The Long View
The Washington Post scorned President Truman as a "spoilsman" who "underestimated the people's intelligence." New York Times columnist James Reston wrote off President Eisenhower as "a tired man in a period of turbulence." At the end of President Reagan's second term, the New York Times dismissed him as "simplistic" and a "lazy and inattentive man."
These harsh judgments, made in the moment, have not weathered well over time. Fortunately, while contemporary observers have a habit of getting presidents wrong, history tends to be more accurate.
So how might history view the 43rd president? I can hardly be considered an objective observer, but in this highly polarized period, who is?
However, I believe history will provide a more clear-eyed verdict on this president's leadership than the anger of current critics would suggest.
President Bush will be viewed as a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.
He will be judged as a man of moral clarity who put America on wartime footing in the dangerous struggle against radical Islamic terrorism.
Following the horrors of 9/11, this president changed American foreign policy by declaring terror sponsors responsible for the deeds of those they shelter, train, and fund. America, he said, will not wait until dangers fully materialize with attacks on our homeland before confronting those threats.
The president gave the nation new tools to defeat terrorism abroad and protect our citizens at home with the Patriot Act, foreign surveillance that works in the wireless age, a transformed intelligence community, and the Department of Homeland Security.
And this president saw the wisdom of removing terrorism's cause by advocating the spread of democracy, especially in the Muslim world, where authoritarianism and repression have provided a potent growth medium for despair and anger aimed at the West. He recognized that democracy there makes us safer here.
President Bush will be seen as a compassionate leader who used America's power for good.
While the world dithered, America confronted HIV/AIDS in Africa with the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has supported treatment for more than 1.1 million people worldwide, over one million of them in Africa. While most of the globe ignored Sudan and Darfur or refused to act, this president labeled the violence there genocide — and pressed world leaders to take action.
A wide range of human-rights issues — from the repression in North Korea, Myanmar, and elsewhere to religious freedom to trafficking in persons — are kept on the international agenda in good part because of this president's demands for action.
And President Bush met challenges with new institutions and methods. For example, the Proliferation Security Initiative confronts the transfer of dangerous material and information. And he has reformed America's foreign aid to focus on results, accountability, transparency, and anti-corruption and pro-democracy requirements.
President Bush promotes economic growth and understands free markets provide the best path to a more hopeful tomorrow.
The president inherited an economy entering recession. It was further weakened by terrorist attacks, corporate scandals, natural disasters, and out-of-control spending with discretionary domestic spending increasing 16 percent in the last fiscal year of his predecessor. President Bush took decisive action, cutting taxes and ratcheting down this spending. The results? The net creation of 8.3 million new jobs since August 2003; higher after-tax income and greater incentives for firms to invest and expand; three years where America's economic growth led the rest of the G7 economies; and a budget on path to surplus by 2012 — despite the increased spending invested in securing America's safety by standing up the new Department of Homeland Security and fighting the Global War on Terror. In the four years since taxes were last cut in 2003, the U.S. economy has grown 13 percent in real dollars. The additional growth is larger than the entire size of the Canadian economy.
This president also understands our standard of living depends on selling to the globe. The 14 nations with which we have implemented free agreements represent 7.5 percent of the world's GDP, but 43 percent of our exports. The growing number of free-trade agreements concluded and signed under this president helps explain why American exports have risen 27 percent between 2004 and 2006, creating jobs and prosperity here at home.
History will see President Bush as a reformer who focused on modernizing important institutions.
He is concerned with fundamental change that will — among other goals — strengthen the ways our children are educated and health care is provided.
In education, "No Child Left Behind" introduced accountability into our public-education system by ensuring every child's progress is measured.
Parents now know whether or not their child is learning — in their own schools, and compared to other schools. This new focus on results helped lead to more improvement in reading scores in five years than in the previous 28 combined. This reform shows that measuring leads to results.
Medicare was modernized with a prescription-drug benefit, now used by 39 million seniors. Giving seniors the drugs they need helped them avoid expensive operations and long hospital stays. The result is better health care for seniors at a lower cost to them and at a lower cost than expected to taxpayers.
The president approached other tasks — such as legal reform, higher-education assistance, transportation, and conservation and forest policy — with the same reformist spirit. And he did so on issues which are controversial within his own party, such as comprehensive immigration reform, which he has championed since he first started running for governor of Texas in 1993.
