George W. Bush and Democracy

January 19, 2009

As last-minute preparations are made for inaugurating a new U.S. president tomorrow, analysts are closing the book on the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.  The Economist and today’s Financial Times each have rather critical retrospectives.  The 43rd president is faulted for being overly partisan and ideological, over-simplistic, deciding by impulse (or on perceived principle as Bush maintained) and without regard to detailed facts, and a willingness to trade off long-term benefits for short-term gains.  He is accused of overstretching the constitution, “dismantling” vital checks and balances, and picking advisors based on loyalty and “ideological zeal” rather than technical credentials and basic competence.  The FT concludes that Bush “did enormous damage to America’s standing in the world and its strength at home” but opines that the process does not have to be irreversible.  Both papers note that the president’s ratings eroded from a very high standing after the 9-11 attacks to among the lowest for any president at any time in their presidencies.

Economic data are not quite complete for the whole Bush era, and of course revisions will continue to be made for years to come.  Real GDP growth through 3Q08 averaged 2.2% per annum but is likely to drop to 2.0% per annum, about 40% weaker than the long-term trend, once the final quarter of last year’s numbers get released.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high of 14,165 in October 2007 but has fallen by 3.0% per annum on balance compared to its level when Bush took office eight years ago tomorrow.  Over those eight years, the dollar dropped on average by 4.3% per annum against the euro and by 3.1% per annum versus the yen, even as officials gave periodic lip service to the view that dollar strength is important for the U.S. well-being.  U.S. consumer prices increased 2.4% per annum through December, a respectable pace matched against previous presidencies.  Among all the criticisms heaped on the outgoing government, the current Great Recession is one for which the pundits have partly excused it.  The imbalances that led to this crisis preceded Bush in some instances and were fanned by many other people, including and especially Alan Greenspan.  Those readers wishing to learn more about the economic track record of previous presidencies should click here.

One issue not addressed in the variety of Bush Administration recaps is that his was a full two-term presidency.  He received a passing grade in his mid-term report card, taking 31 of 50 states in the 2004 election.  The most infamous mistakes, diverting the war on terror to Iraq, committing too few troops to that conflict, and misjudging post-war management of Iraq had been made by then.  If America’s choice of a new party with a new generation and style of leadership in 2008 is to be identified as proof that democracy is the best system of government, what meaning should historians attach to 2004?  Clearly, the system is not perfect, and even its defenders do not make that claim. 

Democracy itself has no single blueprint.  U.S. democracy which saw Republican presidential power and Democratic presidential power for 20 years apiece between 1961 and 2000 is clearly not the same entity as Japanese democracy which has seen the Liberal Democratic Party hold continuous power since 1955 for all except ten months.  Even within the United States, the dynamic of voter sovereignty can be expected to produce fundamentally different results in the era of television, the Internet, and state primaries that select party standard-bearers.  If America has a mission to promote the spread of democracy to the world, it is very important to understand when democracy works best and when it is prone to misfire, because democracy is not a homogeneous commodity.  That process ought to begin in the United States itself.  For one example, historians might consider why presidencies so often flounder in the second term?  If democracy even in the United States behaves very differently when circumstances are modified, it seems presumptuous to believe in an absolute that democracy will be the best-suited system of government for all countries and all times, regardless of past history and the existing culture and education of the people. 



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