What Bush leaves behind (and Obama has to pick up)

Published on L.A.Times, by DOYLE McMANUS, January 18, 2009.

… If Obama succeeds, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will be partly because of the second-term fixes that Bush, Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made to the botched work of the first. After all the drama of the last eight years, the new president inherits a foreign policy that has largely been repaired. Obama ran to change the tone of American diplomacy, repudiating the unilateralist Bush of 2001 — but he’ll find himself building on a foundation laid by the toned-down Bush of 2008 …

… When Bush was riding high on a tide of public support after 9/11, his obstinacy and focus enabled him to push a homeland security agenda through Congress, marshal broad initial support for the war in Iraq — and win reelection in 2004.

“He got some things done because of his starch and stubbornness,” said Fred Greenstein, a scholar of the presidency at Princeton University. But when he met reverses — in Iraq, on Social Security and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — those same traits made his leadership brittle and his public support evanescent. “He never seemed to know when to fold ‘em and move on,” Greenstein added.

Bush would like to be remembered as another Harry S. Truman, a president who left office deeply unpopular because of a long war and a recession but who eventually won credit for laying a foreign policy foundation that endured for half a century. But Truman sponsored the Marshall Plan and helped launch NATO; will Bush’s Department of Homeland Security look as impressive half a century from now?

He’s more likely to be compared to Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan whose domestic ambitions were derailed by a costly war. Bush’s reach, like Johnson’s, exceeded his grasp; he vastly overestimated the United States’ capacity to make other countries behave like democracies under American tutelage. But Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964; can Bush point to any comparable achievement?

In the end, Bush’s legacy rests on the outcome, years from now, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those wars will soon be in Barack Obama’s hands. No wonder the outgoing president has shown such courtesy to his Democratic successor. (full text).

(Doyle McManus writes a weekly column for Sunday Opinion).

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