Friday, May 2, 2008

The Lowest of the Low

It is now official. George W. Bush is the most unpopular president in American history, or at least the portion of history that post-dates the creation of computer punch cards. The Gallup Organization has been conducting public opinion surveys since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they periodically ask their sample to weigh in on the performance of the current occupant of the White House. When asked recently to rate President Bush's seven years on Pennsylvania Avenue, fully 71% of respondents reported dissatisfaction with the incumbent. The director of the poll, commissioned for CNN, provides the following perspective:

"No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in any CNN or Gallup Poll; in fact, this is the first time that any president's disapproval rating has cracked the 70 percent mark."

The previous nadir of presidential support stood at 67 percent disapproval and that record lasted for over a half century. George W. Bush has wandered into territory of failure previously unexplored by even the hapless Jimmy Carter or the reflexively corrupt Richard Nixon. Unlike Carter, Bush is the author of most of his own troubles. Unlike Nixon, he can claim no compensatory progress either in foreign or domestic affairs.

We've discussed this before, but Bush clearly continues to take heart in the fate of the man whose record for unpopularity he has now surpassed. Harry Truman, who has finally found the Roger Maris of futility to erase his own Ruthian standard, was not just the most unpopular president prior to last week, he was also the least popular. That he remains: a deluded 28% of the American public is still willing to rate W's performance in office as acceptable. On this measure at least, Bush has not yet dropped either to Truman's low mark of 22% or Nixon's of 24%. But it's only spring.

Truman, of course, is now generally regarded as having been an above average president. He was honest and forthright, which now, sadly, stands as something to praise in our leaders rather than something to expect. He oversaw the U.S. victory in World War II, the highly successful Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, and the reconstruction and democratization of Japan. By executive order, he required the integration of the American military. History has been kind to Truman because subsequent results have borne out the wisdom of many of his decisions: Europe, Japan, and South Korea, for example, are now free and thriving nations.

For his part, Bush looks to Truman and sees the possibility of his own rehabilitation, perhaps even while he is still alive to see it. It's a far-fetched scenario. Certainly, his legacy would be helped by the advent of a prosperous, de-fanged, democratic Middle East, but there is, at the moment, no reason to anticipate such an outcome. But then again, few back in 1945 would have predicted that the 21st Century would open with multiple Asian democracies contributing both to world prosperity and world peace. So anything is possible, though it speaks volumes about Bush's historical prospects that all he has left in his pocket is this single Iraqi lottery ticket.

More likely, George W. Bush will be viewed by history as a composite of the worst characteristics of every unsuccessful president who preceded him. He possessed Truman's bullheadedness without his vision; Johnson's deluded arrogance without his social conscience; Nixon's contempt for constitutional principles without his strategic brilliance; Carter's fumbling incompetence without his transcendent morality and goodness; and his father's patrician obliviousness without his intellectual depth and diplomatic skills. Bush even borrows the worst characteristics from two far more successful chief executives: he possesses Ronald Reagan's lazy over reliance on poorly supervised and power-hungry aides and Bill Clinton's overeager willingness to sacrifice civil liberties in the service of his political ambition.

For the first time since the sorry days of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, we have a president who is unable, at least plausibly, to lay claim to even a single domestic or international success. Bush's economic policies have resulted in (or, to be more generous, perhaps failed to stave off) rampant joblessness; the simultaneous collapse of the dollar and the U.S. housing market; spiraling oil prices; historically high budget and trade deficits; pervasive corporate corruption; and rising poverty and homelessness. As we speak, the country teeters on the edge of an economic meltdown that would make Jimmy Carter's 1970s look like a golden age.

The international side is obviously even bleaker. Two wars fought with such breathtaking ineptitude that America's very world leadership is imperiled. Under George W. Bush, international distaste for the United States has grown, terrorist recruitment has been made easier, and other global powers are gaining on and passing us while we spend ourselves in futile combat. The most powerful military in the history of the world has been extended to the breaking point, with four thousand young American lives lost so far. And the Iraqi people have experienced unceasing death and misery, rather than the democracy and prosperity that they were promised.

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, but very few Americans or innocent foreign nationals lost their lives on his watch. Furthermore, despite his failings, Carter negotiated the most significant Middle Eastern peace treaty since World War II. The 1978 accord between Egypt and Israel represents an accomplishment that we take for granted these days, but will, I suspect, be recognized and applauded by future historians long after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980 is long forgotten.

By contrast, the best anyone can say about Bush these days is that he overthrew Saddam Hussein (sure, but at what cost?) and that he threw a few paltry million dollars at the catastrophic AIDS crisis facing Africa. He promised more, of course, and could have—and should have—answered this fundamental test of world citizenship more vigorously. But even his strongest efforts have been inadequate.

I haven't even mentioned torture, but that, too, looms over the Bush legacy as a stain from which he will never escape.

The fact that George W. Bush is the most unpopular president in history should not even merit a headline from the national news organizations. The real surprise is that it took this long for the reality to sink in. Indeed, the headline should be the fact that, in the face of overwhelming evidence of incompetence, malfeasance, and corruption, more than one in every four people you meet on the street still insists that Bush is performing his job capably.

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