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Not the President We Expected

This interview with President George W. Bush by the National Review staff is noteworthy on a few counts. Not surprisingly, the President evidences pride in seeing the Iraq war through. But he singles out National Security Advisor Steven Hadley–perhaps the least written about member of the administration–for “getting to the bottom of this thing” when the existing strategy wasn’t working. His own level of involvement in monitoring the war’s progress (which the interview makes clear) is obviously at odds with the MSM caricature of a disengaged and remote President. And he defends what is surely one of the most nettlesome criticisms of his foreign policy–that we have lost friends around the world. (In Western Europe? In India? In Iraq? His critics never really say.)

But those expecting some recognition of his domestic failures will be disappointed. He gives hearty cheers for “compassionate conservatism” (one wishes he would explain how it differs from standard-fare liberalism), his ineffective effort to reform social security, and even his Harriet Miers pick. (He oddly declares that he wished he had a third Supreme Court pick. Which Justice he wished would have dropped from the scene, he doesn’t say. Yikes.)

This was the virtue and in many instances the flaw of President Bush–the indefatigable belief in the rightness of his positions. It comes in handy when you need to withstand uninformed or misguided criticism (e.g. on the surge), but it is, of course, a great failing when a policy revision is in order. The other great shortcoming of the Bush administration, many would agree, was the President’s excessive loyalty and faulty personnel picks beyond Miers (e.g. Alberto Gonzales, Michael Brown, the nearly forgotten Treasury Secretaries who preceded Paulson). It is perhaps a useful reminder that prior executive and business experience doesn’t necessarily make one a great Chief Executive.

And then there is the economy. Oh, that. The interview doesn’t touch on whether he assigns himself any blame in the financial collapse or would, in retrospect, have pushed harder to rein in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, or to regulate risky financial instruments that were too little understood and too widely used. But that is nevertheless likely to be the first line in his biographical summary. ( “President George W. Bush presided over the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.”) It is the greatest of ironies that his most significant accomplishment to counterbalance that huge negative is likely to be the victory in Iraq (along with his perfect record of defending the homeland after 9-11).

His presidency is replete with contradictions. The businessman who didn’t manage. The “disengaged” commander-in-chief who righted the Iraq war strategy. The free marketeer who authored the most sweeping intervention into the nation’s financial system, ever. The “reformer with results” who had far more administrative scandals than reforms. And on it goes. So if President Barack Obama doesn’t turn out exactly as expected, don’t be surprised. He’ll be in good company.



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