Clearly, this is my month to really annoy liberals. After picking Rush Limbaugh as Man of the Year, I pick the liberal version of Satan as man of the decade. But again, I ask you, read my arguments, and then make up your mind…
Most decades are defined by the Presidents who dominate them. FDR dominated the 30s and 40s. Eisenhower the fifties, LBJ the sixties. The Seventies were the decade of incompetence. The eighties clearly was Ronald Reagan’s, and Clinton dominated the nineties. In the same way, for good or ill, President George W. Bush had the most profound affect on the last decade, and that is why he is clearly my person of the decade.
People forget that Bush ran, much like Barack Obama, as a transformational figure. He was a ‘compassionate conservative’ who wanted to focus on education and the economy. He was interested in domestic affairs, not foreign affairs, and was made fun of because of his lack of knowledge of world leaders. His home state of Texas had a booming economy, because of low taxes and a friendly business environment. And he was known for his bipartisanship, and had many Democrats as close friends.
After the controversial and contested election of 2000, I wonder if Bush ever had a chance. The anger at Bush begun on election day 2000, and never subsided. Especially among the liberal base, there was no reconciliation to be had; he had ‘stolen’ the election as far as they were concerned.
In his early years as President, Bush was far more bipartisan in his efforts than our current President has been. Other than talking about bipartisanship, Bush actively participated in it, especially with his educational reforms. To conservatives dismay, much of the bill was written by liberal Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy. Kennedy also brought many liberal members of Congress to vote for No Child Left Behind. And although slightly more partisan, Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 were also passed along bipartisan lines.
Of course, all changed on September 11, 2001. Bush changed from a man focused on domestic affairs to a war time president. Bush quickly pivoted all the strength and force of the American government to defending and protecting the homeland. Immediately plans were laid for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the earliest seeds of the Iraq War were planted. I still feel that Bush’s speech on September 18 was his best speech, and one history will likely remember.
Although the Afghanistan War was largely supported by both parties, the Iraq War was a divisive political campaign. Again, people forget that Bush tried valiantly to get the support of the United Nations Security Council and the world at large. But ultimately, Bush was not going to be stopped by the UN or anyone else, and invaded Iraq in March 2003. The invasion was a success…the occupation, I think we can all agree, was an abject failure. Only the huge gamble of the 2007 surge saved Iraq from becoming America’s second Vietnam. Bush clearly alienated the entire world community with his aggressive stance on the war on terror. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay ultimately became an albatross around America’s neck, as it became a symbol of supposed torture. Those symbols clearly weakened the belief in America around the world.
On the homefront, Bush’s tax cuts led to years of growth and low unemployment. He passed Medicare Part D, which I think history will now look at as making it easier for Obama to pass health care reform (again, good or bad, depending on your point of view). No Child Left Behind gave the federal government more power over education. However, Bush angered conservatives (and myself) with all of these legislative ‘victories’. And to compound the matter, Bush was not fiscally conservative at all, as the wars and compounded federal spending would lead to an ever growing deficit.
Domestically, however, two stories dominated Bush’s second term. The first was the response to Hurricane Katrina. In a full-scale failure of state, local, and federal government, as well as private and public charities, the people of New Orleans were largely left to fend for themselves for several days as the waters rose and the levees burst. 1,836 people were confirmed killed in the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Was it Bush’s fault? Let historians decide. He definitely deserves some of the blame, although was blamed probably too much for the reaction as state and local authorities were clearly incompetent. But if there was a turning point in his Presidency where many people lost faith in his leadership, Katrina was that moment.
History will most liked judge Bush most harshly regarding the economic crash of 2008. His administration and the Federal Reserve clearly did not see the signs of the impending housing bubble burst, and did little to firm up the base of banks and financial institutions until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 led to the dam burst. His reaction, with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) may have saved the financial system…but to this day is highly unpopular and wrought with fraud.
The irony is that Bush’s greatest success is rarely talked about. One of his first acts as President was to fund wholesale drug exports to Africa to treat the AIDS epidemic. In the largest health care initiative on the continent in several generations, Bush saved millions of lives, and allowed millions of women to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus to their unborn children. In much of Africa, Bush is looked at as a hero.
Overall, it will take years, if not decades, to truly evaluate Bush’s Presidency. For all the complaints that Democrats have about the hand dealt to Obama, Bush had disaster after disaster to deal with that was not of his own making. Will Iraq really become a stable democracy, and be a beacon of hope in the Middle East, or will it fall into disarray? Will Afghanistan ever be terror free? How will we conclude the War on Terror, if ever? Will history look at the reaction to the economic crisis of 2008, and say that the Bush Administration missed the warning signs, or saved us from falling into the precipice? And although the end of the Bush Presidency was marred, this was still a man won two terms as President of the United States. How our ancestors look at his presidency, well, that will be for historians to debate in books and papers ad nauseum.
In my final analysis, Bush had a mixed record. September 11, 2001 clearly colored his entire Presidency. Should he have gone into Iraq? The facts we have now probably say the answer is ‘No’…but that does not mean Iraq will necessarily turn out for the worse. We simply do not know. How will the antiterrorism effort be looked at: as too aggressive and use of torture, or reasonable in a time of war? Economically, Bush’s failures will likely be tainted by Obama’s failures or successes. If Obama can decrease unemployment and bring back growth, Bush will look all the worse; if not, we may look fondly back at the Bush years. Ultimately, Bush’s legacy will largely be defined by men other than himself; men who run the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror will eventually likely decide if Bush is looked at as a failure on par with Jimmy Carter, or a misunderstoond vanguard of leadership like Harry Truman.
In any case, there is no question that George W. Bush defined the decade.