Where will George W. Bush rank?

Posted by on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Regular readers will know that Macro Man tends to avoid political discussions like the plague, given his generally low opinion of most of the individuals who choose politics as a profession. But there's one issue that's been gnawing at his mind recently, and given that he's travelling today now is as good a time as any to throw it open for consideration.

The clue is, of course, in the title of the post. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal ranked all the US presidents save W.H. Harrison and James Garfield, both of who died early in their terms. At that juncture, G.W. Bush was the very personification of mediocrity; of the 40 presidents ranked, GWB was #19 (two spots above his old man, funnily enough.)

Since that point, of course, we've had Hurricane Katrina and the abject mismanagement of its aftermath, no end in sight to the military effort in Iraq, the Republican loss of the House of Representatives, the housing bubble, its subsequent implosion, the financial market crisis resulting from that, and the recession that is apparently resulting from the crisis and the aftermath of the bubble.

All in all, it doesn't make pretty reading. There's not many presidents that can claim to have started their term with the economy in recession and a financial bubble bursting, and ended their term with the economy in a different recession in the aftermath of a different bubble bursting. Ay caramba!

Now, asking where Mr. Bush ranks is an invitation for people of a certain persuasion to let forth a cannonade of vitriol. Macro Man would ask readers to refrain from doing so, particularly those who have no real idea how Mr. Bush ranks in relation to, say, Millard Fillmore.

The temptation is of course to relegate GWB to the bottom of the pile...but was he really as bad as Warren Harding? Richard Nixon, for that matter? Herbert Hoover? Macro Man would be curious to hear from those with an informed view; how much has the current president slipped since 2005, and where will he go down in history?

(Bonus for those who proffer informed views on the legacies of Messrs. Blair and Chirac as well....)

22 Comments

Anonymous said...

As the man who presided over trampling of the constitution, he can't be up there too high.

Torture of those held in custody - morally bad, likely illegal even if alberto gonzales opines otherwise.

Domestic spying on phone and e-mail without a warrant - morally bad, definitely illegal.

All Nixon did was wiretap the Watergate Hotel, not all of the stinking US. How is this behavior somehow less aggregious, pray tell?

mOOm said...

He's got to be the worst president since Hoover. But I don't know enough about the bad presidents before then to make a comparison. The Vietnam War gradually escalated and then failed so can't be really blamed on one particular president.... The only good thing Bush did was cut taxes which unfortunately massively increased the debt due to the war etc. He tried to reform Social Security but that failed. Instead the US ended up with more Medicare obligations. There was some sulfur reducing legislation which I liked. Policy on climate change has been globally disastrous. The War in Iraq, huge deficits, collapsing USD, and a second recession in less than ten years, though Greenspan's Fed maybe is more to blame for that....

Ape Man said...

I think that anyone who thinks that George W Bush will(or should) rank’s low because of his abuses of the constitution lacks historical perspective. I mean during LBJ’s time Civil Rights leaders where being spied on in the most intrusive manner imaginable. During Woodrow Wilson’s time, the whole constitution was practically thrown out the window. Even in Adam’s time, there were some pretty severe abuses of the constitution.

I would go so far as to say that there are probably more presidents who have abused the constitution worse than George W Bush then there are Presidents who have a better record than GWB. The more I think about it, the harder time I have coming up with presidents who have a better record. I mean, think about what went on when America occupied the Philippines. Think about what happen to Native Americans. Think about what was done during the red scares of the McCarthy era. And I could go on and on.

Of course, you can argue long and hard about what is constitutional and what is not. But it just bothers me to see people frothing in the mouth about how GWB supports torture and then turn around and make jokes about prison rape as if it was no big deal. America has 1% of its population behind bars. Various forms of abuse are widespread and well documented in prison. All that was put in the works long before GWB came to office. Yet a lot of people want to act like the fact that GWB treated incarcerated a couple of hundred people without a trial as one of the greatest threats the American republic has ever faced.

