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At a Presidency’s End, Reflections on the Bush Legacy

January 12, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President George W. Bush gave his final press conference Monday, admitting to some mistakes while defending his actions on national security and the economy. Analysts look back on Mr. Bush's eight years in office.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we get four takes now on President Bush’s eight years in office.

They come from Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress — he’s also co-author of the book “The Emerging Democratic Majority”; Byron York, White House correspondent for The National Review; Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post — he served as President Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006; and Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thank you all for being with us.

It was quite a remarkable news conference.

Trudy Rubin, to you first. What struck you about what President Bush had to say today?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: What fascinated me was the way he framed Iraq, talking about disappointments when it came to not finding WMD and Abu Ghraib, but then really not talking about mistakes, and focusing on the fact that the surge has brought results.

What interested me is that, looking back, he didn’t look at all at what had caused the awful problems from which he was rescued by a strategy put forward by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He didn’t look at the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld, what was done during that period that led to the catastrophe. In fact, he said that everything was going well.

And I don’t think that history will judge it that way. He also didn’t look at the repercussions on the region which president-elect Obama will have to deal with, which include increased power for Iran, increased power for Islamist parties, a discrediting in many quarters of liberal democracy, and a lowered chance for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that would lead to a two-state solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Byron York, listening to the same thing, did you take away the same impressions?

BYRON YORK, White House Correspondent, The National Review: Well, the one question that Bush will not answer is, did you make a mistake in invading Iraq? He has said it over and over that you don’t get a do-over.

And I have asked him that question. Many people have asked him that question in various ways. And he simply — that’s the one place he won’t go. So, for him to say that not finding WMD was a disappointment, disappointment is as far as he’s going to go.

He actually did, I think, talk about a number of other — he actually characterized some things as mistakes, “Mission Accomplished” as a mistake, which he has suggested before. He — he wouldn’t go very far on Katrina. But he said that bringing up Social Security and pushing it so hard in 2005 was a mistake, which I guess, if he had done that — he wanted to bring up immigration instead, which would have allowed him to divide the Republican Party a year earlier than he actually did.

But the one place he is not going to go, and I think ever, is the invasion of Iraq.

Bush legacy tied to Iraq

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
It's true that [the surge] has rescued the Iraq issue, but it has far from recouped from the awful damage done by the conduct of the Iraq war in the first five years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruy Teixeira, how big a part of legacy is Iraq?

RUY TEIXEIRA, The Century Foundation: Oh, I think it's a huge part of his legacy and I think, for a lot of people, represents the apotheosis of the failures of the Bush administration.

And two-thirds of the American public do think the Bush administration, the failures vastly outweigh the accomplishment. He said nothing in this press conference that would indicate he sees the fundamental decision of invading Iraq to be a problem.

I mean, these -- the things he pinpointed were rhetorical and marketing strategies: I shouldn't have landed on the aircraft carrier. Other than that, you know, the whole thing was a great idea.

At least that's the impression you get from listening to him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it matter to you whether he's prepared to acknowledge this or not?

RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, it matters to me, as a citizen, that he is not prepared to acknowledge that the Bush legacy arguably is -- is two things. He kind of wrecked the country and he kind of wrecked his own party. Other than that, everything went pretty well.

But he's not really willing to confront the fundamental mistakes he made in how he approached his presidency on Iraq, on the economy, on Katrina. We see no grappling with those issues. And I think the American public are not going to be happy about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, as somebody who was inside the White House for three-quarters of the Bush presidency, how do you respond to what you're hearing here?

MICHAEL GERSON, Former Speechwriter For President George W. Bush: Well, I think he's naturally calling attention to a pretty extraordinary success. The surge was pursued by the president, even against the advice of some people in the Pentagon.

And it's -- we have seen faster counterinsurgency progress than maybe at any time that we have ever seen. And this has -- you know, a year-and-a-half ago, if the Bush presidency had ended, it would have ended with Iraq headed into chaos.

