reverse that assessment.
There is good reason why the president’s disapproval rating has been over 50 percent for longer than that of any other president in half a century. There is good reason why the GOP candidates almost never mention his name.
As Bush’s would-be successors bark and bicker, joust and jostle, it is useful not to forget Bush or why we stage this contest every four years and what is at stake.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)