Monday, January 19, 2009

George W. Bush - an appraisal

On this, his last full day in office, George W. Bush will be getting evaluated by pretty much everybody, as we all try to make sense of what the last eight years have brought to this nation. I don't have a whole lot to contribute in the way of finding new deeds that show what a disaster this administration has been, but I have provided some links at the bottom of this post that you can look at; taken as a whole, they will give you a real flavor for the very real problems that have were either caused or exacerbated by neglect. I do have a few thoughts:

There are those who are trying to make a case for the departing president. Dennis Byrne, who frequently writes for the Chicago Tribune, wrote this in another forum:
Here is not the place to recount Bush’s many accomplishments, including two victorious wars, national education reform, Medicare drugs assistance for the elderly, help for millions of HIV-infected Africans and a nation free of terrorist attacks since 9-11.
I could criticize Byrne, but I will assume that he, like so many others, is simply incapable of seeing this man for what he has proven to be. That said, if someone is going to put together a laundry list of accomplishments, they had better actually be accomplishments.

Personally, I haven't seen any victorious wars, not the one we've been fighting for seven years, in which there has been a great amount of backsliding, nor the one that has existed for almost six years, which may be muddily grinding to a conclusion...at some point. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is not an unqualified success, not at all, but the federal government hasn't really tried, as the funding has never been up to what was promised. It remains uncertain whether the drug assistance program was the most cost-effective way of accomplishing the objective. The African AIDS assistance program has been a real plus, but seems pretty modest as the cornerstone of achievement. And the attack-free seven years, cited by so many, requires the impossible proof of a negative.

This all seems like pretty thin gruel when juxtaposed against all the things that have and haven't happened. It's sad that, in a time of such challenges, this is the best list a supporter can come up with.

What strikes me most about these eight years is the utter simplicity with which this team has approached governance. They would accept, I think, that getting elected is a major challenge, but there always seemed to be a casual disregard for the complexities of actually running the most powerful country in the world. Seemingly every major area has been treated as set-it-and-forget-it.

The economy has been the largest and most obvious victim of this point of view. Laissez-faire, which has in practice meant, let the CEOs do whatever they want to do, is actually the way we should (in my view) target the provision of consumer goods and services. But it has proven to be a poor way of managing an economy in which costs can be socialized (and, oh baby, how they've been socialized). And this philosophy, or lack thereof, may have an additional chaotic effect, as we now run the other way toward a government-infused economy (I can't call it government-managed, as it seems Washington has little to no idea what anyone is doing with the billions we're handing out).

Simplicity and do-nothing has ruled the other areas of policy as well. Even the fabled Bush Doctrine (essentially, we reserve the right to attack anyone who has ever had anyone inside their borders who has even thought bad thoughts about the U.S.) is easy; it doesn't require us to engage anyone in any real way, to figure out pros and cons, to ascertain national interest and work from there. No, you're either for us or against us, and, if we conclude you're in the against camp, look out, here comes another cruise missile.

You'd be hard-pressed to find any major area in which nuance is appreciated. NCLB is the ultimate in "toss out an objective, let others figure it out." Our energy policy is "Drill, baby, drill." And so forth.

I certainly don't believe in nano-level central planning, but, for those things we agree that government should do, I don't think it's wrong to believe that they should approach these matters with intelligence and hard work, and a real sense of commitment. And that's just what we haven't had in any of these areas.

Finally, Bush has been explaining himself away by saying, "History will be my judge." Here's a thought experiment: Let's say that Bush hires someone to put cabinets in his new kitchen. The guy takes twice as long to do the job as promised, charges three times as much as the estimate, and the result looks awful. Then he turns to the irate Bushes and says, "History will be my judge." Would anyone find that acceptable?

Bush was hired to accomplish things for the people who live here today, not to throw ideas at the wall and hope something sticks. Is it possible that, 50 or 100 years down the road, historians will think more kindly of his administration? Seems unlikely (unless, as I have contended before, since history is essentially a luxury item, Chinese and Indian historians are doing the writing), but largely irrelevant.

I'm not a big believer that democracy will inevitably spread across the Middle East in a kind of domino theory redux, but, even if it does, I doubt that Bush will be hailed as a hero for it. That will likely pass to some local leader who brings together the people of that region, with Bush as a footnote (at best, he may be seen as a Lafayette, who, while valued by Americans, is not close to Washington in our esteem).

The only way that the absence of a terrorist attack since 9/11 will be seen as a major positive will be if we have a huge number of attacks in the future. While that might burnish the ol' Bush image, it hardly seems like something he wants to count on.

And that's really the point. For Bush's reputation to be revised in a big way, this country is going to have to go through seriously bad times. We would need to be convinced that, for example, the worldwide depression would have hit in 2005 without his careful stewardship, and I find it hard to see a path to that. If that's what he's counting on to make the last eight years look like good ones, then I pray that he is forever seen as the abject failure that most people think he is right now.

Light reading:

A couple from Andrew Sullivan (here and here)
Kevin Drum
Three from Washington Monthly (here and here and here)
Cognition and Language Lab on the science crisis
David Seaton
And the Washington Post, detailing just how bad the economy's been

4 comments:

Debendevan said...

In general I agree with your comments on Bush. Disastrous presidency with little to show for trillions in squandered treasure and globally diminished prestige. But I have to take issue with you on NCLB (which I am told by some, actually had its roots under Clinton). Until NCLB there were no standards for teachers. They taught whatever the hell they wanted. Parents had little to benchmark the skillset of the teachers (other than an uncertain feeling or anecdotes). It is certainly not perfect but at least teachers cannot march in spout off rhetoric or promote their pet causes and call that teaching. And if the kids in their school consistently fail to achieve credible scores they (the teachers) face risks equivalent to what we in the broader private sector face for failure to perform: jobloss.

By no means does this mean I think Bush a success in the most lenient definition of the term. But I do think NCLB was a step forward for parents and kids.

rdan said...

Good heavens...does the man reside in the same universe as humans? I posit a bad experience or set of experiences creating his/her universe.

Nice essay. Add the final economic report out last week by the Bush administration to cap off a lackluster and dispirited report...the flagship Chapter 5 tax cut review was singularly simple minded and contained such little quantitative data it was painful...

May I use your essay at Angry Bear? I am always looking for good people to add to the mix?? I would add my two cents regarding the economic report.

Androcass said...

rdan:

Yes, of course you may use my small contribution, and thank you for the kind words.

Androcass said...

Debendevan:

I've talked to enough teachers myself that I can't get fully behind NCLB, not because it wasn't at all positive, but because it could have been so much more.

I'm not unhappy about the application of standards to an educational system that has an enormity of problems, but, from what I understand, the standards weren't derived (at least not enough) from the best practices of the best teachers.

One problem with any educational initiative is the long-term nature of evaluating it; NCLB hasn't even been fully implemented yet, and we don't really know how it's going to shake out or whether it's going to help the country move forward. For me, what's so troubling is that we have so many different opinions, even now - it would be nice to have a program that was unequivocally a home run (if such a thing is even possible).

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