If what he is doing is so bad, how come more of his opponents are not working harder to reform the prison system? Why do we only protest when foreigners are abused?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending the things that GWB has done. But let us try to be a little more consistent in our judgments.

Having said all of that, how would I rate GWB? That is a question that calls for an explanation of my own personal rating system. My rating scale says that Abraham Lincoln was the best President that the US has ever had, and Woodrow Wilson was the worst.

To my mind the sins of Woodrow Wilson were many. But three really stand out. The first is the fact that he pushed America into a war that was not in its interests. The second great sin was the political oppression that he engaged in to stamp out opposition to the war.
And by this I don’t mean George Bush type stuff. Wilson did everything from throwing America citizens into prison without a trial to censoring those newspapers that argued against the war. Just to get a start on what he did, look up Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 on google.

But perhaps the mistake that Wilson’s made that had the most far reaching consequences was his misguided utopia ideas. He helped reshape the political structures of the world with the belief that if only you could have perfect self-determination based on ethnic affliction, the world would so much better. I believe that the destruction of pre-existing governing structures that he did so much to facilitate was a big factor in brining around the bloodshed of World War II.

Now a lot of conservatives would argue that Abraham Lincoln was no better than Woodrow Wilson. After all, he suspended people’s rights on occasion didn’t he? But I think any fair minded person can see that there is no comparison between the two men. When Abraham Lincoln suspended rights, it was generally for military reasons such as riots or big problems with guerrilla warfare. He never instated the broad based political repression that Wilson brought about. For proof you just have to read the newspapers articles in northern newspapers criticizing Lincoln during the war. If newspapers editors had been half as critical in Wilson’s time they would have been thrown in jail.

More to the point, I think that Lincoln had a much better understanding of human nature then Wilson. Unlike Wilson, who thought that he could use war to reshape the world, Lincoln knew (and said in both his private writings and public speeches) that war would not make things magically better for slaves. But he also saw that slavery was growing by leaps and bounds during his lifetime. Unlike some people today who think that slavery was going to die a natural death, Lincoln could see no end in sight for the expansions of slaver as long as there were weaker nations to the south of the US and he felt that this rapid expansion was a threat to the very concept of freedom. So he fought a war to stop the expansion of slavery (I wrote an essay arguing slavery was an expansionary threat here if you are interested).

How does GWB rate on this scale? Well, his abuse of the constitution is not even close to what Wilson did. Frankly, even Lincoln was probably worse than GWB in that regard. But GWB shares the same dangerous idealism that Wilson had and he has the same messianic type of outlook on life. I think the war in Iraq and types of mistakes he has made reflects that.

So on the balance; I think he is on the Hoover, LBJ, and Wilson end of the scale. Although I don’t think he has done as much damage as those three men did.

Ape Man said...

Sorry about poor grammar and spelling the above. And about its long disjointed nature. I am not operating with a major sleep deficit and my judgment is impaired.

Anonymous said...

Nixon had his criminal tendencies. LBJ had Vietnam. Hoover had the Great Depression. Buchanan had a financial panic and a disintegrating nation. Johnson (A) presided over the pillage of the South after the war and was nearly impeached. These all achieved notable accomplishments of the negative sorts.

W manages to combine many of these same grievous misjudgments and miscalculations into a single nightmarish package of obstinate wrongheadedness and will ignorance. Add to this his dragging down of American prestige and power worldwide and a record of international human rights violations that would make a Latin American dictator proud and you have a bona fide contender.

Anonymous said...

Bush and top members of his administration have violated innumerable U.S. and international laws, defiled the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, ransacked the nation's wealth -- his crimes against the people are so grievous that he, Cheney, and Condi should be permanently EXILED. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

Surprised to see you introduce this topic Macro Man, but here goes:

I already see some knee jerk responses here, with no historical perspective. Remember everyone absolutely hated Truman at the end of his term (lower popularity ratings that George W. Bush, with the Korean War serving a similar function to Iraq). Now of course, he ranks quite high, with the Korean War seen as a key turning point in stopping the advance of Communism.

