THE WORST PRESIDENT IN 100 YEARS?
George Bush has always been a polarizing figure, but now his constant battles at home and abroad are taking on historic proportions
On March 16, Iraqi insurgents fired a mortar shell into the U.S. army base in Tikrit, landing near two members of the 101st Airborne Division, reportedly as they stood waiting for a bus. The explosion killed Sgt. Amanda Pinson of St. Louis, Mo., making her the 2,315th U.S. soldier killed in Iraq since the war began three years ago. She was 21.
A few hours later in Washington, the U.S. Senate voted 52-48 to increase the ceiling on the national debt, by $781 billion, to $9 trillion (all figures US$)—or roughly $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the country—thus avoiding the first-ever default on U.S. debt. The House of Representatives then approved another $92 billion in federal spending to support the war effort in the Middle East.
That night, Gallup wrapped up its latest opinion poll on Americans’ attitudes toward the White House, showing just 37 per cent approve of the President’s performance, versus 59 per cent who disapprove—a drop of five percentage points in a month—one of the worst scores of any president in the modern era.
Just another day in the life of the world’s last superpower under the leadership of President George W. Bush.
With deficits and debt swelling to epic levels, an economy showing massive cracks, and support for America crumbling abroad, the Bush administration finds itself increasingly
isolated. With mid-term elections looming in November, the President is now widely seen as a political liability. Republicans are actively distancing themselves from Bush, and joining Democrats in strident critiques of the White House. And things may be getting worse. Last week, court documents emerged showing Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, testified that Bush authorized the leak of sensitive intelligence to shore up support and discredit critics of the Iraq war, raising, for the first time, the possibility that the President may be personally implicated in a scandal.
These are more than just the normal travails of a second-term president fending off the slings and arrows of partisan attack. Bush’s constant battles at home and abroad are taking on historic proportions, hardening perceptions that his administration is defined by failure on multiple fronts. Just over 16 months have passed since George W. Bush was elected for the second term that eluded his father, but already historians and pundits are beginning to debate whether he just might be the worst U.S. president in a century.
In 2004, George Mason University polled 415 presidential historians and found 80 per cent considered Bush’s first term a failure. More than half considered it the worst presidency since the Great Depression. More than a third called it the worst in 100 years. Eleven per cent said it was the worst ever. Robert McElvaine, a professor of history at
Millsaps College in Mississippi, says scores would likely be worse if the poll were repeated today. “When I filled out that survey I said Bush was the worst since Buchanan [18576l], but things have gotten worse and now I’d have to consider him the worst ever,” McElvaine says. “If you look at the situation he inherited, and the situation following 9/11, he had great opportunities and he basically squandered them. He has put the future of the country in a much more precarious position than it was when he became president.”
That Bush is unpopular, especially among academics, is not surprising in itself. He has always been a polarizing figure, and most presidents have been deeply unpopular at some point in office, especially those who dedicated themselves to ambitious projects beyond America’s borders. Even Abraham Lincoln, now generally considered the greatest of all U.S. presidents, was widely detested in his day for triggering the bloodbath of the Civil War for no good reason.
In the final analysis, presidents are judged on a relatively narrow set of criteria—fiscal management, economic stewardship, handling change or crisis at home, and the promotion of America’s interests abroad. It all boils down to two questions: how did he deal with the challenges of his day? And were the American people better off at the end of his tenure than they were at the start? No president can claim an unambiguously positive record, but few have come up so short, on so many counts, as Bush has.
Ronald Reagan was attacked for mismanaging the nation’s finances, but he won the Cold War and his aggressive tax cuts eventually ignited the economy. Richard Nixon resigned under the cloud of Watergate, and remains one of the nation’s most reviled presidents, but historians now credit him with huge foreign policy successes, including the opening of relations with China. Bush’s supporters say history will be kind to him, just as it has been to Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. They, like Bush, guided the nation through wars—Korea and Vietnam respectively—widely seen as unnecessary and ill-conceived. But Johnson was a champion of the civil rights movement and an ally of Martin Luther King. Truman was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
With just a few years left in his mandate, historians say George W. Bush has no such achievements to offset the grievous cost of Iraq in blood and treasure. Despite the biggest federal spending spree in more than a generation, the Bush White House has produced
PROBLEMS: ASKED TO GIVE A ONEWORD DESCRIPTION OF THE PRESIDENT, THE MOST POPULAR RESPONSE WAS ‘INCOMPETENT,’ FOLLOWED CLOSELY BY‘IDIOT’ AND ‘LIAR.’ A YEAR AGO, THE TOP RESPONSE WAS ‘HONEST.’
