new CNN poll ranks President George W. Bush the most unpopular
president in modern American history. The key figure is not Bush’s 28
percent approval rating, which, though dismal, is not as poor as
all-time lows set by Harry S Truman (22 percent) and Richard Nixon (24
percent), but his disapproval rating, which has soared to 71
percent. No president had ever cracked the 70-percent ceiling. The
previous record in CNN or Gallup polling was set by Truman, who reached
67 percent disapproval in January 1952.
Oddly, Bush’s decline is tied (in part) to
declining support for the Iraq situation, which has actually turned
around and gone comparatively well for almost a year now, as opposed to
the mess through 2005 and 2006.
Nonetheless, I’m not surprised by these
numbers. George W. Bush is not a popular president. I, too, have my
qualms with him and his administration. As a conservative, it burns me
that there were no long-term, hallmark domestic achievements by
President Bush, like drilling for oil domestically, or a flat tax—and
with no less than a Republican Congress at his disposal. On the plus
side, I commend his work on life issues like abortion and embryonic
research; his modest but important tax reductions; and his outstanding
Supreme Court appointments. He also secured some stunning international
triumphs in areas like AIDS in Africa, albeit silently.
The word “silently” is instructive, since it
bears on the central liability of the Bush presidency: a horrid
inability to communicate. This was so bad that there effectively was no
bully pulpit under this president. That failure is not just Bush’s but
his entire staff. They allowed the opposition to define the debate and
public perception, particularly on Iraq and the Middle East.
And yet, it remains in Iraq and the Middle East
where Bush’s potential long-term impact resides, as does his place in
history. It is there, too, that a Bush comparison to Harry S Truman is
Our most popular presidents were those who won
wars, not presided over their start. George W. Bush is the first
post-9/11 president; he is presiding over the start of a long War on
Terror, not its finish. This was likewise true for Truman and the Cold
War. We should no more expect victory from Bush at this point in the
war than we expected from Truman in the Cold War in 1947.
I’m not the first to make this analogy. I recall an intriguing May 2003 piece in the London Times
by Tim Hames, who searched for a presidential analogy to the current
president. Was Bush another Woodrow Wilson? Was he somehow
Rooseveltian? No, opined Hames, if Bush bears comparison it is with
Harry Truman. Truman, says Hames, was a slightly accidental president
mocked by elites. He immediately faced globe-altering developments: the
end of World War II, the advent of the bomb, the superpower
confrontation. He looked into the eye of a storm that would stir for
decades. He had to lay the groundwork for a long war with many pauses
and disappointments. “[Truman] had to shape foreign policy on the
hoof,” averred Hames, “invent institutions at home and abroad to match
new circumstances, set precedents and draw lines in the sand.”
Like Truman, Bush built new bureaucracies to
handle new realities, such as an Office/Department of Homeland
Security, sought massive defense expenditures, and enunciated grand new
national-security doctrines. Truman established containment and his NSC
produced the 1950 document NSC-68. Bush initiated preemption and his
NSC produced the 2002 National Security Strategy. Hames noted it was
Truman, the man from Independence, who claimed a statesman is a
politician who has been dead 10 or 15 years.
George W. Bush’s long-term strategy for the
Middle East is to plant the seeds of a wider democratic
revolution—starting in Iraq and Afghanistan—that eventually produces a
“democratic peace,” one utterly crucial to taming the region before
WMDs are easily available to theocratic regimes. I believe his
long-term plan for the Middle East is our only hope in stopping the
region from ultimately wreaking havoc on itself, America, and the
world—a literal life-or-death proposition. The big question is whether
it will work, and whether the costs to get there are worth the price.
No one knows—and the public is largely oblivious to the plan,
particularly because of that terrible failure of this administration to
Bush has acknowledged that if he is vindicated
in the Middle East, it will not happen while he is president, nor even
in his lifetime—like Truman, who died nearly two decades before the
fall of the Berlin Wall.
George W. Bush has reconciled himself to the
reality that he will leave the White House an unpopular president. Call
me sentimental, but I find something admirable, even moving, about the
man’s stoic ability to do what he feels is right and to put country,
and even the world, above himself. The most unpopular president in modern history?—so be it.
He quietly, humbly does nothing to toot his own horn, with no concern
for legacy and no team of handlers trying to make him look good.
Like the man from Independence, Missouri, the
man from Midland, Texas, will be content with no ticker-tape parade, and
(likely) with never living to see the fruits of his labor.