After eight unreflective years, George W. Bush has suddenly turned contemplative, arguing in a flurry of exit interviews that his record (as Mark Twain said of Wagner's music) is better than it sounds. He could turn out to be right -- but his standing in the eyes of history now depends, oddly enough, on the fortunes of his successor, Barack Obama.
By Bush's own standards, his presidency has largely been a failure when it comes to domestic affairs. He sought to build a lasting Republican majority around a new brand of big-tent conservatism, but he leaves his party wounded and weakened amid the worst financial collapse since the Depression. He wanted to reform tax and immigration laws, Social Security and Medicare; none of that got done. His main domestic achievements come down to tax cuts and test-heavy education reforms; Obama has promised to scrap the first and overhaul the second.
The list of Bush's foreign policy mistakes is familiar and tragic: the ill-planned occupation of Iraq, the never-completed pacification of Afghanistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the long refusals to negotiate with the Palestinians or North Korea or Iran, the illusory ambition of spreading American democracy quick-time to every corner of the world.
But all those failures date from Bush's first five years. The last three years have seen a quietly chastened Bush administration correct its course on most fronts.
In Iraq, Bush belatedly adopted a new strategy after his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, told him that he was losing the war. His decision to launch a "surge" of troops to give counter-insurgency plans a chance to succeed was difficult, unpopular -- and, in retrospect, correct. In Afghanistan, the administration moved more slowly and less dramatically, but quietly recognized that another war was being lost and so increased both troop levels and economic aid. Bush and his secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, repaired alliances they had frayed, returned to negotiating tables they once spurned and even agreed with Obama's call to close the prison camp at Guantanamo -- if too late to deliver much in the way of concrete results. If these remediations went largely uncredited, it was because of the president's insistence that he never apologize and never explain. His acknowledgments of "mistakes" last week were confined to bits of regretted rhetoric like "Mission Accomplished"; when it came to substantive decisions, he said he could name "disappointments" but no errors.
If Obama succeeds, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will be partly because of the second-term fixes that Bush, Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made to the botched work of the first. After all the drama of the last eight years, the new president inherits a foreign policy that has largely been repaired. Obama ran to change the tone of American diplomacy, repudiating the unilateralist Bush of 2001 -- but he'll find himself building on a foundation laid by the toned-down Bush of 2008.
On domestic policy too, Obama owes Bush at least modest thanks for his conduct during the last year. The deregulation that allowed the financial bubble to expand (and then explode) was supported by both Democrats and Republicans, and Bush can make no plausible claim to have tried to head off the crisis. But when the nation's banking system threatened to collapse, he defied conservatives in his own party to launch a $700-billion bailout. "I have abandoned free market principles to save the free market system," he said. (Vice President Dick Cheney put it in more practical terms, warning that if Republicans blocked the bailout, it would be "Hoover time" -- their party would be blamed for any financial reverses that followed.) Obama will have an easier time winning his $800-billion economic stimulus package thanks to Bush's endorsement of massive government intervention.
In both foreign and domestic affairs, Bush often ran aground when he declared a goal a matter of high principle, whether it was Social Security reform or "victory" in Iraq, and he disdained the appeals of moderates to consider a compromise. He embraced what political scientist Charles O. Jones called a "pure executive" style of governing: announce a goal, challenge others to meet it and refuse to "negotiate with myself" -- or anyone else.
When Bush was riding high on a tide of public support after 9/11, his obstinacy and focus enabled him to push a homeland security agenda through Congress, marshal broad initial support for the war in Iraq -- and win reelection in 2004.
"He got some things done because of his starch and stubbornness," said Fred Greenstein, a scholar of the presidency at Princeton University. But when he met reverses -- in Iraq, on Social Security and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- those same traits made his leadership brittle and his public support evanescent. "He never seemed to know when to fold 'em and move on," Greenstein added.
Bush would like to be remembered as another Harry S. Truman, a president who left office deeply unpopular because of a long war and a recession but who eventually won credit for laying a foreign policy foundation that endured for half a century. But Truman sponsored the Marshall Plan and helped launch NATO; will Bush's Department of Homeland Security look as impressive half a century from now?
He's more likely to be compared to Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan whose domestic ambitions were derailed by a costly war. Bush's reach, like Johnson's, exceeded his grasp; he vastly overestimated the United States' capacity to make other countries behave like democracies under American tutelage. But Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964; can Bush point to any comparable achievement?
In the end, Bush's legacy rests on the outcome, years from now, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those wars will soon be in Barack Obama's hands. No wonder the outgoing president has shown such courtesy to his Democratic successor.
Doyle McManus writes a weekly column for Sunday Opinion. firstname.lastname@example.org