January 13, 2009 / 6:19 AM / 10 years ago

Bush legacy shaped by war, economic crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two unfinished wars, the U.S. economy deep in recession, the budget deficit about to hit $1 trillion and America’s image badly tarnished abroad.

U.S. President George W. Bush pauses during his final news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, January 12, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Not since Herbert Hoover left Franklin Roosevelt the Great Depression has a U.S. president left his successor a litany of problems seemingly as daunting as George W. Bush will bequeath to Barack Obama when he takes office on January 20.

While Bush and his loyalists insist history will take a kinder view of his legacy, historians are already debating whether he will rank among the worst presidents ever, putting him in the company of Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding and James Buchanan.

Some presidential scholars say it’s too soon to render a verdict, but many have made up their minds.

“Can anyone really doubt that this was an abysmal presidency?” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “All that’s left to sort out now is just how far down the list he goes.”

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan, Bush’s Republican hero, asked Americans to think about whether they were better off than when his Democratic opponent, incumbent Jimmy Carter, entered the White House.

By that standard, Bush doesn’t stack up well.

Ending his eight-year tenure amid the worst financial crisis in 80 years, he leaves with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern times — under 30 percent.

The widespread support he won in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 is long gone, weighed down by the unpopular war in Iraq, an inept response to Hurricane Katrina and a meltdown on Wall Street that has spilled onto Main Street.

At home, unemployment is at a 16-year high, mortgage markets are imploding and people’s savings are slipping away.

On the plus side, Bush’s top domestic achievement may be something that didn’t happen — another attack on U.S. soil.

“We haven’t had another attack in seven years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. “And that matters.”


Overseas, Bush’s legacy will be defined largely by Iraq, and it will be left to Obama to finalize an exit strategy and repair the damage to U.S. credibility.

Bush flew to Baghdad last month hoping to showcase security gains there, but instead the enduring image will be of the president ducking shoes hurled by an angry Iraqi journalist.

Bush leaves other unfinished foreign policy business.

The nuclear standoff with Iran could be one of Obama’s biggest challenges, testing his promise of direct talks with Tehran to supplant Bush’s policy of diplomatic isolation.

In Afghanistan, which critics say Bush neglected because he was too distracted by Iraq, the Taliban are resurgent and Osama bin Laden has yet to be captured or killed.

Bush’s effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace came, in the view of most analysts, as too little, too late, and the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip is seen as a fitting epitaph.

Obama has promised bolder engagement in the Middle East but will face entrenched distrust in the Arab world of a perceived U.S. bias in favor of Israel, the residue of Bush’s policies.

While Obama copes with that, he will inherit another problem from Bush — what to do with terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. The military detention center has been a source of human rights condemnation. Obama has vowed to shut it down.

Bush also has drawn fire, especially in Europe, for resisting fixed nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, a stance that has added to a perception of U.S. arrogance that Obama must now contend with.

On the other hand, Bush has won praise for forging stronger ties with India, nudging China into a more constructive international role and battling the AIDS epidemic in Africa.


But it is a once-in-a-century financial crisis — which erupted after six years of presiding over an economy that would be the envy of most presidents — that may have dealt the crowning blow to Bush’s legacy.

His administration has resorted to massive government intervention once anathema to his free-market roots.

And as ripples have spread worldwide, criticism of unbridled U.S.-style capitalism has grown, raising questions about the future of America’s dominance of the global system.

Many analysts say Bush’s deregulatory zeal contributed to the meltdown, though they also agree there is plenty of blame to go around. But since it happened on Bush’s watch, he will likely bear the brunt of history’s judgment.

Bush’s Republicans have already heard the voters speak. Obama’s resounding victory in November against John McCain was widely seen as a repudiation of Bush’s policies.

“Without Bush, the first African-American president probably wouldn’t have been elected at this time,” said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

Mindful of the clock ticking down, Bush has spent his final weeks trying to burnish his legacy. He granted more exit interviews than any recent president, delivered a series of policy speeches and held a farewell news conference.

Through it all, Bush has staunchly defended his record but has also seemed more reflective, admitting to reporters on Monday his disappointment that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that shocked the world.

Bush said history would be his judge but only “after some time has passed.” He has insisted he will be vindicated someday like Harry Truman, unpopular when he left office and now admired for his handling of the Cold War.

“Truman is the patron saint of failed politicians,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston. He suggested a likelier comparison to a very different president — Hoover, who presided at the start of the Great Depression.

Editing by Chris Wilson

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