Editor’s Note: Senator Hatch, the LDS Senator from Utah, gave this farewell evaluation of George W. Bush’s presidency recently before the Senate. Meridian includes it here to mark the end of an era.
I rise today to offer some thoughts and observations about the presidency of George W. Bush as his time in office comes to a close. This is truly a time to thank God for our country, for our system of government, and for liberty unparalleled in the history of the world. President Bush served at a time of great challenge, and even crisis, for our country and I want to focus on him both as a president and a person.
When America ‘s founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, it is said that someone asked Benjamin Franklin, the constitutional convention’s oldest delegate, what form of government was under construction. He famously answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.” James Madison defined a republic as a government which derives its powers from the people, a principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. One way we work to keep our republic is by the people choosing those who will govern them.
In his farewell address in 1837, President Andrew Jackson said: “But you must remember, my fellow citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.” Elections and transitions of power are part of that vigilance, part of keeping our republic in order that we might, in the words of the Constitution’s preamble, “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Every transition goes from something to something and occasions a look at what is concluding as well as at what is beginning. With the inauguration of President-elect Obama around the corner, the flurry of confirmation activity here in the Senate regarding his nominees and the intense focus on economic and other challenges, much of our attention is rightly focused on the future. But we look to a future from a present shaped by the past. Only by understanding where we have been can we have the ability, perspective, and confidence to act today and plan for tomorrow.
Though a presidency has a beginning and an end, it is simply part of the flow of events in the life of America . Presidents inherit situations they did not create and create situations they leave to their successors. They may get credit for successes they did not produce and escape blame for failures that do not materialize until after they leave office. That is the nature of political life in America .
And while we focus on an individual, the president, I think it is more appropriate to speak of an administration, the presidency. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who serve at the pleasure of the president to develop and implement his agenda. All of this makes very difficult even describing, let alone evaluating, something as multi-faceted as the Bush presidency.
Some of President Bush’s critics almost reflexively just look at opinion polls, noting that his approval rating has sunk. I do not have to tell anyone serving in public office about the allure, as well as the danger, of this reflex. Polls are snapshots, they are not motion pictures. And the pollster is the photographer. He chooses the subject, the lighting, and the angle, he frames the shot and can determine how the final picture turns out.
The Bush presidency was bookended by national crises, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis before us today. Not surprisingly, as the Washington Post pointed out a few days ago, he enjoyed the highest approval rating in late 2001 and nearly the lowest in late 2008 in the history of the Post’s polling. Once again, that is just the nature of political life in America and comes with the presidential territory.
While President Bush’s approval rating has had many ups and downs, one thing has remained absolutely constant: his approval rating has consistently been higher than ours. The website pollingreport.com shows that dozens of national polls in the last couple of years have given Congress an approval rating in the teens, down to a measly 12 percent, while President Bush has not had even one that low. And we in the Congress have the advantage of getting lost in the crowd when we want to, blaming such dismal public sentiment on the institution while insisting that, as individual members, we are much more popular. The president never has that luxury. The polls do not ask whether Americans approve of his administration, but whether they approve of him.
President Bush knows that it is tough to lead when you are following the polls. As he said in an interview last month, he did not compromise his soul to be a popular guy. George W. Bush is not leaving the presidency with chapped fingers from holding them up to the wind. His critics spin that as stubbornness, saying that he wants to go it alone. I fully expect that many of those same Bush critics will praise the next president for the very same thing. One man’s principle, I suppose, is another man’s inflexibility. But as President Bush said at Texas A&M University , popularity is fleeting but character and conscience are sturdy. The only test that matters, he said, is going home at night, looking in the mirror and being satisfied that you have done what is right.
Politics, of course, is about disagreement and competing ideas, priorities, and policies. Conservative leader and thinker Paul Weyrich, who passed away last month, has written about “constructive polarization.” That is the idea that clearly defined, and clearly different, choices and alternatives can be constructive for the electoral and political process. Disagreement and competition help us to focus and refine ideas, to work harder at finding the best solution.
But I regret to say that there is often today more effort at enraging than engaging, and that along with disagreement has come disrespect. Too often an opponent is treated not simply as wrong but as rotten. And that is when the distinction between an office and the individual who holds it breaks down and political objectives taken precedence over institutional principles. I have seen that destructive trend over the last eight years and I hope, for the sake of the next president and for our country, it does not continue. I join President Bush who has said that the tone in Washington got worse rather than better during his presidency and I urge my colleagues, and all others who participate in so many ways in our political process, to do some real soul-searching about this.
