Asking what George W. Bush’s legacy to the American people merits an almost intuitive response from any logical person: “It was a complete failure,” they’ll argue. “The worst presidency in modern history.”
They are almost certainly right. But most resentment toward the Bush presidency — particularly among college students — is limited to worn platitudes about the war in Iraq and a juvenile placing of the blame for the large-scale economic downturn on the shoulders of one stupid and only marginally significant economic force out of many. And while such broad generalizations are accurate insofar as they do not draw criticism, opponents of our soon-to-be former president owe it to themselves to probe deeper, lest they engage in the same generic intolerance of foreign ideas that characterized the man they so despise.
Yes, Bush will be regarded as an economic and foreign policy failure. To most literate people above the age of 14, this is an easy conclusion to draw. What will be fascinating to sincere critics of Bush’s presidency is the manner in which he drastically expanded the power of his office, above and beyond what any president in recent history has sought to do. With the use of presidential signing statements, Bush gave himself the luxury of being able to negate any objectionable element in a bill after having signed it — and quietly at that. Despite his pledge to uphold the principle of strict constructionism with regards to the judiciary, Bush has trampled the constitution irrevocably for the perceived good of the nation and illusory constituencies that all but dissolved in the most recent election.
All of this would not be so bad on its own. Really. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and especially Woodrow Wilson — arguably the worst president in every conceivable way — all ignored basic principles of federal law, and yet a general respect for each has remained fairly strong in this country, if only by virtue of middle school courses on American government. What is troubling is the fact that future administrations will see increased presidential control as the only method of remedying the missteps of their predecessors. This is already evident in the Obama administration. Quick action from the new Congress is being demanded on the massive new stimulus package being pushed through by the president, but a sincerely bipartisan piece of legislation with any opportunity to remedy the countries economic woes take time. And it would be a surprise if the new president — a former professor of constitutional law himself — has any scruples over using similar tactics to push his broadly supported agenda.
What all of this means is presidents in this country will have an ever increasing amount of power to push their hackneyed version of the public good on the American people with very little oversight. Oh, don’t worry. Obama is to politics what Starbucks is to coffee. He’ll do what he must to look good. His expanded power will be used in a way that most Americans will approve of. But the mere presence of such unchecked power should be enough to worry most Americans. Bush II’s greatest legacy may not be what he himself did, but rather what he paved the way for others to do after him.