One of the best ways to judge a president is to ask, Did he solve more problems than he created? This test is more severe than it may seem, because presidents are prone to mischief and grandiosity. With Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, the country had a good run. Reagan curtailed inflation and rebuilt U.S. strength; Bush broke the back of the deficit and closed out the Cold War peacefully; Clinton finished the fiscal cleanup and managed to assert U.S. supremacy while enhancing U.S. popularity. All made mistakes, but they got more right than wrong. Nixon and Carter, on the other hand, both did some good things (Nixon went to China, Carter deregulated transportation); but both, in the end, turned in negative balance sheets.
Carter’s weak leadership drained American confidence and prestige, and his clumsy regulation of energy markets and dithering on inflation damaged the economy. Reagan, however, moved briskly to restore confidence, decontrol energy, and support the monetary tightening that subdued inflation. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Carter’s mistakes were memories. Carter took only a few years to undo, which made him more a downer than a disaster.
Nixon was a disaster. Unwinding him took decades, not years. It was Nixon whose cynical pump priming and absurd wage and price controls ignited double-digit inflation and bequeathed it to three succeeding presidents, with aftershocks (for instance, the savings and loan crisis) that lasted into the George H. W. Bush years. It was Nixon whose fiscal policies—cutting defense unsustainably while expanding entitlement programs—caused the deficit crisis that would torment every president through Clinton. Watergate and the administration’s mendacious handling of Vietnam undermined confidence in government for a generation. Nixon’s mistakes—and there were others—were gifts that kept on giving.
As for the current president, Buckley isn’t quite right. Bush will leave a legacy, in the form of four headaches.
The fiscal mess. Bush’s tax cuts and spending increases turned a $236 billion federal surplus in fiscal 2000 into a deficit of more than $400 billion four years later, an astonishing reversal. That the current year’s deficit may come in at something like $300 billion is little cause for comfort; with Baby Boomers due to retire and an expensive Medicare drug benefit kicking in, the country’s fiscal position is weak.
The Iraq mess. The invasion was a gamble; the failure to scrub the prewar intelligence and properly manage the postwar occupation were mistakes. The gamble might still pay off, but the mistakes have astronomically raised the gamble’s cost in lives, money, prestige, and U.S. strategic focus and position (Iran has been the invasion’s signal beneficiary).
International opprobrium. The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America’s image abroad, and Bush’s pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where “many otherwise quite moderate countries” are inclined to oppose anything we favor.