Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bush and the Very Average Presidency

He’s still got almost a full year left in office, but George W. Bush is already being discussed in the past tense. PoliGazette has an interesting discussion about his legacy. There is, as you might expect, a good deal of disagreement on how Bush rates as a president. My take is this:

Bush has been an average president during extraordinary times. During his presidency, we suffered the worst attack on American soil and the nation’s worst natural disaster — neither was preventable by the president (although a lot of people like to argue otherwise). Both could only be responded to and that’s how Bush is and will be judged. He did great after 9/11 and then that trailed off in the lead up to and invasion of Iraq. He and everyone else did poorly after Katrina. My guess is a lot of our presidents would have had a similar performance with errors befitting their own weaknesses.

Domestically, he’s had about as many hits and misses as any other contemporary president. And, with the exception of a few notable policies like stem cell research, he’s followed a decidedly mainstream series of policies. The economy is not looking fantastic right now but, if you’re going to blame Bush for the current dip, you have to credit him for how quickly and thoroughly we climbed out of the 2001 recession. Again, a pretty average result.

As much as some may argue otherwise, he hasn’t been a terrible president. He has, however, been a very clumsy one, generally unable to rally the nation and frequently creating division where such divides were unnecessary and avoidable. He’s a man of big ideas but has not the capacity to express those ideas clearly. As a result, he’s too often relied on the tricks of marketing rather than on honest persuasion. When he has made a good case – such as the need to modernize social security now before there’s a crisis – he’s often lost because he’s squandered too much political capital on other matters.

There has been and still continues to be much hyperbole in the negative critiques of Bush. A fair number of people hate him, often with little rationality. Many others just strongly dislike him. Had Bush not so readily pursued politics of division to win elections and push through controversial policies, there would not have been such fertile ground for the Bush haters. Bush has helped spawn the very negativity that now attacks him from multiple sides. Those attackers in turn have made it almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion on Bush’s merits.

And yet, what has really left the Bush legacy so meek (at least to our contemporary eyes) are the times in which he served. When an average leader faces extraordinary times, the results will be unsatisfactory. The vast majority of leaders are average and there is no evidence we as a nation would have faired any better or been any more pleased under the leadership of a different man. I say that not to defend Bush but to put his presidency in perspective.

Our times are still extraordinary. Who amongst the candidates could be a leader of rarer ability? That’s really the most important question before us.

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