White House (CNSNews.com) – Americans will choose between two presidential candidates Tuesday, both of whom have been critical of President George W. Bush, who has a 24 percent approval rating. That compares with a 15 percent approval rating for Congress, according to last week’s CBS/New York Times poll.
Democrat Barack Obama has said the election of his Republican opponent John McCain would usher in a “Bush third term.” McCain, meanwhile, has pointed to cases in which he disagreed with the president over the last eight years.
Even though Bush probably will not run for elected office again, some analysts think he could make a comeback – at least in the eyes of history.
“Over the last eight years, a fair amount has happened, and not all of it has been negative,” said Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “There have been major accomplishments as well as serious blunders. An objective historian will not just look at the blunders.”
The No Child Left Behind education reform law and the Medicare prescription drug plan were significant domestic achievements, Nivola said, adding that Bush’s tax cuts also were significant.
“Obama doesn’t want to roll back all of it, just for those making more than $250,000, so they (the tax cuts) have staying power,” Nivola told CNSNews.com.
Hurricane Katrina was poorly handled by the Bush administration, Nivola said, while the president’s Social Security reform proposal was a major failure.
On what most consider the defining issue of the Bush presidency, the verdict is still out on whether the invasion of Iraq was the right move, Nivola said. But Bush did change the strategy, albeit belatedly, with the surge of more troops into Iraq. That was a very unpopular move, said Nivola.
“It was a dire situation in Iraq, and he was way out by himself on the surge,” Nivola said. “Better late than never. He pulled the chestnuts out of the fire. He snatched something from the jaws of defeat.”
The administration is fully aware of the political realities, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Monday, but she said the election is not about Bush.
“I think people have tried to make it about this president, but I think that whenever you are in America and you’re looking towards the future, you want to know who’s going to be your leader, and George Bush will not be the president on Jan. 21,” Perino said. “The next president will be taking over, and they’ll have all the responsibility that comes with that honor.”
The president is not driven by concern over his approval ratings, she said.
“This president has taken on really big issues, and he's been tested in many ways, and this is a president who has done big things, and often when you do big things and you make tough decisions, they're not popular,” she said.
“What keeps him going is knowing that he’s done the right thing,” Perino said. “When it comes to protecting this country, since the Sept. 11 attacks he’s been able to do that. Iraq is in a totally different place than it was a year ago today.”
“We have made improvements across different continents, from Africa to India,” she said. “We have better relations with China than we inherited. And when he goes home to Texas, President Bush will be able to look in the mirror and know that he was true to his values and true to his principles. And that's what keeps him going.”
Though he may be viewed more kindly by history than his contemporaries, even the conservative movement might fall short of valuing his presidency.
“All conservatives applauded the tax cuts that kept the economy going, the decisive action after 9/11, the victory in Afghanistan and the initial military victory in Iraq,” said Lee Edwards, a distinguished fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“It is a little murkier when you get into the No Child Left Behind, the (Medicare) prescription drug plan and the steel tariffs,” he said.
Bush has been blamed for a failing economy but not enough credit for homeland security, Edwards said.
“You cannot blame the economy on one man,” Edwards told CNSNews.com. “There has not been any attack since 9/11, and that has something to do with the Homeland Security program.”
Further, Edwards said, Bush left a successful legacy on the U.S. Supreme Court with the confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. However, it would have taken a third appointment to reshape the court.
One of the least noticed Bush accomplishments was fighting AIDS in Africa, said Nivola.
“He saved millions of lives,” Nivola said. “In Africa, the Bush presidency is respected. People who say the rest of the world hates the Bush administration are greatly exaggerating.”
On the political front, the unpopular Bush has made few appearances with McCain or Republican congressional candidates across the country.
Meanwhile, Perino said the last communication the president had with McCain was at the White House meeting in October when the administration briefed the two nominees and congressional leaders on the financial rescue plan.
Rather than making any major appearances on election night, the president will be holding a small dinner at the White House residence.
“President Bush remains hopeful that John McCain will pull it out tomorrow night and will win the election, and he thinks that Republican candidates all across America have the right ideas when it comes to the economy and national security,” said Perino. “He'll be pulling for them. But he also is realistic about the political environment that we’re in.”