On one issue, at least, George W. Bush—the former president of the United States, and the former governor of Texas—is badly out of step with the country. He is a man who describes certainty, decisiveness, and conviction, as key to understanding who he is as a human and who he was as president. Most Americans, however, don’t know what to think about either at this point.
Hence the outpouring of somewhat pained commentary this week. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, in Dallas, opened today. The occasion is, as National Journal‘s Ron Fournier puts it, “a milestone that most journalists will use to assess the 43rd president’s legacy.”
So how are things looking for Bush? Well, they’ve been worse. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Bush’s approval ratings, as of this month, are at a seven-year high. Americans are still more likely to disapprove (50%) than to approve (47%), but in every group—Democrats, Republicans, and independents; whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics—the disapproval has softened, to varying degrees.
Alex Massie, weighing in from across the pond for The Spectator, has a cynical explanation for this:
It is true that recent opinion polls have reported that Dubya is more popular than when he left office but this is surely chiefly a consequence of the public forgetfulness. Returning to the spotlight can only be bad news for Bush’s reputation. It will remind people why they were so pleased to be rid of him in the first place.
As the Pew Research Center noted in 2008, the beginning of his presidency was “largely unremarkable, despite the contentious 2000 election.” That all changed after the September 2001 terrorists attacks; Bush’s approval rating soared in the immediate aftermath, then started to tumble as Americans soured as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, the economy wrenched out of gear, and the occasional reform effort from the Oval Office—on immigration, on entitlements—went nowhere. Certainly by the end of the presidency Americans were, as Massie writes, exhausted, and Barack Obama’s inauguration was widely received as a relief, if not a salvation.
The alternative explanation for Bush’s resurgent approval, though, would be that Bush simply looks better in hindsight (or less egregious, depending on your perspective). Some of the controversies that clouded his administration—over the expansion of wartime executive power in response to terrorism, for example—were triggered by what were then new issues. Now that the Obama administration has continued some of Bush’s policies in that regard, it may be that people are more inclined to give Bush some benefit of the doubt, or at least not to hold him harshly accountable for an approach the next president has in some respects adopted.
On certain issues, too, the course of events has been such that Bush looks almost prescient. By 2006, for example, Democrats and Republicans alike were too frustrated to take much interest in the immigration reform President Bush was advocating; this year, however, President Obama would be happy to sign a bipartisan reform bill on the subject. It could, in general, be said that in retrospect, Bush was less extreme than his Democratic critics alleged—and than subsequent Republican leaders have been.
In other words, the high dudgeon of the Bush years may have given way to a more gentle sentiment, like ambivalence. Wide-scale appreciation is probably out of reach, at least for the time being, because regardless of how you rate Bush as president, you probably don’t have fond memories of the Bush years. Even Bush’s advocates, like Karl Rove, seem to concede as much. A column by Russell C Smith and Michael Foster, at the Huffington Post, dramatizes the tension. “If the Republicans want to be known as the party of job creators, as the Bush administration called the wealthiest Americans,” they write, “it can begin to walk the party’s talk and possibly win back some of the voters who consider the current version of the GOP too extreme.” A few paragraphs later, though, they have this to say:
Like it or not, [Bush’s] administration was in power during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Tower, the federal government’s mismanaged response to Hurricane Katrina, and we endured the near-complete meltdown of the U.S. economy. The aftermath of what many consider the worst presidency in our history has damaged the GOP, and party leaders choosing an entire roster of out-of-touch candidates in 2012 shows the damage is ongoing.
Bush’s role in all three of the crises mentioned—whether his administration should have been better prepared, and whether its response was effective—is debatable (and debated, with varying degrees of ferocity). In any case, each of the three was traumatic in its own right, and for all three to happen during one president’s tenure is bound to cast a shadow.
All of these assessments of the Bush presidency are, historically speaking, somewhat premature. One of the purposes of a presidential library is to enable future historians and journalists to assess a president’s legacy, and another purpose in many cases, including this one, is to reinforce or extend the president’s legacy in the post-White House years by advancing the the causes that the president in question has identified as a priority. There is a real chance that future generations will judge Bush based not just on what happens next, but on what he himself does next—as has been the case, perhaps, for Jimmy Carter.
Still, the Bush legacy is a going issue around the country, in part because the political scene still includes a number of Bushes, who may be similar. National pundits are wondering whether the president’s brother Jeb, a former governor of Florida, is going to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Barbara Bush, the mother of both George W. and Jeb, weighed in on the subject in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show: “He’s by far the best qualified man, but no. We’ve had enough Bushes.” George W. Bush himself is among the Americans who disagree; he has said that he thinks Jeb should run. In Texas, of course, there’s less suspense on the subject; George P. Bush—W’s nephew, Jeb’s son—is running for land commissioner next year.
And a milestone is a milestone, even if today isn’t the best day to resolve the lingering questions. As Peter Baker notes at the New York Times, even Obama will probably take that view of things at the ceremony tonight: “It has become an awkward ritual of the modern presidency that the current occupant of the Oval Office is called upon to deliver a generous historical judgment of the previous one.” Bush may not have succeeded in being a uniter rather than a divider, as he once promised. But in the spirit of the occasion, let’s end with something we can all agree with: we can expect the debates over the Bush legacy to continue for generations to come.