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The Bush Reappraisal

A front-page Washington Post story by one of the nation’s top political reporters, Dan Balz, points out that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 47 percent saying they approve of the Bush presidency–an approval rating today that is equal to President Obama’s. This complicates just a bit the misguided arguments made by Walter Russell Mead the other week and which I rebutted here.

This poll comes out during the week in which the Bush presidential library opens and is an opportunity to put his presidency into a broader perspective. 

“Obviously, it’s a big moment for him,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Balz. “It’s a chance for him to explain that his political philosophy encompasses much more than the decisions he had to take after 9/11. We forget this sometimes. . . . This is a much more rounded person with many more dimensions to him than the caricature often portrays.”

Indeed. And apropos a point I made in my exchange with Mr. Mead, former Bush Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten noted that spending during most years of Bush’s presidency was below 20 percent of gross domestic product, the target now established by House Republicans in their budget blueprint. No president since Richard M. Nixon, other than Bill Clinton, can make such a claim, he said.

In fact, over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. Barack Obama has averaged 24 percent of GDP spending so far; and even his optimistic budget projections don’t have the U.S. getting close to 20 percent again. Ever. As another reference point: during fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. Just in case anyone is interested in it.

But I wanted to focus on one other comment that former Prime Minister Blair made, which is that Bush continues to believe that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power and added: “When you see what is happening in Syria today, the sense of that argument is evident. . . . What it does is just make clear that these decisions are very difficult. If you intervene, it can be very tough. If you don’t intervene, it can also be very tough.”

There is in Blair’s comments both wisdom and nuance, which is often lacking in those who comment on presidents and public officials and who themselves have never been in positions of influence in government. Having been on both sides of things, let me just say it’s easier to tweet about policy than it is to implement policy; and it’s more effortless to comment on unfolding events from the comfort of a television studio or from behind a microphone than to make decisions in the Oval Office.

George W. Bush, over the course of eight eventful years, made literally thousands of decisions. Under enormous pressure and facing tremendous challenges–during his years as president, Bush faced the worst attack on the American homeland in our history, two wars, the worst natural disaster in our history, and a financial collapse unlike any since the Great Depression–he got the vast majority of them right. And every day he was president–even when he got decisions wrong–he dignified the office. As the Bush Presidential Center is dedicated later this week, those things are worth keeping in mind.


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