Halfway through George W. Bush's presidential term, it's become fashionable to declare him a surprise and a success. He's been widely praised for his reaction to devastating terrorist attacks, and for his ability to sort through conflicting visions within his cabinet. Those who wrote him off as a feckless lightweight up until Sept. 10, 2001, appear mistaken. At this point, the prospects for re-election in 2004 look good.
The problem with these apple-cheeked assessments comes when you look at what Mr. Bush has actually done -- as opposed to what he's talked about doing, threatened to do or stopped others from doing. His list of achievements is remarkably short and, taken together, make a tepid package.
Start with the environment. I don't mean the Kyoto accord, but rather the assault on environmental regulation within the United States. Senior federal officials have resigned in frustration as clean-air enforcement and rules requiring impact studies are relaxed. Mainstream conservationists warn that key wetland habitats face destruction. National parks will echo to the whine of snowmobiles. Loggers get more cutting rights in previously restricted forests.
Most disturbing of all, if Mr. Bush has his way, oil drillers will have free rein in fragile areas such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even Mr. Bush's major environmental concession was hardly the sort of thing you'd want history to remember you for. He killed a proposal to allow drilling in Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve -- as his brother Jeb battled for re-election as governor.
Still on the domestic side, tax cuts -- another of those "achievements" that tend to play out poorly as history unfolds. Ronald Reagan, whose strong similarities to Mr. Bush are frequently noted, reveled in them, with serious deficit-running consequences. Mr. Bush's proposals are similarly both dangerous and largely beneficial to the rich. Against this, a proposed boost in prescription-drug benefits for the elderly and a modest increase in child tax credits -- hardly enough to offset the rest of the laissez-faire legacy.
Internationally, Mr. Bush has taken a huge gamble. Driven by an evangelical sense of morality, he has allowed his counterterrorism effort to be muddied by a campaign against Iraq. He's trying to promote the idea of America as humanitarian avenger at the same time as the battle with militant Islamism forces him into alliances with tawdry, autocratic Asian regimes. Not surprisingly, it's a tough sell.
Meantime, Mr. Bush has allowed members of his administration to stain his record by attacking the freedoms that have made America a beacon to the world. They have pushed for secret hearings, indefinite detention of prisoners, arbitrary definitions of security threats and significant electronic invasions of privacy. Yet Osama bin Laden is still at large, the anthrax mystery still unexplained and actual achievements in the counterterrorism campaign few on the ground.
Apart from Iraq, and a few domestic policies designed to dismantle rather than construct, this is a presidency marked not by bold initiatives but by a capacity for nimbleness under fire. Mr. Bush had Trent Lott walk the plank over a racially charged remark. But that didn't score too many points, since it was unthinkable to do otherwise.
Similarly, when the Enron affair exploded, the President reluctantly mustered a degree of outrage, but only after months of ignoring the gathering corporate-accountability scandal. There's a policy legacy here -- legislation toughening penalties for corporate fraud -- but, in years to come, the close connections of administration members to Enron and other accounting debacles will be just as easily remembered.
Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush is greatly admired as a communicator, and rightly held to possess the common touch. In the days after Sept. 11, he was masterful in rallying the nation -- but to what end? For all the talk of a renewed national sense of purpose, the lasting legacy is invisible, the economy in the doldrums and the electorate unconvinced that taking out Saddam Hussein is worth the potential cost.
At times, during the last century, it was possible to look to the United States for innovative social and economic policies -- bold programs designed to build infrastructure, or to make life easier or better for millions. Somewhere along the line, that has ceased to be the case. Greatness lies in acting, not reacting. So far, by that standard, the Bush presidency has been insubstantial.
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