Good news for George W. Bush! His approval rating is the highest it’s been in years, just as he’s set to open his presidential library at Southern Methodist University. Forty-seven percent of Americans approve of Bush, up from 33 percent when he left office as the economy cratered.
Bad news for George W. Bush! His new-found popularity comes, as my colleague Dan Balz notes, because of “the passage of time and Bush’s relative invisibility” rather than any re-evaluation of his record. Majorities still oppose his decision to invade Iraq and disapprove of his handling of the economy.
But in the interest of history, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at Bush’s record, issue by issue, and, of course, in charts.
1. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism.
Might as well start with the big one. In 2003, before the invasion, Iraq was a brutal dictatorship suffering under a sanctions regime which, according to UNICEF, killed at least 500,000 children. How does it look in 2013? Well, it’s a dictatorship again, at least according to Freedom House, a highly respected arbiter of regime type. Freedom House rates 2013 Iraq as “not free,” giving it scores of 6 (out of 7, with 7 being as unfree as is possible) on both political rights and civil liberties. By comparison, Russia also gets a 6 on political rights, and a 5 on civil liberties, and many critics believe that Putin is running a dictatorial regime at this point.
What explains this? I’ll leave it to Freedom House:
Iraq’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the concentration of power by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and increasing pressure on the political opposition, as exemplified by the arrest and death sentence in absentia of Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, the country’s most senior Sunni Arab politician.
Maliki is obviously less brutal than Saddam Hussein, but still, that’s not exactly the ideal result. As for Afghanistan, it’s a similar story. Hamid Karzai is a step up from the Taliban but the country is still “not free,” according to Freedom House:
To be fair to Bush, though, at the end of his tenure the country had snuck into the “partly free” category according to Freedom House. It’s slid back under President Obama.
And what did it cost to get there? Well, a lot of money, for one thing. The Cost of War project puts the economic tally of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at about $4 trillion – with a “t”. And if we don’t pay off the debt accumulated as a consequence of going to war, the interest alone could add over $7 trillion more to that by 2053:
This isn’t all Bush, as Obama made the decision to continue the war in Afghanistan. But Bush set in motion policies that wound up costing about $4 trillion.
It’s also cost a lot of lives. The most accurate data we have are on U.S. military casualties: 6,648 service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan to date, a large majority of the deaths occurring under Bush’s presidency. Civilian casualties are harder to count. The UN mission in Afghanistan estimates that 14,728 civilians died there between 2007 and 2012. That, of course, does not include casualties of the invasion and occupation between 2001 and 2006.
Iraq is even harder to track. Iraq Body Count, an NGO devoted to tallying deaths in that war, puts the number at between 112,114 and 122,644. The real number could be much higher. The World Health Organization published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine putting the death toll between 2003 and 2006 at 151,000. The medical journalLancet published a study in 2006 estimating that around 655,000 had died. That survey in particular was very controversial, but regardless of whether upwards of 600,000, or “only” over 100,000, have died, the war has killed a whole lot of people.
And of course, this leaves out harder to quantify costs. The U.S. tortured people in the course of all three wars. We flew people to secret prisons and brutally interrogated them, including by using methods that most people would classify as torture. It’s hard to put a number on that, but it’s a real moral cost.
What about the wars’ benefits? Well, it’s hard to say, and harder to quantify. Did the war in Afghanistan reduce terrorist attacks on the United States and related targets? Terrorism as a phenomenon is so extraordinarily rare that it’s quite possible it didn’t, and that’s before taking into account potential recruitment effects due to the invasion, which could have made the overall effect positive.
This is a problem for counterterrorism policy more generally. Criminologists Cynthia Lum, Leslie Kennedy, and Alison Shirley did a critical review of the literature in 2008 and found no evidence that any widely used counterterrorism practice actually reduces the incidence of terrorist attacks. Twelve studies found that metal detectors and security screening worked, for instance, but another 13 found they were actually harmful to counterterrorism efforts. All 11 studies on military strikes either found no effect or that the strikes backfired. “Perhaps what is equally (if not more) interesting is what we didn’t find from our review,” they write. “Most interventions have never been evaluated, which speaks to the lack of an evidence base for counter-terrorism policy.”
That counts for Obama too, but it underscores a key problem with the war on terrorism, including as it was conducted by Bush: it never relied on evidence-based practices to address the problem at hand.
As for Iraq, it is, again, tough to draw conclusions. The country has liberalized considerably, to be sure, but all counterproliferation and counterterrorism benefits touted pre-invasion weren’t forthcoming. Indeed, according to Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, the war actually ended up increasing worldwide terrorism sevenfold, due to copycat attacks and recruitment effects.
2. The economy.
Overall, the economy under Bush (and Alan Greenspan, and Ben Bernanke) was pretty much all right. Unemployment was low, though not sub-4 percent, as it was under President Clinton:
And while growth was under the 4-5 percent rates it was averaging during the 1990s, it was hardly bad:
Median compensation (or, wages plus benefits) stagnated after growing under Clinton. The bottom three lines are all real average hourly compensation.
Indeed, the Hamilton Project’s Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney find that median annual earnings for men actually fell under Bush, after rising under Clinton.
