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Bush Legacy Considered As Obama Prepares To Take Office

  • Andrew Tully

A White House staffer carries a framed photograph of President George W. Bush outside the the White House on January 13

A White House staffer carries a framed photograph of President George W. Bush outside the the White House on January 13

WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush has sometimes compared himself to President Harry Truman, who was vastly unpopular when he left office more than a half-century ago but today is widely regarded as an honest, decisive leader.

In a speech to new graduates of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point in May 2006, Bush noted that Truman's administration "laid the foundation for America's victory in the Cold War."

"As President Truman put it toward the end of his presidency, 'When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we set the course that can win it,'" Bush said. "His leadership paved the way for subsequent presidents from both political parties -- men like Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan -- to confront and eventually defeat the Soviet threat. Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before -- and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory."

Highs And Lows

If Truman is remembered for setting the stage for the Cold War -- a war that the West is regarded as having won -- Bush will be remembered for leading the invasion of Iraq, for better or for worse. At least that's the view of Norman Ornstein, who researches U.S. governance at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy center in Washington.

"Whether we end up looking back and saying that, on balance, removing Saddam Hussein was able to transform the region -- the best-case scenario that President Bush will hope for -- or whether we end up with a historical judgment that this was a mistake to go in, and it was extremely costly, and it maybe took our eye off the terrorist ball, will have as much to do, or more to do with the assessment of George Bush's presidency and history as anything else," Ornstein says.

Certainly, he adds, Bush's presidency has had its high points. He notes the president's initial reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and his efforts to unite the country at the time.

But as Fouad Ajami, a commentator for "U.S. News And World Report" recently wrote: "Eight years and two wars later, that American unity is a distant memory, and the war in Iraq had ruptured that national consensus on America's proper role in foreign lands. The successor of this terribly consequential and controversial president will have to knit together a new consensus, set out to find a sustainable mix of assertiveness and restraint, and leave his own mark on history as he grapples with President Bush's bequest."

'Unhappy' Washington?

Throughout his presidency, Bush has cited the difficulties of working with Congress, which at times has appeared paralyzed by partisanship. Obama sees that problem, too. In fact, in January 2007, in a video he posted on his website announcing that he was exploring a run for president, Obama spoke primarily of Washington's partisan stalemate.

"It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most, it's the smallness of our politics," Obama complained. "America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans."

Can Obama persuade Congress to address the problems faced by the United States without partisan posturing?

Few are venturing to make a prediction.

But Bill Frenzel, a Republican who served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota from 1971 to 1991, remembers the days when political opponents could work together amicably. Now, he says, Congress is "an unhappy place."

Frenzel points to Obama's appointees for his cabinet, and rates them as centrists, not partisans. He notes the president-elect's decision to keep Robert Gates, a Republican appointed by Bush, as his secretary of Defense, as one of the "very good signs" so far.

"He has been willing to keep a Republican in his cabinet, he may have other Republicans in his administration in lower positions that are helpful -- and I think that's good for harmony," Frenzel says.

Frenzel wonders aloud whether "Obama can straighten out the animosities up on the [Capitol] Hill, but he can set a good example."

"He's off to a good start, and he's given us no reason to be disappointed," Frenzel says.

The View Abroad

Ornstein looks overseas to see the impact of change in Washington, and says he expects the United States will be embraced again as a friend after eight years of Bush's unilateral approach to diplomacy -- at least for the immediate future. But he says many around the world look to Obama to pursue a foreign policy radically different from Bush's.

If Obama's cabinet is any guide, Ornstein says, they may be surprised -- or worse. But in the end, he expects, they will be satisfied.

"A lot of people around the world think that not only will we get a different attitude toward other countries with a new African-American president, but a dramatic change in policies," Ornstein says. "The fact is, Barack Obama is going to pursue policies that are in America's national interest, and that's going to disappoint some of these leaders and countries. But the sense that Obama can not only bring change but help us navigate through three crises -- two ongoing wars and an economic catastrophe -- is, I think, helping to buoy us during a very difficult time."

As for how history will treat Bush, Frenzel says he believes that despite his current unpopularity, Bush will likely be remembered as an honest man who did a difficult job to the best of his ability.

"I don't see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country," Bush told journalists on January 12, at his last scheduled press conference as president.
Bush's Legacy

Key moments from George W. Bush's two terms as U.S. president

Photogallery

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