It will take years for the results of the Bush presidency to become apparent. Iraq can still range anywhere from the biggest waste of resources in human history to the best investment ever made in securing world peace and prosperity. Right now, it seems to lean more toward the former, but history has a way of surprising people. I do believe that most people (particularly in the U.S.) don't see the threat that radical Islam represents to civilization.

I don't buy the notion that the Federal government mismanaged Katrina. They (especially the military) performed reasonably well. The state government on the other hand didn't even ask for help initially, and did very little right after that. The state and local governments deserve most of the blame (other than not getting the levees fixed - something that goes back over several presidential administrations).

Some more random thoughts:

All of the increased spying will remain - no matter who becomes president next. If you don't like it go live somewhere else. The U.K. doesn't seem any better in that regard.

These rankings always include lots of personal biases, but we love them anyway.

Clinton (maybe the worst man ever to occupy the office) didn't have a bad presidency, but he presided over an administration completely devoid of any accomplishments. I don't see him straying too far from the middle of the pack in future rankings.

FDR always seems overrated to me. The mismanagement of WWII makes the Iraq war look like a Swiss watch factory (who knows what would have happened if we had today's media sixty-five years ago?). I hope that the damage that his economic policies did becomes better known over time (and it could with another significant econonic disruption looming).

Great comment by ape man, with lots of historical perspective. I agree with many of his observations, but Lincoln ranks by far as the worst president ever to me. He had few concerns beyond raw power, and expanding the scope of the Federal government. One quote of his I will always remember: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

So where will GWB rank? I will go with my finance education and say that today's price represents the best guess of tomorrow's price, and put him right in the middle of the pack.

Sorry, no bonus for me (OK, can I say that Blair will rank well below Baroness Thatcher?). I wouldn't touch Chirac (the French seem to rank their leaders on factors completely beyond my comprehension).

Bosse said...

The French clearly rank their presidents according to the number of mistresses and castles they had. As far as rankings systems go it's not that bad, actually.

History is always changing of course, but I would be very surprised if BushJr is ever credited with halting the "threat that radical Islam represents to civilization". Of course he might credit himself.

This threat will most likely be described differently in the future anyway, with focus on economic/political causes.

I hope that people will recognise that radical religious movements are an integral part of human civilization. Always have, always will. Trying to understand something always helps, alas I have a financial education so understanding human civilization, american presidents and that islamic threat is beyond my ability...French presidents so much easier

Anonymous said...

theres a christian organization that buys slaves in muslim africa and sets them free. slavery has not ended. gwb is adressing the very root of evil in this sworld. hes a very very brave man. u all just too scared to see whats to see if one dares. and u r all too concerned about the buying power of the buck in ur bankaccount. theres not much wrong with a crusade. about time id say, if not long overdue...hail the true chief. history will judge him right.

Anonymous said...

here here to Mr. Anonymous...one of the great and courageous ones...got the big questions correct and was truly American in upholding our nation's propensity to protect the world and provide an oasis of freedom while the rest of the world debates and throws stones across the pond.

Anonymous said...

This is an unanswerable question, because the question comes down to weighting, and whether views various things as positive or negative.

What's your opinion on the following?

The invasion and extended occupation of foreign states. (for any reason)

Neoconservative dogma.

Alternative responses to 9/11.

Changes in tax law (particularly his cut in capital gains tax)

The creation of a large prescription drug plan for seniors.

The importance of personal civil rights.

The belief in a right to privacy.

The importance of a balanced budget.

A belief that the US should be governed according to the laws of a particular religion.

Now, depending on how you weight these, it's fairly easy to claim that he is either a fantastic or a terrible president.