In addition to looking at the polls, it is easy when looking back at a presidency to look no further than the most recent events. The financial and economic situation has deteriorated so fast in the last several months, and the difficulties have spread so quickly and loom so large, that it is difficult to see anything that came before. The truth is, however, that we experienced a record economic expansion before that downturn occurred, 52 months of uninterrupted job creation.
Another mistake in evaluating a presidency is a simple one. We act as if we know everything that can be known, that the jury could possibly have already come back with the verdict. The jury is still out, and will remain there for a long time, which is why we more properly talk about history judging a president. As President Bush put it in one interview, folks are still writing books analyzing President George Washington. President George Bush is not going to worry about it. President Harry Truman’s own party discouraged him to run for re-election and he left office with an approval rating even lower than President Bush, yet today is mentioned among the twentieth century’s best presidents. The facts of what President Bush has done, not to mention their effects, will not be fully understood or even known by most Americans for many years to come.
In evaluating a presidency, we should also look not only at individual programs or neatly numerical accomplishments but also at the challenges than cannot be reduced to charts, graphs, or bullet points. President Bush certainly came into office with goals to achieve, problems to solve, and situations to handle. He had offered concrete proposals and made campaign promises. There is a long list of bills he signed, programs he initiated, appointments he made, and other concrete achievements that can be measured and listed. I will mention some of those in a minute. But we have already seen with the President-elect how quickly those promises get tossed on the cutting-room floor. The Washington Post just reported that, before Mr. Obama has even taken the oath of office, his proposal for a tax credit for job creation, which he had touted on the campaign trail, has been dumped from the economic stimulus package now under construction.
But in addition to specific programs or proposals, President Bush has worked hard to get us to think differently, to shift paradigms, to re-order our understanding of America , the world, and our relationship to it. That is more qualitative than quantitative, and perhaps it is harder to measure with numbers or notches on a board somewhere, but it is as much a part of leadership and vigilance that is necessary to keep this republic as anything else.
We are in the eighth year since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What a way for a president to begin his first term! The world changed, and American changed with it. Previous generations saw the struggle against global communism define much of what America did and how we did it. Today, it is the struggle against global terrorism. It may have begun in earnest with President Bush in office, but it will continue long afterward. And so national security has defined the Bush presidency. Not simply the subject of national security, but the reality of national security. From retooling the Department of Justice and FBI, creating the Department of Homeland Security, revamping the intelligence community, to engaging dozens of other nations, and liberating millions in the Middle East , President Bush took bold steps to confront this new international menace. In short, he led.
President Bush has sought to lead us to think differently about war and terrorism, and to understand both that terrorism is a global threat and that freedom is terrorism’s worst enemy. He has said throughout his presidency that freedom comes from God and is a universal human right. Freedom is better than tyranny, liberty is better than oppression. I am so grateful that President Bush refused to accept this moral-equivalency nonsense that one way of life is just as good or bad as the next. Not only does that view make no sense on its face, but with it no one would ever see liberation from disease, hunger, slavery, or deprivation. That is a philosophical perspective, to be sure, and perhaps it is difficult to communicate in the twenty-first century, perhaps it does not lend itself to a text message or a posting on Facebook. But where you start determines the road on which you travel and where you eventually arrive, both for individuals and nations. President Bush told the American Enterprise Institute last month that a president’s job is not only to tackle problems but to look over the horizon. That is real leadership.
Let me move to some of those concrete accomplishments. Though some may wish to forget it, I remember when so many dismissed President Bush’s strategy in Iraq that we have come to call “the Surge.” Once again, he was thinking outside the box, changing the way we think about dealing with challenges and problems. The Surge was more than simply sending more troops to Iraq , but implemented a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. It provided for one of the most dramatic comebacks in the history of modern warfare. In less than two years, what some had said was a hopeless situation saw an 80 percent reduction in violence. Cities and provinces whose names were literal synonyms for violence – Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad, and others – are now largely free of al-Qaeda’s operatives.
And let me say at this point that President Bush has reaffirmed our sacred commitment to our veterans. His administration has more than doubled funding for veterans’ medical care, cutting the time to process disability claims almost in half and reducing homelessness among veterans by 40 percent.
