The biggest failing of George W. Bush's presidency was his concept of sacrifice. Following 9/11, military personnel and their families sacrificed mightily. As for other Americans, as John McCain repeatedly noted last year, the only thing they were asked to do was "go shopping."
WASHINGTON — In his valedictory interview with the White House press corps and in his farewell address to the nation, President Bush struck a more reflective tone than during most of his two terms in office. He acknowledged some mistakes and “disappointments,” including Abu Ghraib, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and his decision to emphasize Social Security reform instead of immigration-law changes after his 2004 re-election.
But I listened in vain for any admission of what I and others consider the greatest moral failing of the Bush presidency — his refusal to ask any sacrifice from most of the American people when he put the nation on a wartime footing after 9/11.
Some cite failures ranging from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to Hurricane Katrina and the neglect of the environment and the working class.
But for all the outrages in those areas, I thought the most damaging to the American people — both those living now and those yet unborn — was placing the entire cost of Bush’s ambitious, if not misguided, national-security policy on the tiny fraction of American families with loved ones in the armed services.
Iraq and Afghanistan are the main fronts in the fourth major war of my lifetime, following World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and the first in which nothing was asked of the civilian population — no higher taxes, nothing to disrupt the comfort of daily life.
The day after the 9/11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush himself said that “the deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” He immediately asked Congress for an emergency spending bill to bolster civil defenses and pay for the call-up of reserves.
At the National Cathedral, he spoke of the “eloquent acts of sacrifice” performed by many individuals who gave their lives in Lower Manhattan and Northern Virginia, and he quoted FDR’s earlier tribute to “the warm courage of national unity.”
But in that moment, when the country was truly unified and the people more than ready to sacrifice, Bush asked for … nothing. He spoke of the need for “patience” and “resolve,” but at a news conference at Camp David on Sept. 15, 2001, he was asked, “Sir, how much of a sacrifice are ordinary Americans going to have to be expected to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines?”
Bush’s first words were: “Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever. We would like to see life return to normal in America.”
The biggest sacrifice that came to his mind: “these people have declared war on us … people may not be able to board flights as quickly” as usual.
And that is what Bush’s concept of sacrifice amounted to. Over the subsequent years, families of active duty, National Guard and reserve volunteers sacrificed mightily, from repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, involuntary extensions of tours of duty, not to mention deaths and wounds by the thousands.
As for other Americans, as John McCain repeatedly noted last year, the only thing they were asked to do was “go shopping.”
Meanwhile, the president who asked nothing of the country continued to squander the budget surpluses he inherited while pressing larger and larger tax cuts on the wealthiest of his constituents and supporters. Tax cuts became the sovereign remedy for everything in the Bush years, even when, or especially when, it became clear that the budgets had turned to deficits and we were borrowing abroad to finance these revenue giveaways.
The upside-down logic of borrowing in order to cut taxes pervaded the rest of our public and private economic decision-making, feeding the speculative booms that fueled unsustainable “bubbles” in financial and housing markets.
Now, the inevitable crash has come and the nation is facing a deficit of more than $1.2 trillion in the current year.
“The simple fact,” says Peter Orszag, the incoming head of the Office of Management and Budget, “is that under current policies the federal budget is on an unsustainable path.”
It has been on that path for many years, particularly since President Bush declared war on America’s enemies without asking for the higher taxes needed to pay for it. Your grandchildren will be paying for that misjudgment.
David S. Broder’s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org