For the first time since 2005, most Americans think well of George W. Bush. As the Associated Press reports, the once widely-mocked commander in chief seems to be emerging as a respected elder statesman. And, if he doesn't merit the universal respect accorded to men like Dwight Eisenhower after they left office, Bush still deserves better than he has gotten. Although large parts of the historical verdict on Bush still can't be written, his presidency had some real successes that Americans ought to acknowledge.
That said, it's important to point out Bush's real errors first. Inheriting a balanced budget, Bush spent far too much on just about everything. He didn't just need to expand domestic spending a lot or fight wars, he wanted to do both while cutting taxes. It seems likely that the Iraq war was a mistake too. Aided and abated by Democrats, furthermore, Bush continued policies that facilitated a huge housing bubble. This housing bubble, in turn, contributed the deepest recession since World War II.
Bush is hardly the first president to make these types of mistakes. Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, the 20th century's two most consequential presidents, also ran up huge deficits. John F. Kennedy, the most fondly remembered 20th century president among the general public, also involved the United States in a war of questionable merit. Harry Truman, who today enjoys high esteem from both liberals and conservatives, left office with popularity ratings in the same territory as W's. A recession started under Eisenhower and Roosevelt's New Deal never really ended the depression.
But Bush did a number of things right too.
First, by fighting a worthy war in Afghanistan and working to improve homeland security, Bush laid out an infrastructure that Barack Obama has retained to good effect. Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda barely exists anymore and no country offers official protection to terrorist groups targeting the United States. Most importantly, the United States hasn't sustained a major terrorist attack since 2001. This isn't to trivialize the problems and cost of the war on terror or the remaining threats. There are legitimate civil liberties concerns attached to some actions of both the Bush and Obama administration. Afghanistan is hardly a peaceful democracy today.
On the domestic front, furthermore, Bush spearheaded the creation of the Medicare Part D program. In its current form, Part D provides prescription drug coverage to all seniors on Medicare who want it -- thus fixing key deficiency in the then-existing Medicare program. It has also cost less than originally anticipated in large part because it uses competition and individual choice rather than heavy-handed mandates. Although not perfect, it's a good model to transform the Medicare program as a whole.
But the verdict of history takes a long time to work itself out. Truman didn't end up with a sterling historical reputation until U.S. victory in the Cold War vindicated his hard line on communism. If, a decade hence, the Middle East is largely peaceful and democratic, likewise, George W. Bush will deserve a lion's share of the credit. A real solution to the entitlements crisis that doesn't involve massive, economy-harming tax increases, likewise, will almost certainly have to borrow from his Part D.
George W. Bush made mistakes while in office. But he also did some things right. And the verdict of history may treat him kindly.