Today, the Bush presidency is ending with the current president keeping his secretary of defense, General Petraeus, and General Odierno, his entire foreign -- his entire national security team. That's a pretty major achievement. I think the president has every right to call attention to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Trudy Rubin?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think what General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, Ambassador Crocker, did was rescue the Iraq situation from catastrophe.

I just spent the last two months -- sorry -- the last two weeks of December there. And, yes, things are much better, but the president-elect will have to deal with the situation in the region that all the terrible mistakes of the first five years in Iraq created, and which the Bush administration didn't anticipate.

And the Gaza crisis is an outgrowth of that, because the Israel-Palestine issue was neglected, was deliberately pushed down the agenda. Although President Bush said the right things about two states, there was no follow-through. And there was an ignoring of the fact that the moderates were being undercut, both by Iraq policy and by the ignoring of the Israel-Palestine dilemma.

And, so, I think that to say that the surge succeeded -- and it was a bigger strategy -- it was not the troops, per se -- it's true that it has rescued the Iraq issue, but it has far from recouped from the awful damage done by the conduct of the Iraq war in the first five years.

The economic legacy

Byron York
National Review
The fact that [Iraq] has improved, does not change the fact that [President Bush] essentially invaded, started a major war by mistake, that is, based on intelligence that proved to be inaccurate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Byron York, what about Trudy Rubin's point that what has happened in Iraq has much broader repercussions, that, in part, it's responsible for what we see in the Middle East right now? Is -- is that something we -- you, one, would seek to put on the shoulders of President Bush?

BYRON YORK: Well, I wouldn't buy that. And I don't think that the general public would look at the -- the current problem in Israel and Gaza, and suggest that a region that has been divided and at war forever is somehow -- this current problem is somehow the result of George Bush's invading Iraq.

On the other hand, this is -- look, this is part of Bush's legacy. And the fact that -- Michael Gerson is right -- the war is going tremendously better, the fact that it has improved, does not change the fact that he essentially invaded, started a major war by mistake, that is, based on intelligence that proved to be inaccurate.

So, I mean, that is just going to be part of his legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the -- the domestic piece -- pieces of his legacy, Ruy Teixeira? What -- what will he be remembered for in that regard?

RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, I think he will primarily be remembered for what he did to the economy.

He may have presided over an expansion for most of his presidency. It was the weakest expansion in history. Very little happened that was good for the average American family. And, of course, at the end of his tenure, we see this massive meltdown in the financial system, which is impoverishing hundreds of thousands and millions, wiping out people's savings.

We're on the verge of what could certainly -- we certainly have the worst situation since the Great Depression. He did nothing on his watch to deal with the problems that were leading to that financial collapse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much responsibility, then, are you putting on his shoulders?

RUY TEIXEIRA: I would put a great deal. And I think the American people do as well.

Polling shows that two-thirds of the people think that, by and large, they're worse off as a result of Bush's policies and the Bush administration policies have a lot to do with the financial meltdown that we have had.

So, I think, typically, people do give the incumbent administration a lot of credit or blame for what happens. And I don't think Bush is going to able to escape it.

Legacies and polls

Michael Gerson
The Washington Post
Iraq has acted like an eclipse for a lot of Bush's achievements. And I think that eclipse is passing, in many ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, what about from the inside? How does it look?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the fact is that a president's legacy is not determined by his polling ratings on his last day in office. That's just not the reality. Harry Truman's polling ratings were quite low, with an unpopular war on the other side of the Earth. But he turned out to be right about some very big things, including the conduct of the Cold War.

This president is going to be judged on whether he was right about the conduct of the war on terror. I don't think he's going to be held accountable by history because towards the end of his term a housing bubble popped, when the primary regulatory responsibility for that -- for agencies that dealt with that, like Fannie Mae, was actually the Congress, and there was an extraordinary bipartisan failure there.

