April 25, 2013

George W. Bush is not remembered with any enthusiasm currently. That’s not likely to change.

Whatever way it’s measured, he’s not doing too well. Gallup has his retrospective approval at 47 percent; that’s third-lowest in the polling era, better than only Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson (Harry Enten has more on placing post-presidential approval in context). As far as historians and other students of the presidency, it’s even worse; Bush falls in the bottom quarter of the ratings surveys in which he’s been included.

In terms of popular appeal in the short term, Bush will likely be hurt because there’s no campaign underway to improve his reputation — either by himself, as was the case with Nixon and is still the case with Jimmy Carter, or on his behalf, as with John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. We don’t really have a way of measuring the effects of those campaigns, and Nixon’s hasn’t worked, but it certainly seems likely to help to some extent. Bush’s best hope as far as popularity is probably for his brother, nephew or some other family member to become president and excel, which somehow rubs off on him. That’s not much of a hope.

It’s highly unlikely that Bush’ll improve much with historians, political scientists and other experts — and not just because, as Neil Sinhababu astutely points out, he’ll be hurt for a long while by the age demographics of those professions.

The problem for Bush is that the headline policies — management of the economy and of foreign relations, the latter dominated by war in Iraq — don’t look good now and aren’t likely to look any better any time soon. I can’t think of a war that looked like a failure 10 years after it was launched that historians later decided was a success after all; that certainly wasn’t the case with Vietnam, for example. I can imagine historians coming to many different conclusions about the Bush administration’s reaction to financial collapse in fall 2008, but at best that’s going to be a story of “it could have been worse.”

It’s unlikely that Bush will score high on secondary issues. All wartime presidents except James Madison have poor records on civil liberties issues, records that matter more after time has elapsed than they do for (most) contemporaries. Torture, in particular, is going to be a terrible mark against Bush. It’s also very possible that inaction on climate will wind up a much larger part of his historical legacy than it seems right now. Secondary issues on which Bush seems to have good marks — education reform, for example — seem less likely to become more important over time.

Moreover, what we know now of Bush’s decision-making process — his “presidenting” — does not seem likely to appeal to future historians. That makes it less likely that they will be willing to excuse unfortunate outcomes during the Bush years as difficult circumstances he navigated reasonably well. Indeed, it’s perhaps more likely that over time the Sept. 11 attacks will be thought of as a mark against Bush than, as his supporters like to think, his finest hour.

The general opinion about George W. Bush right now is that he was overmatched by the job. I don’t see any reason to believe that’s going to change.