For Better or for Worse
President-elect Barack Obama soundly defeated his opponent, John McCain after earning more than twice as many electoral votes on Nov. 4. Yet, until Jan. 20, 2009, George W. Bush is still officially the president of the United States. Thus, as the final days of the 43rd American president’s tenure in office wind down, one question that may be posed is how exactly will his legacy be remembered?
Before any thought can be put to this query, it must first be acknowledged that any projections of how future generations will look back at contemporary individuals are subject to change and are virtually impossible to pinpoint. After all, in 1952, as President Harry S. Truman prepared to leave office, he generated a disapproval rating of 67 percent. Yet, in more recent polls conducted by the likes of CSPAN, Sienna College and the Wall Street Journal, he regularly ranks amongst the top 10 U.S. presidents of all time.
Looking at the man himself, while his appearance and demeanor do not form the whole of his character, they are quite telling and have unquestionably influenced his popularity among the American public. This is because while not all Americans may have picked out flaws in the PATRIOT Act or trumpeted why wiretapping may be beneficial, it is safe to say that the bulk of Americans have at least seen their president on television in the last eight years.
In this vein, what have come to be known as “Bushisms” must be discussed. These Bushisms, a neologism that refers to a number of peculiar words, phrases, pronunciations, and semantic or linguistic errors made by our president himself, include such lines as, “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” and, “they misunderestimated me.” While such lines can be thought of as a death sentence for Bush’s eloquence, they have already helped him out to some extent.
When John Kerry took on the incumbent president in 2004, portraying himself as a well-spoken New Englander, Republican party representatives and right-leaning pundits stood by Bush’s public speaking. They defended him, stating that his flaws made him more human and relatable. Not surprisingly, Bush won the majority of states with a large working class population in 2004.
Still, there are limits to how much spinning a flaw can accomplish. Even the otherwise well-spoken Ronald Reagan still gets lambasted today by some historians for his faux pas of leaving a microphone on and then proceeding to joke around with the line, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Not to mention that unlike Reagan, Bush has no “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” sound bite, or an high approval rating to fall back on.
Reagan is an interesting character to take into consideration when examining presidential legacies. The man has been dead for four years, out of the public eye for 14 years and out of office for 19 years, and yet every year Republicans and Democrats alike make favorable comments about him. As Bush is the first two-term Republican president since Reagan, it goes without saying that he has much to live up to.
According to Matthew Beckmann, an assistant professor in political science at UC Irvine, who specializes in Washington politics, Bush’s legacy may be quite different from Reagan’s remembrance.
“I suspect that as time fades, we’ll see more and more conservatives distancing themselves from President Bush. They’ll say that he betrayed Ronald Reagan’s legacy,” Beckmann said.
Evidence of this may be attested to by dwindling Republican support of the president in recent years. As one New York Times article from last year noted, in 2006, all but one Republican senator voted against withdrawal from Iraq. The next year, however, showed less faith amongst Republicans. In 2007, a Washington Times survey showed that less than half of Republicans indicated “unqualified support” for the president.
Yet, as the Republican Party has become fractured, in part due to such events as the Democratic Party taking control of Congress, it is questionable as to how many Republican shortcomings will be attributed to the president. With a cabinet filled to the brim with prominent Republican voices, it cannot be said that Bush was the sole voice of authority in the White House. For example, many individuals with lengthy political careers populated his inner circle, including, of course, Dick Cheney.
“There have been powerful vice presidents before, but Cheney’s central role in this administration has stood out quite prominently. History will sort this out more clearly, but early returns suggest that Cheney was President Bush’s last and most important adviser across a huge range of issues,” Beckmann said.
Comparatively, other members of Bush’s original cabinet have long since resigned, including Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfield and Andrew Card. Yet, in the fast-paced world of Washington politics, presidential cabinet resignations are often part of the cycle of the presidency. As such, while these officials leaving office may remove their voice from the Bush administration after they step down, it does not mean that they were silent to begin with. Still, the fact that such individuals were in office at all means that the decisions they made go back to Bush.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to the president. He picks his team, sets expectations for their service and then makes the call. The vices and virtues will all fall at the president’s feet, as they should,” Beckmann said.
As stated earlier, no one can predict the future and while Bush’s tenure as president may be polarizing in some regard, it has also been a presidency of great contrast. While Bush was president during the 9/11 attacks, he also did much to tighten national security. While he failed to react to Hurricane Katrina in a timely fashion, he has also provided continuous support to fight AIDS in Africa. While he put the country into bleak circumstances in Iraq, he arguably also allowed democracy to be brought to foreign lands. However, even these actions can be further scrutinized.
In the end, it all draws back to the basics; though Bush is just a man, he also sought a position of great responsibility, and how responsible or irresponsible he was overall will only become clearer as time goes on.