George W. Bush's presidency was dealt two blows: The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the still unfolding collapse of the world economy. The former occurred eight months into his presidency, and the latter gained momentum about the same time prior to its end. The dots that could have been connected to predict the former were small and lodged among thousands, those of the latter were in plain sight, interconnected and, most importantly, underestimated. With the economy doing so well, no one was encouraged to look too closely at the leverage and debt that was making it possible.
Bush's Republican roots meant tax cuts and rebates, and he delivered, to the economy's benefit. But too much of the rewards went to too few.
Bush signaled the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low to fuel an expanding and robust economy. His "ownership society" was aimed at homeownership, and that did succeed in moving ownership up a few percentage points until mortgages toppled off the cliff.
Ideology too often trumped science, and he resisted the idea of global warming until it was impossible to deny. Public lands professionals were buffeted by his administration's desire to extract energy as opposed to championing conservation.
As the governor of Texas, Bush knew that the solution to illegal immigration required realism. The 12 million or so in this country illegally could not physically be removed, nor should they be; they were a part of the country's economic and cultural fabric, and most should have a way to earn their citizenship. But he could not convince his party, and the issue remains.
He did much for those on the African continent, especially to limit the spread of AIDS.
Of the three branches of government, the presidency would be especially strong; both Bush and Vice President Dick Chaney believed in that. And, in spite of the very narrow victory in 2000, there would be no bipartisanship. Both men believed that a winner need not compromise his principles by reaching out to the losers.
Much of the Bush presidency was driven by the effort to prevent another attack, no matter how small, on American soil, and that is where it did so much damage. Perhaps that is partly why intelligence was so poorly analyzed that the country went to war with Iraq because of weapons that did not exist. In the U.S., defensive measures that were justified until the enemy was better known were continued and expanded on. Technology made it possible to scan millions of overseas electronic communications, including those by Americans, and that was done without notice; and so was the review of intelligence gathering by a special court ended. An American military outpost on the island of Cuba became a prison in order to blunt constitutionally required legal proceedings. A combination of techniques learned at Guantanamo Bay and lax military and civilian oversight led to behavior in Iraq that deeply embarrassed this country's standing worldwide.
At a time when the U.S. was suspicious of many people and subjecting individuals to intense scrutiny, constitutional procedures were limited and sometimes absent. One should have been balanced by the other.
History will view the Bush presidency somewhat differently if Iraq emerges as a democratic bastion in the Middle East. The White House thought the Iraq war could be fought quickly and cleanly, and failed to prepare for a long peacekeeping mission among angry Iraqis with their own hatreds. The result has been about 3,000 American deaths, greatly overworked military personnel and hundreds of billions spent on war materiel and inconsistent reconstruction. The military surge of two years ago, which Bush alone advocated and deserves credit for, finally has led to a more peaceful Iraq. But will that remain after the U.S. departs?
These eight years have been divisive, expensive years that have taken too many lives. They have wounded the U.S. Constitution, given too much to the rich and now undermine the economy. It is fortunate that the Bush presidency has passed.