It is, of course, much easier, much more natural, to think about what has happened rather than what has not happened. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is that we often simply do not know what has not happened. But think about this. We do know that America has not been attacked since September 11, 2001. That is 88 months. I know that no one listening to me speak is foolish enough to think this is because the terrorists, the terrorist networks, the terrorist movement at work today have simply lost interest. No one is foolish enough to think the terrorists have just moved on to other things. No, they want more than ever to attack and destroy this country, if only because their first attack failed to bring us down. It has not happened in more than seven years.
President Bush’s leadership has helped prevent another attack. His leadership in creating an international coalition, in working with other individual nations, in transforming and redirecting intelligence and law enforcement agencies, has helped prevent another attack. We have fought over these issues here in Congress, and I for one agree with President Bush that we must, for example, monitor international communication involving suspected terrorists if we are to protect ourselves. Doing so is both necessary and constitutional, and I am glad President Bush stood firm on those principles.
President Bush has also helped protect us here at home by reducing the threat of rogue nations or groups launching a missile attack against the United States . President Bush fielded an operational missile defense system, which will require additional investment and development. But because of his leadership, we have already developed significant anti-ballistic missile capability both on the ground and at sea.
Also looking abroad, President Bush has led us to rethink how we approach foreign aid with a new model of assistance to other countries. He signed Millennium Challenge Account agreements with nearly a dozen African nations and put more emphasis on holding governments that receive our aid accountable for how they treat their people and whether they promote economic growth. This approach actually invites competition, utilizes criteria, and requires progress. And it requires a strong link between our security objectives, accountability, and foreign-assistance funding. Linking these together serves both American and foreign interests better and it took bold leadership to shift into this new way of approaching foreign assistance.
In his 2003 State of the Union Address, President Bush introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. This program focuses on both prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and care. Billions of dollars have already gone to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and opportunistic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis that often kill people with AIDS. This program has prevented HIV transmission from mother to child during more than 12 million pregnancies and provided antiretroviral drugs for nearly two million people, up from only 50,000 receiving such drugs when the program began. PEPFAR has helped support care for nearly seven million children and more than 33 million counseling and testing sessions for men, women, and children. This program launched by President Bush, which was reauthorized last year with increased funding, is the largest international health initiative in history dedicated to a single disease.
Shifting the focus to right here at home, even though the downturn of the last year has been severe, it was preceded by a record 52 months of job creation. Productivity in his first term grew at the fastest rate in more than half a century. Before the recent spike, the average seasonally adjusted unemployment rate during President Bush’s tenure was the lowest in 60 years. President Bush cut taxes for every American who pays taxes, doubled the child tax credit to help American families, provided marriage penalty relief, and began phasing out the estate tax.
The roots of the current financial crisis extend before President Bush took office and his warnings went unheeded. In April 2001, just three months in office, he warned that financial trouble at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could have strong repercussions in financial markets. In May 2002, he called for disclosure and corporate governance principles to be applied to those agencies. In February 2003, the Bush administration warned that unexpected problems at Fannie and Freddie could immediately spread beyond the housing market. Seven months later, the Treasury Secretary called for prudent minimum capital adequacy requirements for Fannie and Freddie. In February 2004, President Bush called for stronger regulation of Fannie and Freddie because of their low levels of required capital, that is, sub-prime mortgages. Warnings continued month after month, year after year. The notion that the Bush administration sat by while the problem developed or, worse yet, fought increased regulation is simply a lie.
President Bush campaigned on education reform, having the courage to speak of what he called the bigotry of low expectations . He delivered education reform with the No Child Left Behind Act, and I can tell you what a difference it has made. One example is Dee Elementary School in Ogden , Utah . Nearly every student in that school is economically disadvantaged, more than 80 percent are minorities, more than 44 percent are learning the English language, and 10 percent are homeless. Those are challenging demographics no matter where they are found. At the beginning of the 2003-04 school year, only 13 percent of Dee Elementary third-graders were reading at grade level. In just five years, after Dee Elementary was chosen to participate in the Reading First program, that figure quadrupled to 52 percent. The school jumped from only the ninth percentile in fifth grade reading to the forty-third percentile. And I am so proud to say that Dee Elementary has now met Adequate Yearly Progress standards for three consecutive years. Lives are changed, hopes are kindled, and futures are brighter as a result.
Empowering teachers to help students meet higher expectations works, and that has become federal educational policy under President Bush. The educational achievement gap between white and minority students narrowed and both fourth and eighth graders achieved their highest reading and math scores on record. I am hopeful that the new president’s Secretary of Education will recognize and build on the reform-oriented approach of the Bush administration through supporting policies such as charter schools and school choice.