Personally, I'm not a big fan. I think that his reaction to 9/11 was clumsy, and that by failing to concentrate on Bin Laden, he cost the US prestige, cash and lives, while giving prestige to anti-american, anti-western and anti-christian groups.

As such, I'd weight him among the worst, because I truly believe we would've done better with an empty office, but many others would disagree with my weighting.

Anonymous said...

One other note, I'd argue that GWB's ginned up reports of WMD, and subsequent invasion of Iraq served as a warning to all the dictators of the world, that there is no point in playing by the rules.

The long-term effect of this is likely that hostile nations are far more likely to stock up on verboten weoponry, in the hopes that *actually* having it will help prevent invasion.

Lord said...

Surveying the field, Presidential Rankings, I would have to place him below Nixon. Yes, Nixon had to resign, but he also had some accomplishments, and some quite notable. It will really be difficult to point to any accomplishment of Bush's, certainly not, Mission Accomplished. Some aren't tested, some are tested and stand up, and some are tested and found wanting. Bush is clearly the latter.

Anonymous said...

Political debates online always open a can of worms, but I will throw in my five cents in nonetheless.

Although I lack the necessary historical knowledge to compare Bush to his predecessors, he has proven to be an aweful president (disclosure: my political views lean towards the right). Never mind the economy, over which he doesn't actually have that much sway (the housing and credit bubbles have been spurned by the Fed); I think it's more constructive to look at events and policies over which he has complete control. For instance, the Iraqi debacle, perhaps his gravest error. Even as he appears in front of cameras touting the success of the invasion, it is clear that he, diplomatically put, messed things up. His administration ordered an invasion of a country under false pretenses, its war campaign killing several thousand American young men (and counting), and many more thousands of Iraqi civilians. Bush and his admin. have unleashed the fury and chaos of a civil war, a significant deterioriation since the days of Hussein (Saddam, for all his atrocities, controlled the country with an iron grip).

And for what? They will never install democracy in neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan. It's hard to conquer a country that has a local insurgency, as the Soviets learned the hard way. These countries never had any tradition of Western-style democracy, and it is naive to think that the U.S. war machine will open their eyes to the wonders of Western liberalism, as inspired by Voltaire and John Stuart Mill.

Not to mention the billions of dollars wasted on this sad affair that could have been deployed towards more productive uses at home.

Cheers,
-G

johnsal said...

I came for a visit via another site to a reputedly worthwhile financial site. And lo and behold, I find the intensive care wing of BDS Hospital. Since research has not yet determined yet whether the conditon is contagious, it's time to say 'bye.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I meant 'spurred' in my previous post, not 'spurned'. Sorry.

-G

Anonymous said...

"GWB's ginned up reports of WMD"

Sorry. Every country in the world believed (incorrectly) that Saddam had WMD. Call it bad intelligence, but no evidence exists to ascribe this to malice on the part of GWB?

Worse than Nixon? No way! Nixon was an absolutely horrific president (took the U.S. off the gold standard, instituted wage and price controls, created the EPA, OSHA, and many other federal regulatory nightmares). In terms of the amount of damage done to the United States, I doubt anyone will ever top Nixon.

wcw said...

Zomg.

One, Nixon kicks GWB's ass, stuffs Buchanan into a shallow grave and hides a ginormous slush fund right where nobody ever expects it: right under teapot dome. I'm *far* to the left of you kids, and I like Nixon. I mean, not so's I'd vote for him, but after Reagan, Bush I and (gag) Bush II, Nixon looks pretty good. Not great, but maybe the second-best modern Republican president after Eisenhower.

Two, whichever addlepated Anonymous said, 'FDR always seems overrated,' here's a hint: saving capitalism and winning WW2 will do that for you. Anyone who thinks he mismanagemed his war (which he'd won -- against real opponents -- by the time GWB had completely mangled his) is merely an idiot. Anyone who thinks OASDI damaged the US economy is worse than an idiot: he's wrong. Recall here that I criticize from the left, and feel that FDR carried out socialism 'on a stretcher.'

