Is George W. Bush the Most 'Significant' President Since FDR?

01/07/2011 11:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who knows what future historians will conclude about the eight years of former President George W. Bush.

Will hindsight lift him to the contemporary heights of Harry Truman, whose legacy has enjoyed a resurrection? Or will Bush remain perilously close in comparison to James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Andrew Johnson -- presidents who consistently rank in the bottom quartile?

It's not too early to conclude that Bush is the most significant commander in chief since Franklin Roosevelt.

That's right! The man who many consider an accidental president, the beneficiary of a stolen election who lacked intellectual curiosity, is the most noteworthy president since FDR.

Significant is not a word that one should associate with positive or negative. I have chronicled in this column too often to count my philosophical differences with the 43rd president -- from the Iraq invasion and occupation to tax cuts ad nauseam -- but I cannot dismiss his significance.

I base presidential significance on the overall impact, and does that impact outlast the president's administration. Using that barometer, Bush's significance is unquestioned.

Although it seems unlikely that Bush referred to the Constitution as a "g** d*** piece of paper," as some have claimed, there were moments when he acted as if that was the sum total of his feeling for this country's most cherished document.

It also can be argued that Bush seductively used the language of patriotism and faith to carry out a very activist agenda, much of which remains with the country today.

The Patriot Act, passed on he heels of 9/11, not only sacrificed constitutional protections of liberty and privacy, it also negatively altered the system of checks and balances among the branches of the federal government.

With the approval of the legislative branch, the Patriot Act increased authority of the executive branch at the expense of judicial opinions about when searches and seizures are reasonable.

The Patriot Act, in my view, as well as the view of many legal scholars, eases restrictions on the use of surveillance tools on Americans, once reserved for foreign-intelligence investigations.

The Patriot Act was instrumental in the May 2004 arrest of Brandon Mayfield, an attorney in Portland, OR, and a convert to Islam. Mayfield was arrested in connection with the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings that killed 191 people. He was held for two weeks as a "material witness."

His home was searched secretly under a special court order authorized for intelligence purposes. Mayfield was released after the FBI admitted his fingerprint had been mistakenly matched with one found at the scene of the Madrid attacks.

Before Bush, it was incomprehensible that a president could simultaneously fight two wars with neither appearing as a dedicated line item in the federal budget, while borrowing the bulk of the money to finance both efforts.

This practice may be abhorrent to a majority; but what has President Barack Obama done to change it? Moreover, for all the talk about deficit reduction during the midterm elections, not much debate was directed toward America's fiscally irresponsible theaters of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush unleashed a level of nation-building not seen since the Marshall Plan.

In justifying the law signed by the president in 2006 that stripped federal courts of their authority to hear habeas corpus suits by noncitizens labeled "enemy combatants," U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress: "The Constitution doesn't say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas."

Gonzales' perspective, which revealed a low point in our history, survived for almost two years before the Supreme Court struck it down in a 5-4 decision.

The array of abuses associated with the Watergate scandal led to charges of an "imperial presidency." To stem these concerns, Congress passed legislation that weakened the power of the post-Watergate president.

Bush, in the post-9/11 world, successfully returned much of the power back to the presidency. Since it is unlikely that any president would voluntarily give back power, Obama, along with future presidents, owe Bush a debt of gratitude.

It is difficult to say whether these expanded presidential powers are in the best interest of the nation. It would obviously depend on who's in office.

But it does make Bush historically significant.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com