Rupert Cornwell: The Bush legacy

Out of America: As Barack Obama prepares for the White House, a review of his predecessor's eight years in power shows he was the least successful president ever. How did it go so wrong?
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Say what you like, George Bush has been a transformational figure. Under him, almost everything in America has been transformed – alas for the worse.

The 43rd President still has nine days left in office, ample time for some new disaster to befall the country. It is true that history's verdict on presidents can change, none more so than in the case of Harry Truman, whose approval rating at one point sank to 23 per cent, a depth even Bush has not quite plumbed. Half a century on, and helped by a victory in the Cold War (plus a couple of authoritative and extremely favourable biographies) he is regarded as one of the dozen most successful ever.

But Truman, the patron saint of unpopular presidents, is the exception. As a rule, judgements emerge quickly and do not greatly fluctuate. The current rating of Bush is dire, and likely to remain so.

Indeed, the only argument right now is exactly where he ranks. Was he worse than Buchanan, who failed to prevent the Civil War? Worse than Andrew Johnson who botched its aftermath? Worse than Hoover, at the start of the Great Depression? Worse than the ineffectual and scandal-plagued Warren Harding, or Richard Nixon, the only president forced to resign? In one (admittedly unscientific) poll of more than 100 historians by George Mason University, 61 per cent answered, yes. They ranked Bush rock bottom – and that was last year before the economy slumped. No other president, surely, has squandered a 90 per cent approval rating like Bush enjoyed after 9/11. As of now, his greatest achievement is something that didn't happen: another major terrorist attack on US soil. But, as noted, there are still nine days left on his watch.

The self-styled "decider" was the first MBA president. Yet he may be the most incompetent manager to occupy the Oval Office. This was a man who couldn't, or wouldn't, put a stop to ruinous infighting between his top staff (the Rumsfeld/Powell feud). This was a chief executive who went to war in Iraq on the basis of grotesquely hyped and ultimately false intelligence, and utterly failed to plan for war's aftermath. And what boss worth his salt refuses to hold board members accountable for errors that have wrecked the corporate brand name?

Had Bush for example, kicked Donald Rumsfeld out of the Pentagon when the hideous events at Abu Ghraib became public – or at the latest when he won a second term in November 2004 – and put General David Petraeus in charge of Iraq two years earlier, the history of the war might have been less unhappy.

Then of course, there's Hurricane Katrina, and the inept response of Bush that was the last nail in his presidential coffin. Having previously eviscerated the federal disaster agency Fema, Bush then heaped praise on its hapless director Michael "Heck of a Job" Brown, having himself preferred to survey the disaster from the window of Air Force One, rather than visit New Orleans in person. After Katrina, Americans just tuned Bush out.

Almost everything he touched went sour – from the global image of the US to the economy, from the military (stretched almost to breaking point by two wars) to his own Republican party, and the conservative cause once championed by Bush's hero Ronald Reagan. By almost every measure, the country is in a worse state than when he took over on 20 January 2001.

Bush and his enabler Dick Cheney set out to strengthen the presidency, and to an extent they did – but largely by weakening, and on occasion trampling over, the constitution itself.

We tend to judge him by his performance on the international stage – the mishandling of the Iraq war, and the portmanteau of abuses that has many liberals urging that Bush be investigated as a war criminal: Guantanamo Bay, the refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions, "extraordinary rendition", CIA "ghost camps", waterboarding and the rest.

And yes, the savage fighting in Gaza is a fitting epitaph for Bush's Middle East policy, in which an Israeli tail wagged the American dog and which is exemplified by the events of his last 15 months in office: the grandiose Annapolis conference, relaunching with much fanfare the "peace process" but being nullified by the lack of any serious follow-through by Bush himself, and culminating in the latest Israeli offensive, launched in the certain knowledge there would be no complaint from this White House.

However, his foreign record probably offers Bush his best chance of rehabilitation, just as foreign policy once rehabilitated Truman, mocked when he left office, but now seen as not having flinched from big decisions and as getting those decisions right.

Even without 9/11, even if Bush had not launched his war of choice against Saddam, even without the implosion of Wall Street, this would probably have been a decade of relative American decline, despite the country's overwhelming military strength. Great powers rise and fall. No US president could have prevented the overdue economic blossoming and increasing assertiveness of China.

And it is just, repeat just, conceivable that the costly and bloody adventure in Iraq, whose main beneficiary has thus far been Iran, could one day yet produce a stable, secular and modestly democratic Arab country in the heart of the Middle East. And just maybe, half a century from now, Bush will be seen as the leader who laid the foundations for the defeat of Islamic terrorism, as Truman is considered to have laid the foundations of the defeat of the Soviet Union. Indubitably, too, he has done more than any US president to tackle Aids in Africa.

At home, however, there can be no redemption. Since Bush took power in 2001, every US social indicator has worsened. Between 2000 and 2008, median household income has declined by 1 per cent, while corporate profits have surged by 70 per cent, and the gap between rich and poor is larger than at any time since 1929. The number of families living in poverty has jumped by 20 per cent, as has the number of people without health insurance. The cost of insurance for those fortunate enough to have it has, meanwhile, jumped by 90 per cent.

Bush inherited a $240bn budget surplus, but bequeaths Barack Obama a deficit in excess of $1.2trn. The trade deficit has surged, and the dollar has weakened – and that was before the economic meltdown. In his campaign, Obama rephrased Reagan's famous question of a generation before: are you better off than eight years ago? The answer from Americans was an overwhelming, thunderous No.

Bush isn't totally to blame, of course. Foreign deficits were growing before he took over, as was risky mortgage lending. But his laissez-faire attitudes, and the withering of the regulatory agencies that he tolerated – some say, encouraged – made matters far worse. Wall Street behaved badly, but never was an administration so deeply in Wall Street's pocket. And now the great advocate of untrammelled markets has been forced to mount the biggest government intervention in the economy since the Depression.

Inevitably one asks, how did this tragedy befall America and the world? But for some confusing ballot papers in Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2000, it wouldn't have. But there's no rule that wrong winners make bad presidents. Others trace Bush's behaviour back to Oedipus. Having been overshadowed by his father, they say that his entire presidency was aimed at out-doing his father, at proving that the ignorant, God-fearing Bush junior knew better than the wise and worldly Bush senior.

Unlike Bush One, Bush Two had never fought in a war; for him therefore war became not a last resort but a first resort. In the son's eyes, the father failed to be re-elected in 1992 because he neglected the Christian conservative Republican base. He would not make that mistake again – and he didn't, winning the second term that eluded his father.

But complexes rooted in the legends of antiquity are not enough to explain the monumental, epoch-defining failure of the Bush Jnr presidency. Oedipus, for instance, does not explain why the son cannot admit mistakes. Bad luck, perhaps; how was he to know that WMD intelligence was wrong? Other than that, to hear George tell it, he hardly put a foot wrong. This Bush is not a man to second-guess himself; not for him even a glimmer of Oedipal remorse.

The truth is simpler. The perfect job for Bush was the one it seemed briefly he might get, of commissioner of major league baseball, back in 1993 before he ran for governor of Texas. By experience, temperament and character, he was unfitted to be president in any age. We can only pray that four or eight years hence, we won't be saying the same about Obama.