With the recent passing of both Barbara Bush and George H. W. Bush, Americans are looking back on the entire Bush family – and its legacy on US politics. It has been nine years since the younger Bush, President George W. Bush, left office. And while it is too soon to judge his legacy with any finality, the presidency of Donald Trump – a very different kind of Republican – has reignited debate over the last member of the GOP to hold the office.
Here are three arguments for why George W.’s legacy should be viewed in a positive light and three more asserting the opposite.
A steady hand in a shaky world
He saved the economy from another depression
Liberals love to blame Bush for the Great Recession, while simultaneously citing financial deregulation as the culprit. The problem with this logic is that repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the Commodities Futures Act, the pieces of legislation most often pointed to, were both signed by President Clinton before Bush took office. In fact, a number of factors outside the president’s control, from Federal Reserve policy to government agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, likely played a greater role.
However, one Bush decision did prevent the recession from turning into a crippling depression. The Troubled Asset Relief Program was unpopular, and concerns over the moral hazard of bailing out banks are understandable. But without the bailout, the recession would have been deeper and longer. And, while the federal government invested more than $425 billion in the program, every penny and then some was repaid, with the government eventually turning a profit.
He confronted unprecedented threats
Knowing what we know today, it is fair to question the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But it was done in good faith, over legitimate concerns that Iraq was developing a weapons of mass destruction program. Far from being invented by the administration, this fear was shared not only by the US intelligence community but also by France, Russia, China, Israel and the UK.
It is impossible to predict what would have happened had Saddam Hussein been left in power. However, in light of his history – his genocide against the Kurds in the Al-Anfal campaign and his brutality towards political opponents, for instance – it is clear that he would have continued to repress and murder his own people. Many, however, cling to the fantasy that he would have caused little trouble for the rest of the world. This is unlikely. After launching a war against Iran that took a million lives, invading neighboring Kuwait, and disregarding countless UN resolutions in his 24 years in power, he probably wouldn’t have turned into a protector of the status quo.
He was a hero in the fight against AIDS
Much of Bush’s legacy may seem controversial, but one often-overlooked aspect that “deserves nothing but gratitude and praise,” in the words of one Bush critic, is his fight against AIDS in Africa. In 2003, Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The plan, launched with an initial $15 billion over five years, provided life-saving drugs to more than two million Africans by the time Bush left office. The program has won bipartisan support, along with the approval of liberal celebrities like Matt Damon and Bono.
Wrong on foreign and domestic policy
The war in Iraq was a mistake
Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq changed over time; first, it was a response to the September 11 attacks; then, a last resort aimed at stopping Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction; and finally, a noble crusade to free the Iraqi people from the unquestionably brutal rein of a tyrant.
While Bush may have had noble intentions in confronting Hussein, the invasion was a tragic decision. More than 4,000 American soldiers were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, along with more than 150,000 Iraqi civilians. The invasion itself was a mistake, as even W.’s brother Jeb acknowledged, but it was only the beginning. The treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison damaged America’s reputation abroad, while some have linked Bush’s “de-Baathification” of the country to the rise of ISIS.
From his ambivalence in confronting al Qaeda before 9/11 to the fiasco in Iraq, Bush left his successor a more dangerous world to deal with.
He was not a true conservative
Bush’s term ended with the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. But even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Bush presided over a period of unimpressive growth, which never topped 4 percent in any year of his presidency. GDP grew 3.8 percent annually under President Clinton, but that number dropped to 1.6 percent under Bush.
Slow economic growth was one reason the US went from a $128 billion surplus in Clinton’s last year in office to a $459 billion deficit in Bush’s final year. But, there’s more: Bush insisted on coupling massive tax breaks with huge spending increases. Spending under Bush, a Republican, rose faster than it had since the administration of Lyndon Johnson, a liberal Democrat.
When running for office, Bush claimed he would be a “compassionate conservative.” In fact, he was a proliferate spender who refused to make difficult decisions about the size of government. As one analyst noted, “Any President who doubles the burden of federal spending in just eight years is disqualified from being a conservative – unless the term is stripped of any meaning.”
He was slow to respond Hurricane Katrina
Unlike in Iraq, it was Bush’s inaction during Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 that proved costly. The hurricane would have caused massive destruction even with a proper government response, but Bush was slow to react, compounding the damage. Even as Michael Brown – the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was eventually forced to resign – came under fire for the agency’s lack of preparedness, Bush showed how out of touch he was by insisting “Brownie” was “doing a heck of a job.” More than 1,800 Americans were killed by Hurricane Katrina, and a more assertive response could have saved many of those lives.
The Bottom Line: George W. Bush may not have gone down in history as one of the great American presidents, but it is clear that the crises he confronted had no easy solution. What’s your verdict on his presidency? Did he deal with the obstacles he faced appropriately, or should he have handled things differently?