President Bush campaigned on Medicare reform, and he delivered with the Medicare Modernization Act, the most significant reform of the Medicare program since it was created in 1965. As a result of this law, 40 million Americans have better access to prescriptions and have choices in their health coverage. It also provided for Health Savings Accounts, which President Bush insisted not be limited solely to Medicare beneficiaries. These accounts are portable and give people more choices and more ways to improve their lives. I served on the House-Senate conference committee on this legislation and attribute its success to President Bush’s leadership.
President Bush has challenged all Americans, and his own party, to change the way we address real human needs in this country. This includes increasing the impact of nonprofit organizations, ending discrimination against faith-based groups that can provide services, and promoting volunteerism. As a result, chronic homelessness has dropped by nearly 30 percent in just the last few years.
President Bush also advanced a culture of life. Our Declaration of Independence recognizes that we are endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to life. That is a foundational principle. In an interview a year ago, President Bush said that his belief that every human life has dignity has informed his policies and programs. I do not understand where the compassion and commitment comes from for hundreds of programs and billions of dollars to help millions of people without believing that those people’s very lives are worth protecting. The conviction that life itself is sacred is the best foundation for liberty and prosperity, for human and civil rights. President Bush shares that conviction and signed into law the ban on the horrific practice of partial birth abortion, which the Supreme Court has upheld. He also signed the Born Alive Infant Protection Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
President Bush also appointed judges who know their proper place in our system of government. Our liberty depends on limited government, and that means government limited by a written Constitution that actually means something. The Constitution cannot limit government if government defines the Constitution. President Bush appointed judges who know that this principle applies to them. This is one of the most important, and most long-lasting, results of President Bush’s leadership. Others believe that judges not only apply the law, but make the law they apply. Others believe that judges should decide cases based on where their personal empathy lies, based on the political interests that can be served. Others believe that judges should take sides in a case before those sides even appear in court. That activist, politicized view of judging will destroy our liberty and I am glad that President Bush sided with America ‘s founders and appointed judges who will interpret and apply the law and leave politics to the people.
President Bush charted a new course for energy security. This is another area which the recent financial crisis can easily obscure, but President Bush’s first order of business was producing a major energy plan and task force. That plan became the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It included a proposal I authored called the CLEAR ACT, which provided incentives for hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles. President Bush’s advocacy of plug-in hybrid vehicle technology resulted in passage of the FREEDOM Act, which I drafted along with Senators Barack Obama and Maria Cantwell. And President Bush called for developing our nation’s unconventional fuel resources, including oil shale and tar sand. Only the most willful denial or ideological distortion will buy the spin from environmental extremists that President Bush has done nothing to protect the environment or to move us away from our dependence on oil. At the same time, knowing that our current transportation needs depend on oil, President Bush has led the way to doubling domestic oil and gas production on public lands.
I could go on about issue after issue, listing one accomplishment after another, but my remarks today are intended to be more than just a factual recitation. Many others are writing and analyzing the Bush presidency and record from many different perspectives. I ask unanimous consent that an editorial titled “Bush’s Achievements” from the January 19 issue of the Weekly Standard be made part of the record following my remarks.
Before I close, I have to say a word about our wonderful and gracious First Lady, Laura Bush. Her strength, dignity, and grace will leave a lasting mark on the role of First Lady. She was a kind, steady presence, advocating for causes in her own right as the President led the nation in his. And in times of great tragedy, she was the voice and personification of comfort and kindness. She confidently balanced the public and private aspects of life and family. Like her husband, Laura Bush was just what our country needed.
President Bush has been our leader, our chosen leader, for the past eight years. He has been a man of principle, conviction, and action. He has had to tackle challenges, both here and abroad, that are difficult even to describe, let alone comprehend. There have been many successes, and this has been a time of transition, adjustment, and change. President Bush, as is his way, takes a very practical view of his contribution to America . He says he will be remembered as someone who dealt with tough issues head on, helping our country protect itself, and who was unashamed about spreading certain fundamental values such as liberty. At home, he says, he trusts individual Americans to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. In his last State of the Union Address, President Bush said that our nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure, and our union will remain strong if we trust in the ability of free people to make decisions.
Protecting America from outside enemies and strengthening America from within. That is a legacy to be proud of, and I am so thankful for President Bush’s leadership and courage and I pray for God’s richest blessings for him, for First Lady Laura Bush, and their family in whatever lies ahead for them.
Let me close with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt, whom I know President Bush admires. President Roosevelt said this in Paris in 1910 and it expresses my sentiments about President Bush as his time in office ends.