Former President George W. Bush may not get very far with his current campaign for political redemption. But the release of his new memoir Decision Points serves as a reminder of how far the political pendulum can swing in a short time and of how impatient and fickle the American electorate can be. [See photos of Bush's legacy.]
With a seemingly endless series of media interviews, Bush has broken a silence of nearly two years in defending the policies he espoused in the White House. What has become more evident through the interviews is the extent to which Bush was the opposite of Barack Obama. In terms of philosophy, he was predominantly conservative, while Obama is predominantly liberal. He operated from his gut, while Obama operates from his intellect. He was distrustful of extensive debate, while Obama enjoys the give-and-take. He was emotional, while Obama is analytical; inarticulate, while Obama has a way with words. He relished his self-styled role as "the decider," willing to set his course without many allies or much public support, while Obama is more of a natural conciliator who always seems to be seeking new political partners. Yet Americans made these two very different men their president, one directly following the other.
For his part, Bush is again showing the easygoing personal style that drew so many voters to him in the first place. His candor can be disarming when he is willing to display it. As part of his book tour, Bush told a crowd of 3,000 at The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, that what he misses most about being president is being pampered, especially riding on Air Force One and not getting stuck in traffic jams. In an interview with CBS News that was broadcast on November 14, Bush admitted having some regrets, something he rarely conceded while he was in office. "Well, I got regrets in not finding weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq]," he said in his typically disjointed way, " 'cause that undermined the case for us, for some, for us being there. I regret not bringing Sadda—Osama bin Laden to justice. You know, I mean, for the guy to utter 'dead or alive' [a reference to his own announcement of what he wanted to do to bin Laden], and neither case took place when I was president." He added, "I regret [declaring] 'mission accomplished' on the aircraft carrier. There is a lot of things I wish I could've done over. But in life you don't get to do them over. You can learn from those mistakes. But, when you're president, you know . . . there's no do-overs."
Yet Bush said he is content with the choices he made as president—including the most controversial ones, such as going to war with Iraq and bailing out the financial industry. Even Bush's critics say he is back to being the engaging personality of yore. On his book tour, he has been self-deprecating and funny, two traits that he didn't demonstrate enough as president. But historian Robert Dallek says there's a limit to how much Bush can rehabilitate himself at this time. "It's extremely difficult for Bush to re-establish the kind of high approval rating he once had or any expression of affection" from the public, says the historian. One reason is that the Iraq war "hangs over him as a mistake," Dallek says, adding that the economy is bad and "people believe he's at fault." [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says Bush gives a good impression in TV interviews promoting his book. "He comes across in those interviews as the guy who was elected in 2000, rather than the guy who was actually president for eight years," Garin says. But like Dallek, Garin says Bush can't do much to improve his public standing. A senior Republican pollster agrees, noting,"We're still in the midst of what's perceived as a Bush economic recession."
Bush tells friends that his memoir, which became a bestseller in its first week of publication, is only one step in what will be a long process of re-evaluating his presidency, and he is confident that future historians will rate him better than his contemporaries do. He has a point. Two years ago, Americans wanted change, and a big reason that Obama won the presidency was because he was not Bush. Today, however, the job approval of each man is about the same, with about 45 percent of Americans giving each positive ratings, according to the Gallup Poll. That's largely because most Americans are reacting negatively to them both. It's very possible that in 2012 there may be still another pendulum swing, and a lurch toward another new leader and another new direction.