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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Can W. Reinvent His Presidency?


As George W. Bush does a rash of media interviews to promote his new book, Decision Points, some people—even his nemesis, hip-hop star Kanye West—have begun to mute their criticisms of his presidency. This is nothing new; as time passes and old wounds heal, the nation’s impression of former presidents—no matter how bad they were—seems to improve. Even Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson’s presidencies improved with age. Will the passage of time improve George W. Bush’s legacy?

Unfortunately, that is a possibility. Although Bush can’t change his domestic catastrophes, such as the federal response to Hurricane Katrina or the horrendous financial crisis and the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, if Iraq and Afghanistan eventually reach some stability, he may be regarded as the man who threw out the despotic regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

But fractious Iraq and corrupt Afghanistan may very well succumb to long-term instability as a result of Bush’s doing exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted him to do—overreact to the 9/11 attacks so that bin Laden could strengthen the radical Islamist movement by getting more money and recruits from all over the world. After 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq, terrorism spiked globally.

Future generations may also condemn Bush for conducting the first major expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Piling on a monstrous new benefit, prescription drugs, on an already rickety Medicare system was appallingly irresponsible. Of course, taxpayers always fall for the Republicans’ fake tax cuts—pioneered by Ronald Reagan and imitated by W. While cutting taxes, Bush waged two expensive wars and had the biggest increases in domestic spending since the Johnson administration. Republican White Houses rarely cut spending, which renders the tax cuts fake because taxes later have to be raised or money has to be borrowed (with public borrowing crowding out private credit) or printed (causing inflation).

And strangely, Barack Obama, although dubbed a “liberal Democrat,” has pursued similar policies to the “conservative” Dubya. Obama will end up extending most or all of Bush’s fake tax cuts, because he has spent like a drunken sailor too. Although Bush began the stimulus, Obama really turned on the $787 billion spigot. Bush bailed out the banks, socialized the AIG insurance company, and finished socializing the mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, but Obama socialized the car companies. And while Bush increased expenditures tremendously by providing a new government prescription drug benefit, Obama installed an expensive and bureaucratic health care “reform.” Finally, Bush increased federal encroachment into education, while Obama continued this trend with his “Race to the Top” program.

Neither president excelled in dealing with natural (Katrina for Bush) or man-made (the BP oil spill for Obama) disasters.

Obama has cut back on Bush’s torture of detainees but still allows a loophole for the CIA; on civil liberties Obama is slightly better than Bush but not much, because he has continued most of the Bush administration’s unconstitutional policies.

One of the few major differences between the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations is in foreign policy. Obama has been withdrawing troops from Iraq, while doubling down in Afghanistan and receiving praise from W. for doing it. However, this shift has resulted in a reduction in U.S. forces in harm’s way by about 100,000. In general, Obama has scared the rest of the world less with his foreign policy—negotiating a strategic arms limitation agreement with Russia, reducing U.S. missile defense plans in Europe, improving U.S.-Russian relations, and negotiating more seriously with Iran and North Korea (although in the end, Obama may have to accept that both countries will have nuclear weapons and rely on the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal to deter these small nations).

Right now, both Bush and Obama have had pathetic presidencies, but Obama has a slight edge, provided by a mildly less belligerent overall foreign policy. And as they did when Bill Clinton was president, the newly elected Republican budget hawks might actually cause Obama to restrain federal spending, thus reversing his present profligate course, reducing the yawning deficit, and improving his present low standing. However, the Republicans, who are usually more fiscally responsible when they don’t control the White House, can probably only do so much to burnish Obama’s overall legacy.

On the other hand, since Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be unstable for years, if not decades, W.’s standing will probably not improve much either.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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