It took less than 4 1/2 years of the Obama presidency for President George W. Bush to mount his comeback. While doing absolutely nothing on his own behalf (he’s been the most silent ex-president in my lifetime), his approval is up to 47 percent according to The Post/ABC poll. That’s up 14 points from his final poll in office. For comparison’s sake President Obama’s RCP average is a tad over 49 percent.
Why the shift? Aside from the “memories fade” point, many of his supposed failures are mild compared to the current president (e.g. spending, debt). Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11. People do remember the big stuff — rallying the country after the Twin Towers attack, 7 1/2 years of job growth and prosperity, millions of people saved from AIDS in Africa, a good faith try for immigration reform, education reform and a clear moral compass.
And, it turned out that the triumvirate of Iraq-Iran-North Korea really was the Axis of Evil. Unlike the current president, who’s played politics with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Bush took huge political risks to back the surge in Iraq, which worked. He is responsible for one of the most popular and fiscally sober entitlement plans, Medicare Part D. He did not foist a grandiose unpopular and exorbitant program like Obamacare on the public. And then there were his tax cuts, 99 percent of which were approved by the most liberal president in history. Even the TARP program, reviled by conservatives, can be credited with helping to calm the markets and stabilize financial institutions.
To the left’s horror, it turns out that most of his anti-terror fighting techniques (e.g. the Patriot Act, enhanced military commissions, Guantanamo) were effective and remain in place. Even the dreaded enhanced interrogation, according to two CIA agents and the former attorney general, contributed to our locating and assassinating Osama bin Laden. The essence of his view on Islamic terror — that we are at war with those espousing a jihadist ideology — has been confirmed, painfully so.
Hey, he’s not so bad! In fact, to some degree his qualities and accomplishments were taken for granted. Only when we see a robotic, cold president like Obama do we remember fondly the tender, tearful love of country Bush often conveyed and the steely anger directed at our enemies. Only when a president completely bollixes up our relationship with both the Palestinians and the Israelis do we recall how warm and productive was our relationship with the Jewish state under Bush and how Israel proved willing to take “risks for peace” under the right circumstances. And only when we see our current president kick our friends and kowtow to our foes can we fully appreciate a president with strong personal bonds with leaders (e.g. Tony Blair) and fierce determination not to appease our foes.
All of this will infuriate the left and enrage the far right, the latter of which has taken to treating Bush as if he were some combination of LBJ and Woodrow Wilson (who is not a positive figure in conservative circles). Bush’s shortcomings (misreading Putin, leaving office without dealing with Iran, some excess in domestic spending) are evident. But other supposed sins are in retrospect less attributable to him personally. (Many Western governments believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Bush actually tried to reform Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae but was blocked by Congress.) And in the “polarizing” category, Obama is far worse.
Bush, like so many other presidents, can be judged best with the passage of time. Obama will be judged on the sum total of his economic record (rotten right now), his success in deterring rogue states (failing so far) and protecting Americans (spotty at best with Benghazi, Libya, Boston and Fort Hood). The fate of Obamacare (a semi-disaster right now), courage in tackling our fiscal woes (non-existent) and general management of foreign policy (shockingly inept) will leave their mark. Obama has 3 1/2 years to change the calculus. But if his record doesn’t improve substantially he’ll be remembered as historic merely for the fact of his election but a pretty rotten president overall.