FOREIGN POLICY PROBLEMS
THERE IS AN OLD WEAKNESS IN OUR FOREIGN POLICY.
WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF BELIEVING THAT INSIDE
EVERY FOREIGNER THERE IS AN AMERICAN JUST WAITING
TO EMERGE. IT’S JUST NOT TRUE.’
no transformational vision for domestic policy. His massive tax cuts of2001 and 2003 have neither sparked the economy nor bolstered his popularity. They have, however, exacerbated a fiscal crisis that threatens to undermine the very basis of the American state. “It used to be a part of the American character to believe in delaying gratification, and saving for the future,” McElvaine says. “But it seems the future is being ignored in spectacular fashion by this administration.” Even a couple of years ago this would have sounded like a partisan indictment. But today it is sounding more like the general consensus. The latest backlash against Bush has nothing to do with his folksy demeanour, his frequent malapropisms, or even the allegations that the Iraq invasion was launched under false pretenses. Nor is it rooted solely among the Democrats and urban intellectual elites that have always despised him. Over the course of the past two years, a growing list of Bush allies has broken faith with his leadership—conservatives and libertarians like Bruce Bartlett, Peggy Noonan and Newt Gingrich, and neo-con intellectuals like Fran-
cis Fukuyama. Their complaints are based on numbers—huge, frightening numbers, that cast serious doubt on the notion that Bush will ever be vindicated.
DAVID WALKER is an accountant by trade and a political firebrand by disposition. For the past four years, he has been preaching the gospel of fiscal restraint to little effect. As comptroller general of the United States, he is the independent auditor of government, and last November he issued a clarion call to the nation’s lawmakers, comparing America’s burgeoning deficits and debt to the forces that ultimately toppled the Roman Empire. “There is no question both U.S. government spending and tax cuts are spiralling out of control,” Walker wrote. “It’s time to get serious about our nation’s fiscal future.” The numbers he cites are nothing short of staggering.
When George W. Bush took office at the beginning of 2001, he inherited from the Clinton administration a budget surplus of US$86.4 billion. He had campaigned on a promise to use that money for an ambitious program of tax cuts, which he put into action
immediately upon arrival in the Oval Office. But Bush’s conservative allies had expected those tax cuts to be followed by an equally sweeping review of federal spending. That austerity never came. On the contrary, he’s gone on a mammoth spending spree.
Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute, is working on a book about the decline of fiscal conservatism under Bush, and says discontent among conservatives has been building for several years. “People thought over the long term he’d try to do some good and Republicans could finally make good on their promises of getting spending under control, but here we are in the second term and that has not materialized,” he says. “The dam has just broken.”
The Bush administration has a standard answer for this critique. In a time of war, they say, budget overruns are the inevitable cost of defending freedom and democracy at home and abroad. But that no longer holds water with Washington’s budget hawks. They point out that federal spending has risen by $683 billion a year under Bush, less than a third of which has gone to national defence and homeland security.
As a result, the U.S. national debt has surged from $5.7 trillion in the last fiscal year before Bush took office, to over $8.3 trillion and counting. Brian Riedl, a budget analyst with the right-wing Heritage Foundation, says the Bush administration has played the benev-
oient uncle to every special interest that comes calling, using its spending power to win support in potentially vulnerable constituencies. The No Child Left Behind education bill, for example, was aimed at suburban families; the farm bill at Midwest rural voters; and the prescription drug benefit at the most active voting bloc of all, seniors. “No president since FDR has accelerated spending as fast as Bush has,” he groans. “I’m shocked about it, but the numbers show what the numbers show.”
