Unwinding Bush

How long will it take to correct the president's mistakes?


History judges good presidents by what they do, bad ones by how long they take to undo. Although history hasn't yet caught up with President George W. Bush, midterm elections are about to-and those are often a referendum on presidential performance. Now is therefore as good a time as any to jump to a conclusion: the question history will ask is whether Bush's presidency was as bad as Richard Nixon's or only as bad as Jimmy Carter's.

Five years ago, with the ruins of the Twin Towers still smoking, many Americans-I should own that I was one of them-looked at Bush and thought they saw a Churchill, or at least a Truman: a leader fortuitously equipped for a difficult job at a critical moment. Bush's partisans are still holding out for misunderestimated greatness, to be vindicated in the end. They think Bush will be to the war on jihadism what Truman was to the Cold War: the guy who established the course that will see the country through decades of peril.

To those disinclined to suspend judgment for fifty years, however, Bush's course is looking less like a long road than a dead end. Even many conservatives have lost faith; in a recent interview with CBS News, no less a conservative luminary than William F. Buckley declared, "There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush." For the disenchanted-again, including me-the relevant points of reference now are not Churchill or Truman but Nixon and Carter.

One of the best ways to judge a president is to ask, Did he solve more problems than he created? This test is more severe than it may seem, because presidents are prone to mischief and grandiosity. With Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, the country had a good run. Reagan curtailed inflation and rebuilt U.S. strength; Bush broke the back of the deficit and closed out the Cold War peacefully; Clinton finished the fiscal cleanup and managed to assert U.S. supremacy while enhancing U.S. popularity. All made mistakes, but they got more right than wrong. Nixon and Carter, on the other hand, both did some good things (Nixon went to China, Carter deregulated transportation); but both, in the end, turned in negative balance sheets.

Carter's weak leadership drained American confidence and prestige, and his clumsy regulation of energy markets and dithering on inflation damaged the economy. Reagan, however, moved briskly to restore confidence, decontrol energy, and support the monetary tightening that subdued inflation. By the end of Reagan's first term, Carter's mistakes were memories. Carter took only a few years to undo, which made him more a downer than a disaster.

Nixon was a disaster. Unwinding him took decades, not years. It was Nixon whose cynical pump priming and absurd wage and price controls ignited double-digit inflation and bequeathed it to three succeeding presidents, with aftershocks (for instance, the savings and loan crisis) that lasted into the George H. W. Bush years. It was Nixon whose fiscal policies-cutting defense unsustainably while expanding entitlement programs-caused the deficit crisis that would torment every president through Clinton. Watergate and the administration's mendacious handling of Vietnam undermined confidence in government for a generation. Nixon's mistakes-and there were others-were gifts that kept on giving.

As for the current president, Buckley isn't quite right. Bush will leave a legacy, in the form of four headaches.

The fiscal mess. Bush's tax cuts and spending increases turned a $236 billion federal surplus in fiscal 2000 into a deficit of more than $400 billion four years later, an astonishing reversal. That the current year's deficit may come in at something like $300 billion is little cause for comfort; with Baby Boomers due to retire and an expensive Medicare drug benefit kicking in, the country's fiscal position is weak.

The Iraq mess. The invasion was a gamble; the failure to scrub the prewar intelligence and properly manage the postwar occupation were mistakes. The gamble might still pay off, but the mistakes have astronomically raised the gamble's cost in lives, money, prestige, and U.S. strategic focus and position (Iran has been the invasion's signal beneficiary).

International opprobrium. The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America's image abroad, and Bush's pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN's deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where "many otherwise quite moderate countries" are inclined to oppose anything we favor.

An extralegal terrorism war. If the country seriously intends to prevent terrorism, then spying at home, detaining terror suspects, and conducting tough interrogations are practices that the government will need to engage in for many years to come. Instead of making proper legal provisions for those practices, Bush has run the war against jihadism out of his back pocket, as a permanent state of emergency. He engages in legal ad-hockery and trickery, treats Congress as a nuisance rather than a partner, and circumvents outmoded laws and treaties when he should be creating new ones. Of all Bush's failings, his refusal to build durable underpinnings for what promises to be a long struggle is the most surprising, the most gratuitous, and potentially the most damaging, both to the sustainability of the antiterrorism effort and to the constitutional order.

How long will unwinding Bush take? Because of demographic headwinds, balancing the budget looks like a long-term project, requiring a decade if things go well, two or three decades (or forever) if not. Some of today's anti-Americanism, by contrast, may be anti-Bushism that will prove quick to dissipate. The Iraq situation could tip one way or the other, but Bush himself has acknowledged that the disposition of U.S. forces in Iraq "will be decided by future presidents" (note the plural). In principle, a domestic legal framework for the war on jihadism could be constructed in several years by a determined president and Congress (new treaty arrangements, such as a much-needed update of the Geneva Conventions, would take longer); or, much less desirably, the courts might wind up piecing together a ramshackle framework over a decade or more.

All in all, a reasonable guess is that unwinding Bush will take more than a decade but less than two, meaning the job will be harder than unwinding Carter but easier than unwinding Nixon. In doing it, however, Bush's successors will have one useful ally: Bush himself. Albeit grudgingly, he has begun working with Congress on terrorism-war legislation; in the realm of foreign policy, as former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke noted recently in Foreign Affairs, "George W. Bush's second administration has made a serious, and partially successful, effort to undo some of the damage the first Bush team caused." (Carter also tried to be a self-unwinder, changing course on détente and fiscal policy, but he ran out of time. Part of FDR's genius was that he unwound himself at least twice.)

Bush has two years left to unwind himself; and if he's lucky, he'll have a Democratic House or Senate to help. He has been cursed with a Republican Congress that has indulged his worst tendencies-but that problem, at least, the voters might soon unwind.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of The Atlantic.