Tomorrow, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated at Southern Methodist University in Texas. It’s a good time to look back on the performance of the 43rd president, who has been almost entirely missing from the public stage these past four years.
It’s widely assumed that Bush is generally despised by the public. The perceptive American Interest blogger Walter Russell Mead stirred the ire of some former Bush aides when he recommended that Republicans avoid any defense of his record and move on to new issues. But perhaps Bush’s name is not mud any more. The Washington Post/ABC poll asked respondents to rate Bush’s performance for the first time since December 2008, when only 33 percent rated it positively and 66 percent rated it negatively. What the pollster found is that today 47 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove of Bush’s performance. That approval number is precisely the same as Barack Obama’s in the most recent Post/ABC poll.
Clearly many Americans have been reconsidering their verdict on George W. Bush. Many have come to think better of him than they did in the last four months of his tenure, when we were facing a financial crisis and sharp economic downturn.
Barack Obama will be at the Bush Center dedication and will presumably refrain from his usual carping about his predecessor, adopting for the moment the protocol followed by every other president in the last six decades. The three other living former presidents will also be there — Bill Clinton, who has enjoyed high ratings ever since leaving office, and Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, who were defeated for reelection. Their presence will be a reminder that with the passage of time we can appreciate presidents’ genuine achievements and glide over their deficiencies and mistakes.
Republicans can appreciate that Carter provided leadership in transportation deregulation, which has strengthened our economy ever since, and brokered a peace between Egypt and Israel that even the current Muslim Brotherhood government has refrained from renouncing. Democrats can appreciate that Bush 41 provided deft guidance at the end of the Cold War, triumphed in the Gulf War, and pressed successfully for the Americans With Disabilities Act.
It’s an interesting coincidence that each of these pairs of presidents were born in the same year — Carter and Bush 41 in 1924, Clinton and Bush 43 in 1946, generally considered the first year of the postwar baby boom. These two baby-boom presidents illustrate how much individual character can shape presidential performance.
Clinton is one of those politicians who wanted to be president since they were little boys. As a student and a candidate, he never seemed to prepare much but showed time and again that he could improvise and get himself out of trouble of his own making. His brilliant political instincts were matched by an almost compulsive interest in the details of public policy. His major misfire came when he left the drafting of his health-care program to others.
George W. Bush does not seem to have always wanted to be president. I think he believed that God had put it in his way, and he did his best to prepare himself for it. Clinton was chronically late, while Bush characteristically showed up ahead of time. Clinton would keep rewriting his State of the Union speeches as he rode to the Capitol. Bush liked to have his big speeches prepared days in advance. Clinton’s indiscipline caused him problems, but he managed to surmount them. Bush’s tendency to regard decisions as settled could cause problems, too. In retrospect, he should have revisited military strategy in Iraq sooner than in late 2006 and early 2007, when he put in place the successful surge.
Iraq and the financial crisis obscured Bush’s successful initiatives — the tax cuts, the bipartisan education-accountability law, the Medicare-prescription-drug program, the PEPFAR program to curb AIDS in Africa. They were the product of deliberate effort and careful preparation — and some shrewd political calculation.
The Post/ABC poll suggests that Americans have been developing a more well-rounded assessment of Bush’s stewardship, even as he has remained mostly silent in public. Some presidents’ reputations rise as they move into history. Harry Truman, reviled when he left office, was recognized later for getting the big decisions right despite some obvious mistakes. The same thing seems to be happening, more quickly, with George W. Bush.