In reality, the $8.3-trillion figure doesn’t even begin to describe the true size of America’s fiscal crisis because it doesn’t include the so-called entitlement liabilities. In Medicare and Social Security, the U.S. government is committed to providing retirement benefits and medical care for senior citizens. But thanks to an aging population (the first of about 78 million American baby boomers turn 60 this year) and rising medical costs, those programs are desperately underfunded. At the end of 2004, government actuaries calculated that the two programs had unfunded liabilities of $43 trillion, up from $20 trillion in 2000. In other words, Washington would need an immediate cash infusion of $43 trillion in order to meet all its future obligations under Medicare and Social Security. That was before the President pushed through the prescription drug benefit, which added an estimated $18 trillion to the Medicare shortfall. And when Republicans tried to add spending caps to the bill, to prevent uncontrolled cost inflation in the future, Bush threatened to veto them.
The Economic Policy Institute recently projected that under the current tax regime, by 2014 all government revenue would be consumed by four budget items: Medicare, Social Security, national defence and interest on the debt. Walker’s department forecasts that, at the current rate of growth, the cost of servicing the national debt will consume half of all tax revenues within 25 years.
Bush does have his fiscal defenders, and they generally point out that the national debt rose higher as a percentage of the economy under Reagan. But as Cato’s Slivinski points out, there are key differences between the two. For one thing, Reagan’s deficits got smaller and more manageable as his presidency went on. The Bush administration is projecting deficits north of $400 billion a year for the foreseeable future. More importantly, as Reagan increased defence spending, he cut other budget items. Bush has allowed spending to rise across the board. “The greatest costs of Bush’s legacy are Medicare and Social Security, and those haven’t even
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT WOULD NEED AN IMMEDIATE CASH INFUSION OF US$43 TRILLION TODAY, IN ORDER TO MEET ALL OF ITS FUTURE OBLIGATIONS UNDER MEDICARE AND SOCIAL SECURITY
been seen yet,” Slivinski says. “We’re going to look back and wonder what the hell Republicans were thinking expanding all these programs at a time when we should’ve been looking at how to reform them, and pay for them.”
America’s looming financial crunch would be less daunting if it seemed like the economy was poised to take flight. But among economists there is little hope for such a windfall. With 12.6 per cent growth in GDP and the creation of 2.3 million jobs since 2001, President Bush frequently crows about the world’s “pre-eminent” economy. Beneath the surface, critics see a situation far less healthy than it first appears.
Two million new jobs sounds like a lot, but it’s the most anemic job creation performance by any president in the postwar era. The gains
have also failed to keep pace with the growth of the workforce, and as a result the overall employment rate under Bush has declined from 64.4 per cent to 62.9 per cent. The manufacturing sector has been particularly hard hit, losing 2.9 million jobs since Bush took office, a decline of roughly 17 per cent—worse than the postwar hangover under Truman, worse than the early ’70s stagnation under Nixon, and far worse than the darkest days of Reagan’s Rust Belt plant closures. Little wonder that a Gallup poll earlier this year showed more than half of Americans consider the economy only “fair” or “poor,” and 52 per cent think it’s getting worse.
This would be less of a concern, the experts say, if the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 had formed the basis of a broad economic resurgence at home. But while corporate profits hit a record $1.35 trillion last year, companies have been stubbornly reluctant to reinvest those earnings. With profits up 65 per cent since 2001, capital investments have declined by 4-5 per cent. And though that has fuelled a surge in the stock market, broader financial measures like wage growth have stalled.
So while CEOs and politicians can point selectively to indicators of a robust economy, the story on Main Street doesn’t look so rosy. Consumers know much of their lifestyle has been financed on credit. Household indebtedness has skyrocketed by 60 per cent to $4-5 trillion in the past five years, and U.S. consumers now owe close to five times as much as they did 20 years ago when adjusted for inflation. Economists have been ringing alarm bells about this for years, and last week Treasury Secretary John Snow issued the government’s starkest warning yet. “While credit and credit cards are a boon to life in America today, they also present some potential problems if credit and credit cards aren’t used wisely,” Snow said. “People can get into trouble. They can cause themselves financial wrecks.” To financial analysts, Snow’s comments seemed like common sense, but they have fuelled speculation that he and Bush have parted ways with regard to the economy, and that he’ll soon resign from cabinet.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the election over Jimmy Carter by repeatedly asking voters, “Are you better off today than you were four
Even economists who supported Bush’s tax cuts see little hope that they will form the bedrock of a future boom—not with U.S. consumers so deeply indebted, and with future administrations saddled with massive funding liabilities that will, in all likelihood, force taxes back up again in the near future. But those are long-term concerns, and America has more immediate problems to face.
