Monday, July 7, 2008

Evaluating a Presidency

My inclination as a historian is to hesitate on calling a current political figure a "failure" or "success." Often I tell my students that one should wait 25 years before being able to really begin evaluating a president. If I'm right on this, then it really is too early to meaningfully evaluate even Ronald Reagan's presidency. Sure, we can give Reagan credit for redifining the values of the Republican party and we can see his political savvy. But was his presidency a success or failure? Hard to say.

In the current media enviornment, it's almost impossible to find an article, analysis, or op-ed that refers to the presidency of George Bush as anything but a failure. Though I suggest historians will look back on his term as nothing better than mediocre, I think there's ample reason to believe his presidency will be regarded more positiviely than we might think.

On foreign policy matters, he has brought down one of the "Axis of Evil," helped another make major concessions on its nuclear program, and left the remaining member isolated in the international community. Let's not forget that he shephered the return of Libya, pariah of the 1980s, from the wilderness of international disdain. America's geopolitical position has been furthered along the Arc of Instability so that, militarily at least, Iran and Pakistan have fewer options in the upcoming years.

In terms of domestic matters, most years of the presidency saw strong economic growth, Americans' standard of living (as measured by creature comforts) increased, and a major shift in the federal government's role in education. Certainly the president's position viz a viz NCLB is hotly debated by many in the educational community, yet it's unlikely the Democrats will substantially do away with the accountability movement in education in the foreseeable future.

Of course his presidency has his warts.

But it is interesting to compare the likely legacy of Bush with his immediate predecessor. Both stumbled in fulfilling key domestic campaign promises: Clinton with health care and Bush with Social Security. Yet Bush left more of an impact on a secondary domestic front than did Clinton: Bush with education, Clinton with reforms for welfare and "three-strikes-and-your-out" criminal reform. Both alienated key elements of their party with pursuit of larger economic programs: Democrats today talk of reworking the NAFTA that Clinton helped put in place, Republicans balked at Bush's plans for reforming immigration law in the United States.

Both showed appalling lack of judgement in unexpected developments midway through their presidencies: Bush's seeming indifference to Katrina victims, Clintons' indiscretions with Monica Lewinski.

Both angered and embittered citizens who voted against them in two elections.

Domestically, it's fair to say Bush has less to show than does Clinton. However, is it not fair to say that Americans are safer now than they were at the beginning of the Bush presidency?

Legacies take decades to flesh out. But historians will likely view the presidencies of Clinton and Bush to be more similiarly successful than we might think.

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