Bush's uncertain legacy
George W. Bush could be remembered as the worst president in U.S. history. Or he could be remembered as the greatest.
He also might be seen as the unluckiest, or the one who tackled the most challenges. He might be remembered as the defining leader of the new century or as a mistake-prone bureaucrat.
Defining this president’s place in history will take time, especially since two of the biggest stories of his term in office — Iraq and Afghanistan — still likely have years of plot lines left.
But experts all predict one thing: He will be remembered.
"This is not an inconsequential presidency," said Steven Schier, author of the new Bush biography "Panorama of a Presidency." "This is a guy who made energetic and decisive moves in an eventful time. Whether they were for good or ill still has yet to be seen."
At least in the short-term, Bush will be leaving office as one of the least popular chief executives ever.
His current approval rating is the lowest of any president since Richard Nixon was forced from office (Nixon’s was at 23 percent; Bush’s is at 25 percent). And 71 percent of the country disapproves of his work in office, the highest that number has reached since Gallup began polling in the 1940s.
The last eight years have featured two of the closest national elections ever, the largest terrorist attack on American soil, two wars involving more than a million U.S. troops, a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster and a pair of national financial crashes, one of which is ongoing.
And that doesn’t touch upon controversial expansions of power by the executive branch, said Meena Bose, chairwoman of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for Study of the American Presidency.
She points to moves like his controversial 2002 decision to allow national security officials to listen in on domestic phone calls for signs of terrorism, his ordering terrorism suspects to be tried in military tribunals instead of U.S. civilian courts, and his use of signing statements to challenges aspects of laws passed by Congress.
"I think those moves to strengthen the executive powers may have the longest effect on the country," she said.
But controversy or popularity in the last few months doesn’t always linger, Bose said.
"If you look at Harry Truman, he left office with some of the lowest approval ratings," she said. "Now, he’s considered a well-respected president.
"People look at his Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe and consider it a momentous achievement, but we had to get to the end of the Cold War to see its results."
The current economic crisis, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and moves by the administration to strengthen the power of the White House will also help define Bush’s place in history.
But those are all secondary issues to what will likely be his main legacy, Bose said.
"What we really have to see is what consequences the war in Iraq will have on Middle East politics, and judge from there," she said.
The key, according to Schier, is the public opinion that Iraq was a war that this president decided to enter, unlike those in Afghanistan or Japan that were forced by attacks on America.
"A legacy comes from something a president does," he said. "The financial crisis, that was years in the making and has roots back in the Clinton years. But Iraq, that was a Bush decision."
Charles Walcott, political science professor at Virginia Tech and head of the Presidency Research Group, said he has no doubt the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will be the defining event of the Bush presidency.
"But Iraq more than anything else will define his administration and influence how historians judge him," he said. "But we still don’t know how that, or how Afghanistan, is going to turn out."
For now, Iraq is largely viewed by the public as a questionable military action that has severely compromised the services’ readiness, Walcott said. In five or 10 years, if conditions in Iraq continue to improve, public opinion could, too, both in America and abroad.
A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes project found that more than half of survey respondents in France, Spain, Germany, India, Britain, South Africa and Australia believe that U.S. foreign policy will improve simply with Bush’s departure from office.
The same survey found 45 percent of Americans believe the same thing.
Schier said he sees a lot of comparisons between how historians will view Bush’s presidency and how they discuss Lyndon Johnson’s today. Both men governed over tumultuous times, directed a foreign war and faced harsh criticism from their contemporaries.
"Both men were attempting to be full-service presidents, dealing with domestic and foreign issues," he said. "Johnson made a lot of good decisions overseas and a lot of not good ones, and people have mixed opinions.
"Bush is a guy who was willing to go in there and mess around with military policy, and we’ll see what the long-term effect of that is. That’s not something a lot of presidents would do."
Walcott said he doesn’t see much Bush can do in his last days as president to have a major impact on his legacy — barring another crisis or scandal — but said the next president could have a major effect on it.
If the next president follows Bush policies on pre-emptive strikes, the use of guardsmen and reservists overseas, and long-term recruiting challenges in the military, it will likely improve how future generations think of Bush’s time in office.
If he ignores or reverses them and finds better, more popular plans, that will hurt Bush.
"If they decide the military we have now is the one we need in the future, it could affect the future opinion [of Bush]," he said. "There’s an awful lot yet left to happen."