What History Has to Say
George W. Bush doesn't consider himself a "navel gazer," but lately he has been unusually contemplative. As he ponders his abysmal job-approval ratings and weakened presidency, Bush tells aides he is struck by the number of books being published about America's first president, ranging from David McCullough's bestselling 1776 to Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington. Two centuries from now, Bush has concluded, historians will still be assessing his own administration, and this has strengthened his resolve to take the "long view," ignore today's growing army of naysayers and second-guessers, and do what feels right. "The president is going to govern like it's his first day, not his last day, and really swing for the fences in terms of bold reform," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told U.S. News.
There is something more. Even though he doesn't like to admit it, Bush is privately giving considerable thought to his legacy. He tells friends he defines himself as "an idealist about goals and a realist about means." He wants to be remembered, says a senior adviser, as "a champion of freedom abroad and ownership at home"--freedom particularly in Iraq and ownership by everyday Americans of their houses, small businesses, and personal accounts for education, healthcare, and retirement. Bush aims to leave behind a series of institutional changes, aides say, that cannot be easily "unraveled" by his successors or future Congresses, such as massive tax cuts, the new prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, and a commitment to stable democracy in Iraq. Last week, Bush entered the fray over immigration, another big issue, with a well-received address to the nation in which he called for strengthened border security, a large "temporary worker" program, and a system to give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Saying it and doing it, however, are two very different things. Bush's effectiveness appears to be at its lowest ebb, with only about a third of voters approving of his job performance--one of the worst ratings in presidential history. His reputation for competence has been battered, his image as a straight talker compromised.
Bush, of course, isn't the first chief executive to teeter on the precipice of failure. There is, in fact, a long if not terribly distinguished history of presidents getting into trouble after their first few years, often because they overreached in fundamental ways. Some pulled out of it; others didn't. "There is an absolute iron law of political entropy that occurs during the fifth or sixth year," Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker tells U.S. News. "Mental fatigue and tension set in. That reduces the energy of an administration and begins to erode its ability to think in novel and creative ways." Bush has addressed the problem, at least in part, with a White House staff shake-up. But GOP strategists, particularly some who worked for Ronald Reagan, say he needs more--notably, a big victory to show he isn't a lame duck. That's what Bush hopes to achieve, against the odds, with his immigration plan.
In this, too, history may be helpful--though the relevant presidencies are more recent than that of George Washington, and the outcomes are decidedly mixed. Three presidents in particular found themselves in troubles very similar to Bush's today--Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. All three, like Bush, faced serious crises, and they tried to react with big ideas and bold programs, only to see their popularity and effectiveness wane. Only one, Reagan, managed to recover before he left office.