George W. Bush, who ended his presidency with approval numbers in the twenties and thirties and the highest disapproval rating of any president in the history of the Gallup Poll, is convinced—or at least has asserted—that his historical reputation, like Truman’s, will improve in the future. In the meantime, he is keeping a low profile (though his former advisers have sometimes, as in the killing of Osama bin Laden, defended his reputation aggressively). Bush’s Rose Garden strategy, however, has improved his public standing: A December 2010 poll asking Americans to rate the past nine presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, placed Bush second from the bottom—ahead of Richard M. Nixon, who had only a 29 percent approval rating but 17 points less than his father’s 64 percent.
The likelihood that Bush will replicate Harry Truman’s upsurge in public regard seems small. In 2010, presidential scholars ranking all the presidents placed Bush fifth from the bottom, No. 39 out of 43 chief executives. Bush’s comparisons to Truman ring false. Public frustration over the stalemate in the Korean War had played havoc with Truman’s approval at the end of his term in 1952. But the U.S. victory in the Cold War almost 40 years later vindicated Truman: His containment strategy of avoiding an all-out conflict with the Soviet Union was praised as a patient policy of waiting for the USSR to collapse from internal failings.
Bush’s hopes of a comeback rest on his belief that his foreign policy will also vindicate him: He sees his preemptive strikes against Muslim jihadists, the toppling and killing of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the spread of democracy across the Middle East as eventually giving him a reputation for wise leadership.
It is true that Bush won widespread approval for his initial response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. But it is also evident that he and his advisers saw nothing contradictory in turning 9/11 into a political windfall. Their political agenda was made plain the day after 9/11 when Karl Rove mounted a campaign of sorts against several people, including myself, who publicly criticized Bush for initially responding to news of the attacks by flying from Florida to a military installation in Nebraska. Rove called me and other critics to explain—untruthfully—that the president’s plane had been targeted and that he had been in jeopardy.
The case against Bush rests on three considerations. First, his handling of Katrina, the devastating 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans and left thousands of people without housing or work. A second blow was the misreading of events in Iraq. False assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that the war would be quick, would cost relatively little in blood and treasure, and would produce a stable democratic regime in Baghdad have convinced a majority of Americans that this was an unnecessary war.
Finally, and not the least of the doubts about his competence, is the economic recession that started under his watch and that still plagues the country more than two years after he left office. Barack Obama’s inability to fully restore the country’s economic health has shifted some of the focus away from Bush. But it is clear to most Americans that the economic downturn, the worst since the Great Depression, began under Bush’s stewardship. Bush seems likely to remain somewhere in the bottom rank of presidents, sharing an unwanted distinction with James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon.
From the archives
• The Loneliest President (New York Magazine, February 5, 2007)