But I think you -- you can't change the fact -- I mean, Iraq has acted like an eclipse for a lot of Bush's achievements. And I think that eclipse is passing, in many ways. And I think people are going to call attention to the Medicare Part D, the fact that 10 million seniors, low-income seniors, now receive prescription drug benefits who didn't receive them before.

I think they will call attention to No Child Left Behind, where the achievement gap, particularly in reading, among elementary school students is lower than it has been since they have started recording it. These would be large achievements for any president, things like Medicare, things like No Child Left Behind.

And I think that, you know, that those things will grow larger with time and people will recognize them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trudy Rubin, what about that?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that, if an eclipse has passed -- and I don't think it's passed yet -- but if there is a little more right on the subject of the war on Islamist terrorists who threaten the United States, what the light is now showing is Afghanistan and Pakistan, Afghanistan, where we won a victory, and the population was relieved by it and welcoming of the troops who lifted the Taliban and al-Qaida from their soldiers, and we squandered that opportunity, and Pakistan, where President Bush was very close to President Musharraf, who failed to really confront the Islamists in his midst, who have now become very, virulent and are threatening the very stability of a country with nuclear weapons.

So, I think Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be a centerpiece, and that will be part of the legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, let me ask Byron York to respond on that, and then I want to come back to Ruy on the domestic question.

BYRON YORK: Well, just on the legacy overall, which is -- I mean, his legacy is international and domestic.

Clearly, Iraq at the moment, it seems, is certainly on the negative side. But if President Bush makes it to January 20 without a terrorist attack in the United States, having kept the United States safe from terrorist attacks since September 11, that will be a huge accomplishment. He will deserve enormous credit for doing that.

The White House was absolutely obsessed, worked 24/7 after September 11, to make sure that didn't happen. We don't know what will happen five minutes from now. But the fact that they have done the job that they have up until now is very, very impressive.

Domestically, I think the other thing that would go very much in the plus ledger for him is he appointed two amazingly impressive Supreme Court justices in John Roberts and Samuel Alito. So, there are some very, very positive things in his record, as well as the negative of Iraq.

How has the country changed?

Ruy Teixeira
The Century Foundation
It is the almost unanimous judgment of the public of this country and policy experts as well that the health care system has deteriorated under Bush's watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruy Teixeira, what about, just quickly, Michael Gerson's point that some of these domestic accomplishments, as he put it, Medicare, he mentioned education, Byron's point about Supreme Court, that this, in the long run, will stand him in good stead?

RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, one could argue about how well the prescription drug benefit has worked.

It has clearly delivered something for people. But that's just part of the overall problem with the health care system in the United States. And it is the almost unanimous judgment of the public of this country and policy experts as well that the health care system has deteriorated under Bush's watch. And what is needed is extensive reform of the health care system.

We're not there yet. No Child Left Behind is now viewed negatively by practically everybody, certainly the public and also including most policy-makers. And it's going to be substantially revamped. So, the -- and education in general is viewed as an area that -- where have lost ground, not gained, over the Bush -- time of the Bush administration.

So, you look at health, you look at education, I think the things that Michael Gerson mentioned are not close to adequate for giving him a positive record in those areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick, Michael Gerson, as people look back on this president, how has the country changed, briefly, as a result of his presidency?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, you know, the reality is, on 9/11, the president undertook a tremendous task, which is the protection of the American homeland from further attack.

And he said in his speech to the Congress on September 20 that, you will go back to your normal lives. He told that to the American people, but that he himself will not give in on this -- on this task, this mission, he called it.

And I think that that's a fair judgment of the president, by his own standards. He never gave up on that mission. I think it's going to be what he is proud of, in many ways. I think he will be proud of the AIDS program, which -- two million people on AIDS drugs, a new emphasis on foreign assistance, new relationship with India. There is plenty here on the agenda that he can talk about for years in the future.

And I think that, as I said, this will look better and larger as time goes by.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alright.

We are going to have to leave it there.

We want to thank you, all four of our panelists, Trudy Rubin, Michael Gerson, Ruy Teixeira, Byron York.

Thank you, all.