Rating presidential legacy: Bush vs. Clinton
By John C. Bersia
At the midpoint of President George W. Bush's second term in office, some people have long since made up their minds about how history will treat him.
Supporters say Bush is a president of vision and consequence whose administration has expanded democracy, battled the scourge of terrorism and endeavored to promote world peace. Critics label Bush's policies a disaster, point to his low approval ratings, and cite his administration's arrogance and unilateralist tendencies as the driving forces behind global tension and disorder.
I agree with both the supporters and critics in one sense — that Bush's greatest impact, for better or for worse, will be in international affairs. Bush's legacy will be overwhelmingly shaped by the Bush Doctrine and the outcome of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. That is more than a bit ironic for a president whose strongest inclinations originally took him anywhere but the global arena.
Beyond that bit of common ground, though, my own view is that it is far too early to make judgments about a legacy for Bush. In the war against terrorism alone, an unknowable number of unexpected, dramatic and history-changing developments could occur during the next two years.
For example, the United States and its allies could make such impressive progress in thwarting plots and putting terrorists out of action that support for Bush's policies could rise tremendously. Or — and I certainly do not wish for this to happen — terrorists could claim stunning new successes that would cause people to feel vulnerable and question whether the Bush team has the right stuff to confront terrorism.
As for approval ratings, I have never placed much stock in them as indicators of presidential effectiveness. According to Gallup polls, Bush's approval rating had dropped earlier this year to a low of about 31 percent, but in recent months it has climbed to around 44 percent. He was at 90 percent shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
How does Bush's record compare with the ratings of other recent U.S. presidents at similar points in their second terms?
Also according to Gallup polls, former President Bill Clinton was at 64 percent in 1998. Former President Ronald Reagan was at 62 percent in 1986. Former President Lyndon Johnson was at 46 percent in 1966. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was at 56 percent in 1958. And former President Harry Truman was at 35 percent in 1950.
I find much to like about many of those presidents' legacies, especially Reagan's and Clinton's, although the latter's is really still too new to draw lasting conclusions.
Many of Reagan's critics came to realize over time that his firm stance against the Soviets helped encourage new thinking that eventually changed the world. After years of trying to compete and damaging its economy along the way, the Soviet Union realized that it could never match U.S. spending on defense — the only real area of superpower contention. So, under former President Mikhail Gorbachev, it embarked on a program of reform and restructuring that ultimately led to the system's collapse.
Clinton's legacy, according to some skeptics, will forever be tarnished because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I disagree. As the years put more and more distance between that unfortunate tryst and the Clinton record — the substance on which he should be evaluated — I suspect the judgment will be quite positive. Particularly in the area of Middle Eastern affairs, Clinton made substantial gains.
But I am interested in what readers have to say about this subject. Think back to the midpoint of Clinton's second term and to what your assessment was of his record then. Then consider how Bush is doing now. Which president turns in the better performance, particularly in the area of international leadership? Have you modified your evaluation of Clinton since he left office?
Kindly e-mail your responses to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will summarize the results in a future column.
John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida.