If President Bush had a domestic shortcoming, the first option that most of his critics would choose is Hurricane Katrina. There's no doubt in my mind that Bush was unprepared for such a catastrophe, but so was the state, county, and city government. Was the president's choosing a horse breeder to lead FEMA a greater mistake than the State of Louisiana short-cutting the construction of the levees? If anything, Bush, Governor Blanco, and Mayor Nagin are all at fault to a specific extent; no one in the state, national, and local governments prepared for this disaster, even though they knew the threat was imminent and there was plenty of time and expendable resources.
When looking back at the presidency of George W. Bush, no discussion can overlook the Valerie Plame controversy. This might be the one bullet point of his legacy where the president was more passive than aggressive; the Plame affair was the fault of his administration, and Bush merely hired and appointed the guilty parties. To publicly identify Agent Wilson as a covert CIA officer in retaliation for her husband's New York Times op-ed piece was ten different levels of stupid. I. Lewis Libby earned his punishment (sort of), but Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, and Richard Armitage are still under suspicion to this day.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the generalized public perception of our 43rd president was some bizarre postmodern performance, as if his malapropisms and occasional bungling were an act for the media. President Bush made it clear from day one that he would take a more casual approach to the highest office in the land, but to what extent did his rough edges help or hinder his legacy?
Emily (one of my regular readers at the other site) made a good point regarding Part 1; people tend to forget that 20+ years ago, the media ridiculed Ronald Reagan the same way they did with our current president. Where Dutch was portrayed as senile and aloof, especially during the Iran-Contra controversy in early 1987, Dubya was illustrated as a cowboy poseur, a trust-fund milquetoast, a manipulative huckster, and/or some combination of the three. Our 40th president had his share of critics in the media, but it pales to the scruntiny and vilification Bush received; what began as a soft, skeptical hum in January 2001 progressed into a tinnitus-like ringing in the ears by late 2008. On top of that, Reagan left office with a 63% approval rating and never sank below 46% during his eight years in the White House; President Bush's approval ratings have been consistently in the low 30s and high 20s since late 2005, and that number probably won't budge before January 20th. In comparison, Richard Nixon resigned with only 24% of the people behind his back, and Jimmy Carter's one term ended with a 34% rating.
Whatever criticism President Bush had to dodge and occasionally justify in office goes hand in hand with the average conservative's favorite punching bag, the American media and its "blatant" liberal bias. To me, partisan journalism has always existed in the same universe as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The news is inherently impartial until it hits the bottom line; the people draw an opinion on a topic, and the media sways toward said opinion for the sake of ratings and selling newspapers. The purpose of the media is to research, investigate, and question the status quo; no media figure is immune from perlustration. Where Republicans will remind us that Reagan was treated unfairly in the press, Democrats will counterclaim by pointing out the media's treatment of Bill Clinton during Whitewater and Monicagate. Every elected official has drawn criticism, it's just that Bush's critics were a bit louder than others. Simply put, pointing out a liberal bias is like chasing windmills; the media is the mirror image of the public's uncertainty.
One theory that's gone mostly untested is whether or not the core of the Republican Party failed Bush and not vice versa. After all, the GOP more or less abandoned him after the 2006 midterms, and John McCain wasn't exactly clammering for Bush's endorsement in the election. Maybe the Republicans got carried away in their power and attempted to create a society where reason, empathy, and basic decency were derided as elitist qualities by a loudmouth extremist minority that pretended to represent good ol' American values, where anyone who disagreed with said extremists was labeled an unpatriotic socialist, and that President Bush was merely doing his job in the aftermath of 9/11, providing some level of stability as the economy tanked and our nation's well-being hung in the balance. I haven't decided yet if I want to subscribe to this hypothesis, but it's certainly something to think about.
In the last few weeks, some pop culture writers have attempted to give the Bush Administration a letter grade, a broad yet theoretical report card for one of the most controversial world leaders in recent memory. I don't expect to see too many A's, talk radio apologists like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh will probably give a him a high B, and most everyone else will suggest a failing grade. I would give George W. Bush a D+, though there might be enough time to budge that up to a C-. A lot can happen in two weeks; maybe he'll get out of his chair and do something about Israel, who knows?