On-topic, GWB is bad, but not historically. Buchanan almost lost the US to dissolution -- that trumps almost anything else. However, among modern (FDR and later) presidents, he's the worst. He probably makes Republicans with brains (as opposed to Mr Anonymous above) nostaligic for Carter, and Iraw is starting to make Vietnam look like a good idea.

Impressive.

And jeepers, FDR. If it weren't wishing for a lot of my relatives dying in gulags, people like you would make me wish Stalin had won. Lackwit.

Anonymous said...

Count me as another FDR hater. He absolutely ignored the Constitution. Remember him imprisoning thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry? Remember him trying to pack the Supreme Court? He was also the biggest presidential liar ever - a tough standard, I know, but nobody else even comes close.

RN said...

One need look no further than the $3 Trillion dollar war, the rise in National Debt, the stagnation of wages, the horrific wealth gap, and the disaster that is our health care system to see that there is no challenger to GWB as the worst president, if not on the short list for worst Americans, in history.

Anonymous said...

Dont forget Bush people told us the war would pay for itself, and not everyone thought there were WMDs. The actual weapons inspectors said there were not and the they were right. The lead up to the war showed that the administration would say and do anything to line their pockets and their friends pockets by going to war. They gave numerous reasons for going to war then settled on "if we dont go to war we will all die!" (in the form of a mushroom cloud). GWB is the worst president since Harding (maybe the worst ever). His abuse of powers are ledgendary. He and his administration committed treason in a time of war (which is punishable by death). When his term is over he will not be able to travel to some foreign countries (and i mean our friends)because he would be put on trial for war crimes.....a national disgrace whether you a Dem or Reb.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree that W's abuses of the Constitution are difficult to judge because of the very nature of those enemy combatants. I also agree that with respect to abuses other presidents have done, what his administration has done may not be as horrid as some think. I actually do not think Obama is going to have easy decisions with respect to Gitmo - he may not close it down as fast as some think.

But generally - at this point in time I think W is going to be pretty low on the list when it comes to presidential historical rankings. Most notably, Bush was just an abysmal administrator who seemed to lack basic knowledge or even care about what government was supposed to do. Katrina is a perfect example of this. Yes the State and city governments in Louisiana were awful - but in consideration that everybody could see this big huge massive storm coming for days, you would have thought the administration would have been prepared with how to hand things off. Louisiana did ask for help - just not through the official methods as required through the Stafford Act - any good administration would have vetted this, but W had a crony running FEMA - and this was a prime example of how he ran his administration. Cronies in the Justice Dept., cronies in the Energy Dept, EPA simply pushing an agenda rather than administrating an agency/department. It is common in all administrations, in W's it was egregious.

Also - generally I am a moderate and do not espouse to many of W's hard right policies, but generally my biggest criticism of him is how he governed by forcing things through both the House and Senate that were at best slim majority for Republicans. In other words - despite having the opportunity after 9/11 to really bring this country together he chose the path to use it to slam through his narrow agenda. Frankly he blew it. Every successful president has had success finding some way to work with the other side either because they have to or they see value in creating true solidarity. Reagan did it, Clinton did it, Eisenhower did it, even FDR did it with Republicans and he could have completely bypassed them if he wanted to considering the majorities he had.

To me this presents W in a pretty bad light - the colossal failures that have occurred on his watch such as the administration of the war, Katrina, and the housing bubble are not necessarily the fault of his administration - really they are much more complicated. For example, something as bad as the mortgage/financial crisis has to be a monumental failure of our government as a whole, not just the SEC....but it just seems that W's complete lack of understanding and being so caught off guard points to an administration that has appeared either clueless or probably most notably aloof - and that is what is most sad - and what I believe will rank him toward the bottom in future presidential rankings.

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