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Bush’s legacy: a short list

President’s accomplishments begin – and end – with preventing another 9/11-magnitude attack

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the unveiling of the president's portrait at the National Portrait Gallery last month.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the unveiling of the president's portrait at the National Portrait Gallery last month.

WASHINGTON – In the final days of a presidency marked by terrorism and policy disappointments, George W. Bush and his surrogates are trying to shape his legacy in what he might call “strict constructionist” terms.

Bush is summoning the “protect and defend” clause of the presidential oath of office, arguing that, for all the challenges he leaves his successor, Barack Obama, he prevented a rerun of the horrific acts of Sept. 11, 2001.

Never mind critics, who say Bush shredded the Constitution that he twice vowed to protect and defend in the name of national security. The proof, Bush says, is in what didn’t happen during the final seven-plus years of his tenure as commander in chief.

Bush began his presidency under a cloud of illegitimacy after the disputed election of 2000. He rallied the country in the darkness and doubt that followed 9/11.

But fewer than three in 10 Americans now approve of the job he’s done. And he recently dodged shoes hurled by an irate Iraqi reporter in Baghdad, five years after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.

Bush has scored significant legislative achievements, including education reform and Medicare prescription-drug expansion. But he failed to reform Social Security and immigration policy.

The federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 marked the beginning of a nearly four-year slide in popular opinion. And by running record deficits and directing the government’s massive intervention in the financial markets, Bush undercut the free-market, small-government ideology of his Republican Party.

“The American public paints a harshly negative picture of Bush’s tenure,” a December Pew Research Center poll concluded.

But in a February survey, Pew also found that more than six in 10 Americans believe Bush’s policies have helped stop further terrorist attacks.

Bush attributes some of his problems to his willingness to tackle tough issues that others might not have.

“The temptation in politics sometimes is just kick (those issues) down the road, like, it’s too hard to do, so let’s just let somebody else do it,” Bush said at the American Enterprise Institute in mid-December.

He cited immigration as an example.

“Obviously, we weren’t successful about getting comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “Nevertheless, I feel good about having tried.”

But on the national security front, the administration claims total success. And it makes no apologies for its methods.

In mid-December, the White House issued a document titled, “President Bush Has Kept America Safe.” It claimed that after 9/11, the United States thwarted plots to bomb fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, blow up airplanes headed to the East Coast, kill Army soldiers at Ford Dix in New Jersey, and attack a shopping mall and the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Bush’s critics claim he has condoned torture and illegal wiretapping, and hasn’t taken the high road in world affairs. But in an interview with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, Vice President Dick Cheney said the critics are “just wrong.”

“I think the results speak for themselves,” Cheney told Karl. “And I think those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program simply don’t know what they are talking about.”

After Bush’s 2004 election, White House adviser Karl Rove talked of establishing a lasting GOP majority. But Republicans suffered devastating losses in the final two elections of Bush’s presidency.

When Bush came to office in 2001, Republicans had a slight majority in the House and occupied 50 Senate seats. Depending on the outcome of a disputed Senate race in Minnesota, the GOP in the next Congress could be down to 41 senators. The party faces a 79-seat deficit in the House, the largest since before their 1994 takeover of Congress.

Bush’s job approval rating, at 29 percent in the latest USA TODAY-Gallup Poll taken Dec. 12-14, hasn’t reached 50 percent since May 2005.

Mike Duncan, the Republican National chairman, said he believes Bush will eventually undergo a transformation similar to that of Harry Truman, the Missouri haberdasher who was unpopular when he left office but gained stature for guiding the United States through the early days of the Cold War.

A verdict on Bush probably will come sooner than it did for Truman, Duncan said.

“Because of the information age and the creation of knowledge, history is coming at a faster pace,” Duncan said. “President Bush made decisions based on principle, and over time he kept us safe… I think most people in the country recognize that we have not had another attack since 9/11, and that is not by happenstance.”

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says it’s impossible to compare Bush and Truman at this point. Truman, she said, had “permanent” accomplishments by the time he left office, including the Marshall Plan for post-war Europe and the desegregation of the armed forces.

“Now, it is more complicated,” Goodwin said. “Will Iraq be seen as a fundamental step in the war on terror? We don’t know yet.”

She said history likely will wonder why, after 9/11, Bush did not ask Americans for more sacrifice, a la Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II. Americans would have gotten behind a “Manhattan Project” approach to alternative energy, she said.

Others say history’s view of Bush’s economic legacy could also be harsh.

“To make a judgment right now, he is going to be another (Herbert) Hoover,” said Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, who has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns. “There will be high points – his Africa policy among them, how he dealt with AIDS (in Africa) – and if this turns out to be the end of the war in Iraq, then historians will say at least he made that possible.”

But Walters also said there’s a lot we don’t know now about the outcome of the massive government bailouts under Bush’s watch.

“I think one thing you can say is lack of regulation has led a lot to this current economic crisis,” Walters said.

Contact GNS Political Writer Chuck Raasch at craasch@gns.gannett.com.

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What Americans say

64% Bush will be remembered more for his failures than his accomplishments.

13% Bush has made progress toward solving the major issues facing the country.

37% Bush has made those problems worse.

Source: Dec. 3-7 Pew Research Center poll of 1,489 adults

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