Can Bush Transcend His Own Record?


By: Wall Street Journal

Low-Rated President’s Legacy on the Line in Final State of the Union
By JOHN D. MCKINNON, ALEX FRANGOS and ELIZABETH HOLMES

President Bush often has told aides that in the short run, history always gets it wrong. Tonight he is to give his final State of the Union speech, hoping to prove himself right — and begin changing the public’s current judgment of his legacy.

With Mr. Bush’s approval ratings near record lows, many Americans likely have tuned him out already. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 70% of adults predict he will be rated a below-average president.

Even in Florida, the state that handed him the White House in 2000, Mr. Bush has been relegated to near-anonymity in the Republican race to choose his successor. At a Republican debate in Boca Raton last week, the candidates seldom mentioned him.

“If ‘legacy’ means someone named George W. Bush whom people talk about the way that Reagan was talked about in ’88 or Eisenhower in ’60, then his seems nonexistent,” says Fred Greenstein, a leading presidential historian.

But while the candidates aren’t talking much about Mr. Bush, his legacy of aggressive policy moves is proving more difficult to avoid. Reluctantly or not, the leading Republican candidates find themselves embracing many of his policies, even as they continue to stir opposition and anger among Democrats and many independents. With the economy in trouble, Mr. Bush’s tax cuts are growing in popularity. And the success by some measures of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq has encouraged all the GOP candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, to line up more or less firmly behind Mr. Bush’s foreign policy.

“Every serious Republican candidate is campaigning in full support of the president’s strategy in Iraq, and full support of extending his tax cuts and stimulus package,” says Mark McKinnon, a former Bush campaign adviser who now works with John McCain. “Republicans are marching to the president’s drummer.”

Heading into this election year, the modern Republican coalition of national-security hawks, small-government fans and social conservatives appeared at risk of splintering, as the party’s fortunes suffered with Mr. Bush’s. Two candidates in particular raised fear of an outright schism — Mike Huckabee, with his populist and protectionist streaks; and Rudy Giuliani, with his support for abortion rights and gay rights.
The economic growth package and renewing the terrorist surveillance law are expected to take center stage at President Bush’s last State of the Union speech.

A month later, the candidates who are moving to the fore in Florida as well as nationally — Mr. McCain and Mitt Romney — are the ones who sound the most like Mr. Bush. One likely reason is that, despite his travails in the polls, Mr. Bush and his policies remain reasonably popular among conservatives of all stripes. And conservatives remain the dominant force in Republican primaries, particularly in states like Florida that don’t allow independents to participate.

The president’s overall approval rating among adults ranks near the lowest levels of his presidency overall, at 31%, but his rating among Republicans is still a hefty 73%.

Hewing to Mr. Bush’s policies might be smart strategy, for now. But it raises the prospect of an uphill fight for Republicans this fall. The party’s public approval rating dropped below 40% in mid-2005 and hasn’t recovered. It is now at 34%, while approval of the Democratic Party is at 47%. Even some leading Republicans hint at changes down the road, both in style and substance.
UP CLOSE

[microphone]
• Bush’s Words: How the president’s State of the Union addresses stack up from year to year.
• Approval Ratings: See how President Bush falls in line with previous U.S. presidents when it comes to approval ratings.

Mr. Romney in particular has stepped up his implicit criticism of the administration in recent weeks, changing his campaign theme to “Washington is Broken.” Asked about the economy Friday in Clearwater, Fla., the former Massachusetts governor didn’t mention the president, but cited the “institution of Washington,” which has “failed to act to protect the concerns, the rights and the interests of the American people.”

Similarly, when Mr. McCain talks about early U.S. struggles in Iraq, he targets the administration’s long-serving former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Saturday, he said he has complained repeatedly to the White House over spending bills. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called over there,” he said. “‘Veto this. Veto this.’”
[Turning Tide]

Still, some polling data suggests that Mr. Bush’s major policies initiatives, such as Social Security overhaul, often are more popular when he isn’t personally linked to them. For now, at least, the leading Republican candidates appear satisfied with the policy cards they have been dealt by Mr. Bush, perhaps thinking that they are good cards, they have just been misplayed, or overplayed.

Mr. Bush embraced the need for bold action following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which he often says “changed my thinking.” He instituted what he called the Bush Doctrine, calling for pre-emptive strikes when needed, which opened the door to the Iraq invasion. In his second term, he launched a drive to spread democracy and freedom, particularly in the Middle East.

Mr. Bush anticipated history might judge him critically. But he has taken encouragement from one of his favorite historical figures — Sam Houston, who led Texas into the U.S. and later became governor of Texas. In a speech in late 2002, then-aide Karl Rove recounted how Mr. Bush tells his favorite Sam Houston story.

As a Union loyalist in the runup to the Civil War, Gov. Houston refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and was removed from office. As he drove out of town in his wagon, “the occupants of the state Capitol … lined the road and hurled garbage and epithets at him,” Mr. Rove said.

“In the short term,” Mr. Rove continued, “history said Sam Houston was a traitor to the cause of his state. But long-term history has judged him to be what he was — a great man of vision and leadership…. And he could care less about public opinion.”

Last year, while Mr. Bush was doing an audience question-and-answer session in Nashville, Tenn., a woman asked Mr. Bush about his legacy and which policy he hoped his successor would continue.

“Freedom agenda,” Mr. Bush responded immediately. As for his legacy, he went on, “I’ll be dead before people fully are able to capture the essence of — the full essence of a presidency.”

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com, Alex Frangos at alex.frangos@wsj.com and Elizabeth Holmes at elizabeth.holmes@wsj.com

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