JACK TROUT IS A LEGEND in the marketing business. He’s written several classic books on branding, and his firm, Trout and Partners, is adviser to dozens of huge clients, from Apple Computer to Xerox. In late 2002, he was hired by the U.S. State Department to develop a strategy for diplomats to polish the image of America around the world, casting the U.S. as a partner in peace. “I presented this idea and they loved it, but they said, ‘There’s just one problem,’ ” he recalls. “They told me, T think we’re going to invade Iraq.’ And I said, ‘Forget it then. All this stuff goes out the window.’ ”
Trout sensed a global PR disaster on the horizon, and his fears were soon realized. Last June, the Pew Global Attitude Project released its latest international survey on America’s image, carrying the remarkably optimistic title “American Character Gets Mixed Reviews.” This was technically true, though the “mix” ranged from hostile to scathing. The report found that world attitudes toward the U.S. had deteriorated sharply between 2000 and 2005In Canada, those with a favourable opinion of the U.S. had slipped from 71 per cent to 59 per cent. In Germany, approval ratings fell from 78 to 41 per cent. The story was even worse in the Muslim world: in Turkey and Pakistan just 23 per cent saw the U.S. in a favourable light. “This is the mother of all branding problems,” Trout says now. “What do you do to rebuild America’s brand and image? When a business has had a bad run and turned off a lot of its customers, they hang out a big sign that says ‘under new management.’ And we will get nowhere until
we have that sign hanging out there.” According to Pew’s research, George W. Bush appears to be at the core of international disfavour. This, says Bruce Buchanan, an expert on presidential politics at the University of Texas, has the potential to be an enduring roadblock to U.S. objectives around the world. “I think it’s extremely bad for the United States and for the world,” he says. “The chances of us continuing to be seen as an honest broker is seriously compromised, and I think that hurts our interests in the long run. Where else can you put the blame? The buck stops on the President’s desk. He’s the man in charge.”
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and professor emeritus at Dartmouth University, agrees. He has written books on John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, is now working on a biography of Richard Nixon,
MANUFACTURING HAS BEEN HARDEST HIT,
LOSING 2.9 MILLION JOBS SINCE BUSH TOOK OFFICEWORSE THAN THE EARLY-’70s STAGNATION UNDER NIXON, WORSE THAN THE DARKEST DAYS OF REAGAN’S RUST
and says no other president has been so universally reviled around the world as Bush, with the possible exception of Johnson. “There is an old weakness in our foreign policy,” Dallek says. “We make the mistake of believing that inside every foreigner there is an American just waiting to emerge. It’s just not true. Woodrow Wilson made that mistake, and George Bush is making it again. The whole notion that you can export democracy at the point of a bayonet simply does not work.”
To be sure, Bush’s record in the Middle East is not entirely negative. Last year, Iraq held elections that far exceeded the expectations of the skeptics, and Afghanistan is slowly rising from failed state status, thanks primarily to the U.S. determination to root out the murderous and regressive Taliban regime. And even though his policies are deeply unpopular through most of the world, Bush has managed to rally support in several areas. For example, Europe and the United Nations have been broadly supportive of U.S. efforts to dissuade nuclear development in Iran and North Korea. And given that there have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, the White House can justifiably claim success in homeland security.
Still, critics point to many other aspects of national security that seem to have deteriorated as attention has focused on Iraq and al-Qaeda. Russia, for example, seems to be sliding gradually backward into authoritarianism, with scant notice from Washington. In South America, one nation after another— Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile—has embraced left-leaning politicians hostile to America’s traditional interests in the region, and threatening trade links vital to its financial security. In the Middle East, Iran is growing more belligerent by the day while pur-
suing nuclear capability in defiance of Western pressure. And the push for democratic reform in the Palestinian Authority yielded a resounding election win for Hamas, the terrorist organization dedicated to the annihilation of Israel. Overall, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument that the world is a safer, more stable place today than when Bush took office five years ago.
Foreign policy is often a nightmare for U.S. presidents, since Americans have a long history of preferring isolationism to foreign intervention. John F. Kennedy suffered the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Carter was embarrassed by the Iranian hostage crisis; and every president from Truman to Reagan operated under the shadow of the Soviet menace. Bush doesn’t yet face a threat on the scale of the Cold War, but no president has attracted such hostility on so many fronts, in so short a time.
