It is hard not to single out, as Bush’s finest moment, that transcendent instant with the bullhorn at Ground Zero, while the dust and smoke were still settling. That might well stand up as the best spontaneous, unscripted presidential moment in the entire history of the office. But more significant in the grand scheme of things has to be Bush’s decision to prosecute the Iraq surge in 2007, when every node of opinion, including senior people inside the White House, was against the idea. Bush had to feel as lonely as Truman contemplating the use of the atomic bomb, or Lincoln waging the Civil War against ferocious opposition on every side.
Bush’s worst moment was his midnight arm-twisting of House Republicans to pass Medicare Part D. Although there are some laudable, market-friendly aspects of Bush’s plan to provide better access to prescription drugs for the elderly as a part of Medicare, it was an unfunded entitlement — the first ever enacted paid for entirely with borrowed money. It was clear the plan did not enjoy sufficient Republican support in the House on its own merits, and the strong-arming of the Republican caucus to ram it through contributed to the demoralization and subsequent lack of discipline (i.e., earmarks) that cost the GOP its House majority two election cycles later.
— Steven F. Hayward is Thomas Smith Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.
Best: President George W. Bush’s bold decision to change strategy and surge troops into Iraq in 2007 — demonstrating a courageous commitment to victory on the battlefield and fundamentally changing the trajectory of that war. In 2006, the war wasn’t going well and everyone in Washington was calling for the president to throw in the towel; instead, the commander-in-chief successfully doubled down in Iraq. The results spoke for themselves, and today even the harshest critics of the war — and the surge — have admitted that the surge worked, and was a courageous decision. Bush concluded his January 2007 surge announcement with words that still ring true today: “Fellow citizens, the year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve. It can be tempting to think that America can put aside the burdens of freedom. Yet times of testing reveal the character of a nation. And throughout our history, Americans have always defied the pessimists and seen our faith in freedom redeemed.”
Worst: President Bush’s overall response to the events of 9/11 was very strong — we’ll never forget the bullhorn at Ground Zero, the strike at Yankee Stadium, or the speech at the National Cathedral — but amidst his swift response was a missed opportunity. As our military was gearing up for war, President Bush missed a golden opportunity to mobilize Americans behind what would be years of long and difficult conflict ahead. The nation should have been engaged to contribute to the fight, in ways large and small; instead, fewer than 1 percent of Americans (the military) fought enemies overseas while the rest of the country went back to life as usual. Part of the reason political will for success in Afghanistan and Iraq eroded so quickly is that few Americans felt directly invested in the outcome.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.