Inequality actually rose more slowly under Bush than it did under Clinton:
Poverty increased, after having fallen under Clinton:
Extreme poverty continued the upward trajectory it’s been on ever since welfare reform:
But then 2008 happened. While almost all of the Great Recession has taken place under Obama’s presidency, the groundwork was laid during George W. Bush’s, and the crisis started in his final year.
Take, for instance, housing prices. One root cause of the financial crisis was the continued overvaluation of housing stock in the United States. That really took off when Bush was in office, though it began under Clinton:
Interestingly, though, the share of the economy devoted to finance didn’t grow a lot while Bush was president. “Finance and insurance,” in particular, was only 8.2 percent of the economy when Bush took office, and never went above that. The main growth was under Clinton:
The most obvious case for Bush’s culpability in the crisis is negligence, that he — or his appointees — should have noticed the housing bubble forming, or the dangers of unregulated securities, and acted to stop them. But Bush was also an active deregulator, as his Securities and Exchange Commission exempted large investment banks from limits on their debt-to-equity ratios in 2004, following a lobbying push by, among others, future Bush Treasury Secretary and then Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson.
That led to a sharp increase in the debt-to-equity ratio, or the share of bank assets that are borrowed from somewhere. Many analysts believe high debt-to-equity ratios are the defining danger that caused the crisis, as it increased the damage that certain loans going bad could do to banks. Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig, for example, argue that ratios more like 2 to 1 mean that events like those in 2008 would have just challenged banks rather than sinking them outright.
All the same, Bush’s initial response to the crisis was better than some imaginable alternatives, though one could find fault with his administration’s failure to bail out Lehman Brothers, which arguably precipitated the crisis outbreak. He worked with Nancy Pelosi to craft a fiscal stimulus package in early 2008, which some researchers concludedincreased consumer spending by an average of 3.5 percent. And, of course, Bush and his Treasury secretary Hank Paulson devised the bank bailout package which Alan Blinder and many others credit with preventing an actual depression.
In any case, it’s left us with a lot of debt. Even if you don’t blame the crisis on Bush, at least half the debt is directly attributable to his policy choices. Racking up debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and some have even argued that surpluses can be economically dangerous, but for whatever it’s worth, Bush played a big role there:
It’s also worth noting that Bush was increasing the deficit at a time when the economy was expanding — which is exactly the opposite of what Keynesians believe makes sense, and which also made it more difficult for the country to respond to the recession.
Another enduring legacy of the Bush administration is the creation of the current tax structure. With the exception of some minor changes for earners making above $400,000, or $200,000 if you include changes to some tax deductions, the tax code is roughly as it was after Bush’s second tax cut in 2003. That means a lot less revenue:
Even at its highest point, revenue under Bush was a full percentage point of GDP below where it was in 2001. That means billions of dollars in annual lost revenue. If, in 2009, the government had taken in as much revenue as a percent of GDP as it had in 2001, it would have gotten about $600 billion more.
What about distribution? Well, let’s take a look at the Tax Policy Center’s distributive breakdown of Senate Republicans’ proposal late last year to extend the tax cuts, relative to letting them expire totally:
Millionaires would have gotten an 8.1 percent tax cut, while those making under $10,000 got an average tax cut of $4. Of course, everyone making under $200,000, and most making between $200,000 and $400,000, got this exact deal. The public perception is correct: the Bush tax cuts were heavily tilted to benefit wealthier taxpayers.
4. Health care
Under Bush, insurance premiums as paid both by workers and their employers roughly doubled, as you can see in this Kaiser Family Foundation chart:
And according to KFF, the percentage of firms offering health benefits fell from 68 percent to 59 percent during his tenure.
But Bush did inaugurate Medicare Part D, which has provided prescription drug coverage to 73 percent of Medicare recipients. As this Kaiser chart shows, the program came in way cheaper than expected:
Then again, that’s largely because prescription drug prices have fallen due to lackluster pharmaceutical innovation.
Bush’s crowning accomplishment in this regard is No Child Left Behind, which established testing standards for all elementary and secondary schools for the first time ever. However, its implementation was been somewhat shaky, with many local districts recoiling against its mandates. One frequent cause of grievance is that, as this New America Foundation chartexplains, the Bush administration repeatedly signed budgets that provided less than the authorized funding levels for NCLB:
Whether or not that money would have actually helped student achievement is, of course, another question. So what happened to student achievement? On math, it rose.FFourth grade math scores, for example, rose for students of all races:
But for reading, the results were less impressive. Here’s fourth grade again, by race:
Some progress, but not of the same scale you see with math.
The Bush administration was pretty hostile to most efforts to combat climate change, between withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol to needing to be sued for the EPA to do anything to combat it. As a consequence, greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise (update: before falling in 2008/2009, as Brad points out to me):
As did the sea level:
And U.S. temperatures:
The overall trend is still troubling, and even if year-to-year temperatures didn’t rise, they’re still higher than they’ve ever been. It’s really really bad, you guys.
One bright spot on Bush’s record is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program to fight HIV/AIDS in the developing world by, among other things, distributing anti-retroviral drugs, preventing transmission from mothers to children, and preventing initial infection through abstinence and condom programs. It worked. One studyfound that the program saved 1.2 million peoples’ lives, and reduced HIV-related mortality by about 10 percent. It directly supports 5.1 million peoples’ antiretroviral drug regimens.