More worrying are the signs that Bush’s tendency toward unilateralism has weakened ties to America’s traditional allies, including Canada. Perhaps the most dramatic example came in 2004, with Spain’s election of a new left-leaning government, which immediately bowed to public opinion and pulled the country’s 1,300 troops out of Iraq. Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and the Netherlands began their own gradual withdrawals last year. And last September, Italy—which had the fourth-largest contingent of troops on the ground in Iraq— began a phased pullout after an Italian agent was accidentally killed by U.S. troops and the public turned strongly against the war. The NATO deployment in Afghanistan has been more stable, but not without controversy. It recently took six months of wrangling in the Dutch parliament before the Netherlands finally authorized deployment of 1,400 troops to the region to relieve a withdrawing U.S. force.
Observers say these foreign controversies would be easily manageable, if not for a steady stream of domestic missteps eroding confidence in the administration. The bungled relief effort following hurricane Katrina, Bush’s aborted attempt to appoint his close friend, the woefully underqualified Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, and Scooter Libby’s revelations about the ongoing CIA leak affair, have all contributed to the President’s slide. Last month, Pew released its latest study of American attitudes, finding that just one in three support Bush’s leadership. Even among those who say they voted for Bush in 2004, his support has fallen from 92 per cent at the beginning of 2005 to 68 per cent. Asked for a one-word description of the President, the most common response was “incompetent,” followed closely by “idiot” and “liar.” A year ago, the top response was “honest.”
‘THE WHOLE NOTION THAT YOU CAN EXPORT DEMOCRACY AT THE POINT OF A BAYONET SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK'
TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas 2003, U.S. troops found Saddam Hussein cowering in a tiny hidden cellar, just south of Tikrit, and pollsters noted an immediate surge in support for Bush. “We’ve come to this moment through patience and resolve and focused action,” Bush said that night. “That is our strategy moving forward. The war on terror is a different kind of war, waged capture by capture, cell by cell, and victory by victory. Our security is assured by our perseverance and by our sure belief in the success of liberty.” That night, it seemed, America was ready to believe. But it would prove to be the high point of a presidency that is fundamentally defined by the decision to invade Iraq. The President’s approval ratings have never returned to the levels of that December, when images of a haggard and unkempt Saddam Hussein flashed across the nightly newscasts.
Decades from now, academics will debate fiscal policy, jobs, the UN and the Supreme Court, but only as footnotes to another stark question: when that mortar shell killed Amanda Pinson on March 16, less than three years after she graduated from high school and immediately enlisted, was her sacrifice and that of more than 2,300 others in vain, or in the service of a noble, world-changing cause?
Bruce Buchanan, for one, isn’t willing to write Bush’s name among the worst presidents of all time just yet. “Short-term per-
spectives have a short shelf life,” he says. “It is possible he’s set in motion forces that might turn out in his favour years down the line. Perhaps breaking those eggs over there in Iraq will result in the eventual rooting of democracy in the Middle East. But that’s the citizen’s dilemma: we must judge in the here and now.” It’s the here and now that really concerns Dallek. He has spent years studying presidents like Johnson and Nixon, who were reviled in office and revered in retrospect, but when he looks at the trajectory of Bush’s agenda, he sees little hope that the 43rd President of the United States will ever be redeemed. “We are now deep into the wadi, and the majority of his term has been put in place, and what great achievements can he point to?” he asks. “He’s alienated so many peoples around the world. The war in Iraq is turning out to be something of a nightmare, perhaps the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. Historians will point to imperial overreach in terms of domestic spying. They will complain about him being anti-intellectual and far too evangelical. But ultimately it all comes back to Iraq. And if it continues to go as badly as it’s going, he’s in serious trouble.” For his part, the President is pressing ahead with his audacious Middle East gamble, appealing for faith, and chiding those who dare to bet against him. “We must never give in to the belief that America is in decline, or that our culture is doomed to unravel,” he said in his State of the Union address last January. “The American people know better than that. We have proven the pessimists wrong before, and we will do it again.”
For now, the pessimists outnumber the believers. And with every one of Bush’s former allies that turns away from his leadership, the margin grows and the odds get longer. M steve, maich @ macleans. rogers. com