George W. Bush came to power in 2001 vowing to make his mark on history by overhauling taxes, pensions and schools. Instead, an item not...

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George W. Bush came to power in 2001 vowing to make his mark on history by overhauling taxes, pensions and schools. Instead, an item not on the original agenda — the war in Iraq — may consign him to the bottom tier of U.S. leaders.

That’s the view of a number of historians and presidential scholars, who say that unless Bush’s decision to inject some 20,000 more troops succeeds in quelling sectarian violence, he risks joining the ranks of such poorly regarded American leaders as James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding.

“Iraq has done enormous damage” to Bush’s standing, says Robert Dallek, the biographer of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Bush, he says, will rank “somewhere at the bottom.” Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin, says Bush’s effort to reverse the course of events in the war is “his last chance to avoid the dustbin of history.”

A day before the State of the Union address, a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted Jan. 13-16 showed 49 percent of respondents believe Bush will be remembered as a poor or below-average president, with 28 percent ranking him as average. Only 22 percent said Bush will be judged a success.

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Not “among the worst”

Some historians are reluctant to give Bush flunking grades just yet.

“Were there to be palpable signs of progress by the end of his administration or even if it occurred in the early time of his successor, people will say, ‘Wow, he persevered,’ ” says Marc Landy, a political scientist at Boston College and co-author of the book “Presidential Greatness.”

Bush “will not end up among the worst presidents,” says John Fortier, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization that favors limited government. “The war on terror will be a longer-term effort where he’ll be seen as important.”

Presidents who make tough decisions, especially amid wartime, often look better with the passage of time. A prime example is Harry Truman, who endured approval ratings as low as 23 percent near the end of his term, and has been cited by Bush himself. Many people thought Truman’s policies were “hopelessly idealistic,” he said in a Chicago speech last spring. “But he had faith in certain fundamental truths.”

Truman, by virtue of the Marshall Plan, aid to Greece and Turkey and his drive to create NATO, built a network of alliances to contain communism’s advance. In contrast, Bush has pursued a largely unilateral approach to the war on terror that, critics say, weakened U.S ties with its allies and may hobble future presidents.

While there’s no agreement among scholars on the worst U.S. president, many lists include Buchanan, scorned for failing to preserve the union on the eve of the Civil War, and Harding, whose 1920s administration was rocked by oil-lease bribes in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Many lists also include Franklin Pierce, another pre-Civil War leader; the unlucky Herbert Hoover, president at the onset of the Great Depression; and Richard Nixon, tarred by the Watergate scandal and the only president to resign.

No “counterbalance”

Erwin Hargrove, a retired political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., predicts Bush will probably go down in history as “one of our worst presidents,” his reputation dragged down by Iraq in much the same way that Vietnam consumed Lyndon Johnson’s. But unlike Johnson, who is credited with the Great Society web of social-welfare programs and for advancing civil rights, Bush, Hargrove says, “has nothing to counterbalance Iraq.”

While a 2004 poll of 415 presidential scholars conducted by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., found 81 percent deemed Bush’s presidency a failure, several scholars say things might have turned out differently but for Iraq.

Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor, said the invasion squandered an opportunity to unite the nation behind a concerted anti-terror strategy focusing on the pursuit of al-Qaida. Hargrove said that “if Bush had decided to govern from the center, fight in Afghanistan and not Iraq, and reform Medicare and Social Security, he could have been a highly successful president.”