Still, Bush has clearly stanched the bleeding with the introduction of last spring’s surge strategy, though it remains an open question whether that will be enough. In the meantime and in the wake of the removal of Saddam, Iran has emerged as an even more challenging threat, desiring hegemonic power in a region of the world where we cannot afford to allow unfriendly hegemons to hold sway. It doesn’t look like the Bush administration has any solution to this one – but neither do other leaders and politicians in the West, given the evidence so far.
On other fronts, the current president deserves substantial credit for his tax cutting that reinvigorated the economy. Though the economy is now showing visible signs of strain, in the seven years of Bush’s presidency we’ve had roughly six solid years of economic expansion, including strong GDP numbers and record low unemployment. But Bush was manifestly not as good on spending, allowing his Republican Congress to spend more robustly than the Democratic majority it replaced, eventually convincing Americans to return Congress to Democratic hands.
Still, Bush did try to get the country to address the looming entitlements crisis when he initiated an effort aimed at fixing Social Security. A weak communicator, especially when taking reporters’ questions, the president has never demonstrated an ability to lead and convince others by rhetorical flourish, a critical skill in any politician’s toolkit, and this effort collapsed.
A large portion of the American and international elites look down on this president, not least for his verbal deficits. America’s elites have their reasons, of course, including the conviction that Bush isn’t intellectual enough to be president, coupled with a feeling that he just represents the wrong people. But the fact that Bush is not beloved by some, or even a majority, cannot be the measure of a man – or a president. Harry Truman famously left office with his poll numbers in the toilet but is remembered today as a bold, decisive and effective leader, admired by an electorate that never had the chance to vote for him. Could Bush be seen in the same way?
Writing recently in the New York Sun, Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School noted that Bush’s efforts to help the developing world in Africa have been substantial though they have gone largely unnoticed by the national elite. Bush, he wrote, brought “aid to sub-Saharan Africa to the highest levels in American history” and “raised HIV-AIDS funding by 36% his first year in office.” Added Mr. Brooks, “By 2006, annual American aid to Africa had topped $4 billion.”
Brooks also pointed out that “While critics of the Bush administration have faulted [it] for a lack of success in ending genocide in Darfur, most fail to notice the administration’s impressive success in ending the conflicts in the Congo and Liberia.” It’s about “saving lives and improving the lot of the world’s most desperate people,” Brooks reminded us, but Bush gets no credit for this from the national press corps which remains intent on presenting a narrative of callousness and failure.
Unsaid by Mr. Brooks, but worth recalling too, is that President Bush also brought to Washington managers and cabinet level appointees from a wide swath of minorities, including two African-American secretaries of state, arguably the most important appointive position in any American administration.
So Bush gets little or no credit for the good he’s done while the mainstream media echo chamber continues to harp on what hasn’t gone off perfectly. As Bush works the Middle East to try his hand at a little personal diplomacy and possibly nurture peace in a region that hasn’t seen anything like it in more than 60 years, it pays to remember that this president still has nearly 12 months before he enters the history books.
It could well turn out that the free-for-all presidential scramble to replace him, in this final year of his administration, will provide him the opening he needs to accomplish a few more things for the country and people who sent him to Washington in the first place.