could be worse
All presidents see a decline in popularity and job approval ratings as their time in office progresses. The combination of failed policies, campaign promises unmet, and sheer boredom means that no president is able to sustain high approval ratings for long. We call it the Decay Curve. The interesting thing is that most presidents enjoy a bump in popularity towards the end of their terms, especially in the last six months or so. Voters get nostaligc and remember why they voted for the guy in the first place, or they look at their new choices and sigh with dismay. So the president usually rides out with a decent level of popularity.
This has not happened for George W. Bush.
Poor W. Sometimes it seems like he doesn't have a friend in the world. His approval ratings as he leaves office are at 22% according to some polls. It will take decades to fully dissect what went wrong, although the pundits in full force to attempt to explain his follies. He sees everything in black-and-white, which is fine for moralizing, but which doesn't work well in national security and economic policy. He relies on "purity of intention" rather than empirical reality. He's not smart, or he is smart and fooled us all into implementing a neo-con dream.
That he seems to be incapable of admitting his mistakes is the most infuriating thing about George W. Bush. His reflections on his term in office thus far tend to place the blame on outside events rather than his decisions. I wonder if he realizes how much would have been forgiven if he'd just owned up to having made a mistake or two. Or if he understands, as David Broder so eloquently puts it, that America needed to be asked to sacrifice rather than shop in the days after 9/11.
And then there's the whole fact that he and members of his administration launched an assault on civil liberties, started an unnecessary war that has killed thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, ruined our relationships with historic allies, politicized everything from the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency, made it easier for businesses to pollute, took away all access to health care from millions of poor people by defunding clinics that had any association with Planned Parenthood (which had very little to do with abortion in reality, given that abortion is illegal in the vast majority of the countries in question), allowed New Orleans to drown, and decided that the confiscation of hand lotion from little old ladies is an effective airport counterterrorism strategy. Oh, and he ignored intelligence that should have tipped us off to 9/11, which means that he did not keep us safe from terrorist attacks.
I could go on.
That said, I don't believe George W. Bush is the worst president in American history. But before I can explain why, we have to talk about how presidents are evaluated. As I teach my students, determining whether a presidency was successful is complicated. Judging on the basis of whether you liked his policies or not isn't a valid measure, since we all have different opinions about the best solution to a problem. You can evaluate a president on whether he achieved what he set out to achieve. But this is problematic as well, because we know that, on average, presidents fail to secure their major legislative agendas about 65% of the time. Presidents have to contend with 535 egocentric members of Congress, all of whom have their own ideas about what to do. This is the genius of our political system. By design, presidents can't fulfill all their campaign promises.
You can judge presidents on the basis of their popularity. But that doesn't really give us a good measure of whether they'll be viewed as a good or bad (or successful or unsuccessful) president in a hundred years. Lincoln had a tough re-election campaign in 1864 when the war wasn't going so well for the Union. Truman was a laughingstock by the end of his term in office, even though he is now viewed very favorably. Adams didn't get along with anybody. (Perhaps having David McCullough write your biography is a good way to restore your presidential reputation.) The American public is fickle, and popularity isn't always a reliable measure of success.
You can also judge presidents on the basis of what they do to the institution of the presidency, and how their legacy affects the country as a whole. I tend to rely on this measure while taking the others into account.
So, why don't I think George W. Bush is the worst president we've ever had? Mainly because there are others who did much worse things to the country, things from which recovery either never happened or took 20 years.
Who was worse? James Buchanan, for one. The man's inability to accomplish anything led the country to the Civil War. There is nothing worse a president can do than to preside over a situation in which his countrymen turn against one another. Nothing. Some parts of our country still haven't fully recovered from the effects of this war, and it's doubtful they ever will.
Miserable as our current economic situation may be, it's nothing compared to the Great Depression. While Herbert Hoover could not have controlled all the rampant speculation and greed that drove the crisis, he certainly could have taken a more active stance once the crisis made itself apparent. Instead, Hoover failed politically to stem the crisis. New Deal niceties aside, it took World War II to really restart the economy, at a huge cost in blood and treasure.
Nixon had the misfortune of being corrupt at the same time as Vietnam. The war and the Watergate Crisis broke the confidence of the American people in their government. We as a group have never regained that trust, or the belief that our voices matter in running this country.
Then there are all the low achievers (Harrison, Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore), and the ones who were brought into office by corrupt political machines (Arthur, Truman) and the guys who started unnecessary or questionably justified wars (Polk, McKinley).
Bush did a lot of horrible things as president. He damaged the institution and the country's reputation. But much of the damage is reversible. Many of George W. Bush's mistakes will be undone in the next month as Obama signs executive orders that reverse Bush's policies. Our allies are thrilled that Obama was elected, and we'll be rejoining the international community by signing treaties and playing nice in short order. There are things that will take time to repair, but I believe we'll move past them. The war in Iraq will have far-reaching conseqences at home (including with respect to the generation of PTSD-affected soldiers coming home to inadequate VA mental healthcare) and abroad (because goodness knows it's done little to stabilize the Middle East or to improve our relations with Iran). But I think there's a strong case that others were worse, especially with respect to their long-term effects on the institution.
I will give Bush credit for one thing: he did more than any other president (especially his immediate predecessor) to help fight HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. I've met people who are alive only because of his commitment to providing anti-retroviral therapy. That will be his legacy, and he should dedicate his remaining years to working on the issue. To do so would go far in restoring his reputation. Wouldn't it be ironic if Bush were to experience a Carteresque redemption in the eyes of the public?
At any rate, the republic survived the presidency of George W. Bush. Our founders were wise; they created a system that limited power even when those in power do all they can to dismantle the rule of law. We are fortunate, indeed.