He will be seen as an innovative conservative thinker with a positive, optimistic agenda for action.
For example, his proposals to reform health care are drawn from his understanding of the values of competition and markets. A standard tax deduction for health care — similar to the deduction homeowners get for mortgage interest — would level the playing field between those who get their health insurance from employers and those who pay for it out of their own pockets and expand the number of families with coverage.
People should be able to save tax-free for out-of-pocket health costs. The Health Savings Accounts the president signed into law are the first step toward this. HSAs will help move health care toward a consumer-driven model and away from a single-payer system. More than 4.5 million American families are benefiting from HSAs today.
More competition would be created by allowing insurance to be sold across state lines or small businesses to pool risk and would lower costs and increase access.
The president has a similar focus on bold changes when it comes to opportunity and poverty. He emphasizes policies, such as welfare reform, that promote ownership and encourage personal responsibility rather than dependence on government.
His faith- and community-based initiative is encouraging social entrepreneurship to confront poverty and suffering. Billions of federal dollars can now be accessed by such groups eager to serve a neighbor in need. Already, 34 Democrat and Republican governors and more than 100 mayors of all stripes have created faith- and community-based offices to build on the federal initiative.
On energy, the environment, and climate change, he is developing a new paradigm. Emphasizing technology, increased energy-efficiency partnerships, and resource diversification, his policies are improving energy security and slowing the growth of greenhouse gases without economy-breaking mandates and regulation. The president who won criticism by rejecting the failed approach of Kyoto has implemented policies that enabled the United States to grow its economy by 3.1 percent and reduce the absolute amount of CO2 emissions (by 1.3 percent).
In these and other areas, history will see President Bush drove policy in new directions, based on conservative principles.
He will be recognized as a strong advocate of traditional values.
He advanced a culture of life where every child is protected and welcomed.
He supported traditional marriage when it came under attack from the courts. He sought to strengthen families and encourage personal responsibility. And he understood the necessity of appointing judges who know the proper and limited role of courts and will provide impartial justice and faithful application of the Constitution.
President Bush had the political courage to confront the biggest economic challenge America faces.
The looming fiscal crises in Medicare and Social Security will result in either the impoverishment of the American people through higher taxes and lower growth or through the inability of government to deliver on its promises.
This president has worked to restrain the spending growth of entitlements, and to modernize Social Security and Medicare by injecting market forces and competition into their operation. He proposed Social Security reform that would solve the system's long-term financial shortfall while giving younger workers the choice to put some of their own money into conservative stock-market investments.
He has made it impossible for future presidents and future Congresses to ignore this challenge. The president's proposal will be the starting point for reform when it happens. When it does, Americans will be grateful President Bush made entitlement reform an issue and will be aware that valuable time was lost because of the obstructionism of his critics.
The outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan will color how history views the president.
History's concern is with final outcomes, not the missteps or advances of the moment. History will render a favorable verdict if the outcome in the Middle East is similar to what America saw after World War II.
America's persistence in Europe and Asia after that war helped Germany and Japan become democracies and allies in the struggle against Communism. If something similar happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will change the region and the world. For the first time, millions of citizens across the Middle East will see a working model of freedom in their region — and it will give them hope for a better future for their children by making America safer for them.
If the outcome there is like what happened in Vietnam after America abandoned our allies and the region descended into chaos, violence, and danger, history's judgment will be harsh. History will see President Bush as right, and the opponents of his policy as mistaken — as George McGovern was in his time.
Beyond his policies and actions, history will take the measure of the man.
I have known George W. Bush for nearly 34 years and have had the privilege of watching from nearby as history has placed its demands on him and our country. I know his humility and decency, his intelligence and thoughtfulness, his respect for every person he comes in contact with, his unwavering commitment to principle-based decision-making, and the quiet and compassionate hearts of the man and his graceful wife, Laura.
I have come to understand true leadership leans into the wind. It tackles big challenges with uncertain outcomes rather than taking on simple, sure tasks. It does what is right, regardless of what the latest poll or focus group says. History demands much of America and its leaders and I am confident it will judge the 43rd president as a man more than worthy of the great office the American people twice entrusted to him.
Karl Rove is the president's longtime adviser. August 31 was his last day working in the White House.