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ANALYSIS: Bush legacy — grim times, gloomy nation

Saturday, January 10, 2009 | 7:08 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — Wars. Recession. Bailouts. Debt. Gloom.

The unvarnished review of George W. Bush's presidency reveals a portrait of America he never would have imagined.

Bush came into office promising limited government and humble foreign policy; he exits with his imprint on startling free-market intervention and nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was the president who pledged not to pass on big problems. Instead, he leaves a pile for Barack Obama.

Grading Bush's performance has its limitations. History offers a warning about judging a president and his tenure in the moment: The wisdom and decisions of a leader can look different years later, shaped by events impossible to know now. Leaders are entrusted to act in the nation's long-term interests.

That's fine for history, but people lead their lives and make their judgments in real time. And it was one of Bush's heroes, Ronald Reagan, who crystallized the way modern presidents are judged: Are people better off than they were when the president took office?

Based on that standard, the Bush report card is mixed at best. It is abysmal at worst.

This is his tenure: eight years bracketed by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history and the worst economic collapse in three generations. In between came two wars, two Supreme Court appointments, a tough re-election, sinking popularity, big legislative wins and defeats, an ambitious effort to combat AIDS, a meltdown of the housing market, a diminishing U.S. reputation abroad and more power invested in Dick Cheney than any vice president in history.

Bush got his tax cuts and education law in the first term, then swung hard and missed on Social Security and immigration in his second. He seized a bullhorn and united a country devastated by terrorism but stumbled badly when a hurricane swallowed the Gulf Coast.

Many of his original campaign promises are dust. Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.

In the heady days, Bush was the face of a party that ran the White House and Congress. Now Republicans hold neither. So much for a durable majority.

Bush said he would change the tone of Washington. He never did. Of course, neither did the Democrats running Congress.

Bush pushed all legal limits in targeting terrorists. They have not struck America again.

The president's defenders may well be right that his decisions will be viewed honorably over time.

For now, he is out of time. And realistic about his exit.

"It turns out," he said, "this isn't one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset."

"Nothing's going right"

By any standard, the economy is in atrocious shape. More than 11 million people are out of work. The unemployment rate is at a 16-year high. The Dow Jones industrial average fell by 33.8 percent in 2008, the worst decline since 1931. One in 10 U.S. homeowners is delinquent on mortgage payments or in foreclosure.

People are losing their college savings, their nest eggs, their dreams.

The country is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more broadly, against a threat of terrorism that predates Bush and still lurks from countless corners.

The Iraq conflict finally has an end in sight but has cost much more in lives, time and money than even Bush expected.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government keeps spending money it doesn't have. The current budget deficit stands at a record $455 billion. That hole will get deeper — probably more than a staggering $1 trillion — as the bill grows for bailouts and efforts to jack up the economy.

And then there is the dismal public mood.

Huge numbers of people think the country is on the wrong track. Bush has had a negative approval rating for 47 months, the longest streak since such polling began. Almost two-thirds of people polled by the Pew Research Center said Bush's administration will be remembered for its failures.

"Nothing's going right," said Thomas Whalen, a professor of politics at Boston University who has written a book about presidential courage. "He was handed a country that was in pretty good shape. How you can argue that he's left the country in better shape?"

As they leave, Bush, Cheney and a cadre of West Wing advisers have been making that argument fervently. They insist some deeds are overshadowed and others will be more appreciated over time.

The president takes pride in getting an education law that demands testing and accountability; a Medicare law that provides a prescription-drug benefit; an AIDS relief plan that has helped millions of people in impoverished lands; and a policy of working with religious organizations as a way to help needy people.

Bush also shaped the conservative direction of the Supreme Court, likely for decades, with his choice of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. But in between came the embarrassing rejection of another nominee, his friend and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, by conservatives from his own party.

Still, for the most part, this has been a presidency dominated by war.

Bush lost the country's faith when the war in Iraq had so many setbacks — the failed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons in the first place, the botched postwar planning, the Mission Accomplished that wasn't, the sectarian killing that seemed like a quagmire.

His unpopular decision to send more troops for security is now viewed as a success, and Iraq is much more stable and free.

But most Americans still think the war was a deep, costly mistake. This is where Bush takes a long view, one that many political scientists find rosy: the liberation of 50 million in Iraq and Afghanistan will lead to peace and democracy in a troubled region.

He includes the staggering peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Bush got personally involved late in his presidency, only to see hopes for a peace deal fade, followed by more despair: a new war in the Mideast, with Israel's air and ground assault on Gaza in response to rocket attacks by Hamas.

"I believe when people objectively analyze this administration, they'll say, 'Well, I see now what he was trying to do,'" Bush said last month.

When that might happen is unclear. Historians say it could take decades, if it happens at all.

Said Bush this summer: "I'll be dead when they finally figure it out."

"A lot of serious challenges"

Bush got elected on a promise of smaller government. Then he oversaw huge deficit spending. His mind-set changed when the country was attacked.

"The most important promise that he made was to keep America safe," said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino. "He's singularly obsessed with that notion, just like Roosevelt was obsessed with World War II and Reagan was obsessed with the Cold War. This is a war on terror."

And so came the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against looming threats, treating those who harbor terrorists just like the killers themselves and promoting an ideology of freedom across the globe. He saw himself as resolute in hard times; the country saw him as stubbornly stay-the-course.

"He put everything into his campaign for Iraqi democracy," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and professor at Rice University. "The results seem to be quite painful for the United States, not just in terms of more than 4,000 dead soldiers, but the ideological fervor instead of a cool-headed pragmatism."

Where Bush still gets some public credit: The U.S. has not been attacked since Sept. 11. But it is hard to run a country without support of the people, and Bush steadily lost his as U.S. deaths rose in Iraq to more than 4,200.

The U.S. reputation abroad has suffered mightily, too.

At home, the second term brought a debacle of enormous proportions, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. The country watched in shame. The catastrophe cemented images of Bush out of touch: flying over a sinking city, praising his beleaguered emergency management chief for a "heckuva job."

"These big moments can really form presidencies," said Gary Gregg, a presidential expert at the University of Louisville.

Just when it appeared Bush might be heading for a quiet exit, the final year of his presidency was overtaken by the agonizing economic crash.

The housing market collapsed. Credit froze. Financial giants crumbled. Layoffs mounted. Bailouts kept coming, including an astounding $700 billion plan.

Bush gets some blame for the giant mess. He was not just the leader at the time, but one who promoted a get-out-of-the-way philosophy of regulation during a period when mortgage-lending standards grew lax. Yet he also got resistance from Congress when he pushed for greater oversight of the housing industry.

Bush is quick to mention that other people, many on Wall Street, share responsibility for the economic crisis. Regardless, it caps his tenure.

His main point is that when he saw trouble, he acted decisively.

"I've been a wartime president," he said. "I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, you know, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is that I did not compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

So let history judge, Bush says.

The country already has.


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