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The Bush League Presidency

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 13, 2009

What do Reggie Jackson, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco have in common? It's not their home runs. They rank in the top five for career strikeouts.

They thought each time they went to the plate, they were going to hit a home run. And many times they were successful. Yet, for each home run they hit, they struck out, on average, four times.

George W. Bush has that same slugger mentality. Every time he was faced with a policy decision, he swung for the fence. Sometimes he hit a home run, but many times he struck out, and those strikeouts will probably define his presidency.

Contrary to what many say, Bush did hit home runs. First, No Child Left Behind identified failing schools and forced them to change. The results are minority students making large gains in test scores, helping many to escape the cycle of poverty and to be better prepared for the workforce in the future.

Second, Medicare reform provided a prescription drug benefit to the elderly, but more important, brought competition into government provided health care. This plan has controlled health care costs better than predicted and is extremely popular with the elderly. This program's success shows that competition and choice should be the model for future health care reform.

Third, Bush quadrupled aid to sub-Saharan Africa to combat AIDS and other diseases. In 2003, 50,000 Africans received treatment for HIV/AIDS. By March 2008, 1.68 million had received treatment, and the program's prevention plans have led to 200,000 African children born HIV-free. Moreover, the plan has reduced malaria in targeted countries by two-thirds. This should improve lives, spur development and promote stability.

Fourth, zero terrorist attacks on the homeland. While terrorists have attacked Americans abroad, the consensus after 9-11 was that another domestic terrorist attack was inevitable. Seven years later, Bush policies overcame the odds.

Yet, even these home runs were not pretty. No Child Left Behind led teachers to adopt prophylactic measures such as teaching the test to protect their jobs. The prescription drug benefit added financial strains to an almost bankrupt Medicare system. And protecting the homeland led to warrantless wiretapping and judicial processes for detainees that lacked due process while rendition and Gitmo harmed America's international cultural appeal.

Moreover, no issue better illustrates Bush tendency of swinging for the fence than the issue that will define his presidency the most - Iraq. Bush removed an evil dictator but did not have a plan for rebuilding and democratizing Iraq. Bush failed to hold accountable the provider of failed intelligence (George Tenet) and the architect of post-war Iraq (Donald Rumsfeld). Bush began the necessary transformation of the military from a Cold War posture, but failed to provide necessary armaments and vehicles to soldiers and modernize the veterans' health care system.

Yet, Bush also deserves credit for standing up to those who said Iraq was lost by adopting the surge and providing the resources the military needed to stabilize Iraq so political reconciliation could occur. Now, a stable, democratic Iraq is probable, which could spread his vision of a more responsive and democratic Middle East, eliminate the environment that produces terrorism and restore his reputation.

Bush also had some high-profile strikeouts. First, while state and local officials bear primary responsibility for the Katrina disaster, FEMA exacerbated the problem. Second, he recognized Social Security is going bankrupt, but proposed a policy that did not promote solvency.

Third, Bush increased executive power but forgot that his most important power is public approval. His perceived incompetence over Iraq and Katrina squandered his public support so that when the recent financial crisis hit and the recession became apparent, no one would listen to him, which slowed the government response and lessened confidence in the markets.

Fourth, Bush hoped to make the Republican Party the natural party of government by developing a philosophy that emphasizes ownership, empowerment and accountability. However, the unpopularity of No Child Left Behind and the failures of Iraq, Katrina, Social Security reform, budget deficits and immigration reform contributed to his enduring unpopularity, tore apart the GOP, hurt their appeal with Latinos and have provided Democrats the opportunity to realign the public.

As the former owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush should have known that singles and doubles can score runs just as effectively as home runs, and that one must pay attention to the mechanics to hit the fastballs and curveballs that politics sent him. The end result was a bush league presidency.

This article originally appeare in the Jackson Sun on January 9, 2009