2006-04-15 05:20:01 UTC
Is George W. Bush the worst president in 100 years?
He 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
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
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
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
"When I filled out that survey I said Bush was the worst since Buchanan
[1857-61], 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.
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 no transformational vision
for domestic policy. His massive tax cuts of 2001 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 Francis Fukuyama. Their complaints are based on numbers -- huge,
frightening numbers, that cast serious doubt on the notion that Bush will
ever be vindicated. [...]
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
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:
"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 benevolent 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
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
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.
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
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. [....]
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. [....]
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the election over Jimmy Carter by repeatedly
asking voters, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
In 2004, Bush wouldn't have dared ask such a question, and since then things
have deteriorated substantially. While not all of this can be blamed on
the President, the perception is now taking hold that America's vaunted
standard of living is under assault.
A decade of improvements in alleviating poverty have reversed in recent
years. While the economy has grown, the poverty rate has risen to 12.7 per
cent of the population, the highest level since 1998, representing five
million people who have fallen into poverty in five years.
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. [....]
"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."
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
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." [....]
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.