Bush Hopes History Will Put Him in the Company of Truman

2 troubled presidents leave office under a cloud. Do the similarities end there?

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So, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proclaims George W. Bush the "worst president we ever had." Many historians agree. Bush departs with the lowest approval ratings in memory.

Bush professes unconcern. He evokes the memory of Harry Truman, who, polls show, also left office with three quarters of the public disapproving of him. Yet Truman ranks among the "near greats" in most accounts. Bush anticipates a similar verdict.

Part of the comparison Bush draws is apt. Truman's low public esteem resulted largely from the lack of progress in the Korean War. A half century later, with South Korea a vibrant democracy and an important ally of the United States, many argue that the sacrifices Truman committed Americans to make were worth the costs. (Nearly 38,000 American troops died in the three years of that war.) Bush hopes that, if history repeats in Iraq, his reputation will rise.

In 2009, Bush's dream appears a tall order. Korea came late in Truman's tenure. Iraq dominated most of Bush's. Unlike Bush, Truman had compiled a record of considerable accomplishments before he became mired in an unpopular war. V-J Day, the Marshall Plan, assistance to Greece and Turkey, the Berlin airlift, V-E Day, the United Nations Conference, and the reorganization of the nation's intelligence-gathering and defense capabilities were all behind him.

Nothing in Bush's record equals any of these. The war in Afghanistan, once considered a success, is problematic. On the upside, Bush's massive investment of American resources and know-how in Africa not only saved millions of lives but did more to enhance the image of the United States abroad than have any of Bush's haphazard "public diplomacy" efforts.

Domestically, Bush compiled a slightly better legacy than Truman. Barack Obama promises to retain Bush's No Child Left Behind and faith-based initiatives. Truman would envy Bush's success in enacting a new entitlement, the Medicare drug benefit.

"Old Harry" would be surprised that a Republican president would embark on an eight-year spending spree and cap it with bailouts of banks and automobile manufacturers. Bush's profligacy made it "safe" (Woodrow Wilson's term) for a Democratic president and Congress to spend even more.

Obama has acknowledged that high federal deficits—expected to exceed by 50 percent as a share of gross domestic product the previous peacetime peak under Reagan (after the last steep recession)—will continue for years. Bush seems oblivious. During the financial meltdown, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson called most of the shots, not the president.

Bush brought to the presidency a fatal flaw, which blocked his path to greatness: his lack of curiosity. Preferring to "get on with it"—whatever the particular "it" was at any given time—Bush proved too willing to take the word of experts, too reluctant to seek outside opinions, and too reticent to inquire as to why things did not work out as his advisers predicted. Such management practices are not taught at the Harvard Business School. If only he had paid attention.

No one will ever accuse Bush, unlike Franklin Roosevelt, of knowing more about what was transpiring within his administration than anyone else. It is hard to visualize Bush, in the manner of Lincoln, poring over news from the front in order to form his own assessment about situations on the ground. Bush awaited sanitized briefings. Had George W. Bush rather than John F. Kennedy been president during the Cuban missile crisis, there might not be a presidency to pass along to Obama.

Bush compounded his problems by retaining people whose careers he had made or would make rather than recruiting persons of distinction. This reduced the likelihood that he would receive independent, unvarnished advice. The advisory and staff systems Bush put in place all but ensured that he would be surprised so often by events (9/11, the Iraqi insurrection, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis). The rest, as they say, is "history."

On his foreign travels, Bush eschewed sightseeing. At home, he shunned state dinners. He never "got it" that leaders gain perspective through such undertakings or that foreign populations might appreciate the most powerful person in the world putting himself out to get to learn more about them.