I'm not a fan of these "instant history" analyses, because perspectives can change dramatically over time--one article pointed out that Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, was once considered "near great." Today the man who vehemently sought to deny rights to the freed slaves, and later became the first president to be impeached, is rightly considered a failure.
That said, one thing that won't look rosier for Bush over time is his accomplishments on the domestic front--because they are slim. The economy has improved, but especially so soon after the "dot-com" era set the bar for booms, the more sane growth we've seen over the past few years is nothing to write home about. And I doubt that No Child Left Behind and tax cuts will be the subject of many breathless chapters in future textbooks. Perhaps if Bush had been able to achieve meaningful Social Security reform, he would have something to hang his hat on, but that didn't pan out.
This is not to suggest that the lack of significant, lasting domestic accomplishments is in and of itself an impediment to being considered a great president. In Bush's case, in fact, it became clear as early as 9/12 that his legacy would be determined by how he would confront the threat of terrorism and manage America's exercise of hard and soft power.
With respect to the former, Bush can proudly and justifiably say he that he has prevented another attack on the homeland. No, we can't say we're completely safe today, but we're certainly a lot better prepared. And while currently there are still deep divisions about measures like the USA Patriot Act, I think that history will eventually look forgivingly at the reaction of this administration to protect a shocked and wounded nation. Hey, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and they still built a statue to him in DC!
But let's not kid ourselves. The main prism that Bush is seen through today is the one that will people years from now will look at him through: Iraq. And in this case, there's no point in mincing words. Whether or not you still support the war effort (and I definitely do), two things are abundantly clear:
- Iraq is in a civil war. This is one of the rare times that I, a self-described member of the "grammar police," will say that semantics should be thrown out the window. There shouldn't have to be one side wearing gray, the other side blue, and both sides marching in neat rows for us to realize a mess when we see one. Calling the situation in Iraq anything but a civil war is to deny its gravity.
- The U.S. is currently losing in Iraq. Robert Gates, the nominee to be the new Secretary of Defense, should be applauded, for admitting this during confirmation hearings today on the Hill. Despite what any right-wing blog may say, we are losing in Iraq--if we were winning, this debate wouldn't be happening. Keep in mind though, that "losing" does not mean all is "lost"--let's figure out a way to win.
In today's Post, the always astute Michael Kinsley picks up on that reason to explain why the American public has lost its will to support the war in Iraq:
At first it seemed a brilliant strategy -- repellent, but brilliant -- to isolate most Americans from the cost of the war in Iraq. It's starting to seem a lot less so. As the deaths and injuries mount, more and more people are touched by the war -- and become understandably resentful of those who are not. Bush, in his speeches, is eloquent about what no one doubts -- the sacrifice -- but banal about what most people have come to doubt: the purpose.
The decision to wage the war on the margins of the public's consciousness might seem to make sense--it's applying a lesson learned from the Vietnam War that minimized exposure means minimized dissatisfaction. But if you go this route, things have to be going well. You can endure a mosquite bite on the back of your leg, but if it keeps getting bigger and more itchy, it will inevitably come to consume your attention.
President Bush didn't prepare the American public for a big, itchy bug bite. And there is where the whole problem arises from. Had he placed the public in a wartime mentality, they would be willing to put up with setbacks. And unlike Vietnam, the time was right to emphasize a struggle. The aftermath of 9/11 was a golden opportunity to make clear to Americans that life as we knew it was going to be different, that sacrifices would have to be made.
Bush instead sought to convey as much as possible that everything was business as usual, and it has become his undoing, because now we demand that everything be quick and painless. The post-9/11 months could have been used to kickstart a nation to transform itself, through heavily publicized programs like an increased gas tax, expansion of community service programs, foreign language requirements in public education, or any number of dozens of other ideas that would have constituted the message that it's a different world today with different expectations.
In other words, it was time for tough love. Instead, President Bush pampered the public, and now he has to live with the results of that squandered opportunity: constituents that are not willing to deal on his terms or his scope in Iraq.