BY MATT HUTCHINS
George W. Bush entered office eight years ago as an unpopular President who many perceived as having stolen the electoral victory. During his tenure, the nation experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history, embarked on its most costly military campaign since Vietnam, suffered its worst natural disaster in a century, witnessed the highest oil prices ever, and was left spiraling into the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression. Now that the 43rd President of the United States has left office, the events which unfolded under his watch will begin to be scrutinized by investigators and academics who seek to unravel the relationships between the President’s actions and the consequences that followed. In some instances where unfavorable consequences followed his actions, George W. Bush will be found to have acted to the best of his ability upon imperfect information and after serious deliberation, in full awareness of the uncertainties and time constraints he was facing. Such decisions will be defended as procedurally and ethically sound. There are some aspects of George W. Bush’s policy making and executive decision making, however, that upon scrutiny will be conspicuous in their absence of careful consideration by the President, including many difficult questions which he left to be answered by his subordinates. In these instances, history will find that the President shrugged.
During the first months of his term in office, the President was warned that an attack on America could be made by terrorists using jetliners as weapons. In contrast to the Bush Doctrine the administration developed later, no preemptive action was taken, and instead the intelligence services were left to handle the problem. In retrospect, this may be one of the most critical instances of inaction in our nation’s history, as the consequences which followed unleashed a vengeful nation which sought to assert that no one could mess with the U.S. of A. without paying the price. As Bush moved swiftly into action in Afghanistan, it seemed that nothing could stop his victory over the offensive terrorist scum that had attacked our people. When plans were unfolded to invade Iraq, many cautioned that there would be no way to exit from such a conflict. Here, the nation was dealt another historic shrug, as our Commander-In-Chief ordered the go-ahead with full faith that the righteous might of the American military would be enough to guarantee a receptive and docile populace who would gladly help build a new democratic state. The details of exit strategy were left to the generals to handle, and our nation blindly charged forward to open a Pandora’s Box of vicious local ethnic conflict and the overwhelming challenges of state building. More than five years later, there remains no clear strategy for the permanent extrication of our forces from Iraq, and the terrorist fighters in Afghanistan remain hidden in the mountains.
On the domestic front, the nation was shocked during Bush’s first term by the massive accounting frauds which were revealed at Enron and Worldcom. Investors lost billions of dollars at the hands of corporate executives who attempted to cover huge losses through deceptive accounting practices. The Bush-Cheney White House had close personal ties to the head of Enron, Kenneth Lay, and in the wake of the radioactive scandal, both men scrambled to avoid being directly associated with the fraud. Once the dust had settled, neither Bush nor Cheney saw a pressing need to push for greater corporate accountability and transparency. They simply shrugged off the incident as a crime of greed and a problem to be left to the free market. With the recent revelation of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion fraud, it is clear that the lax attitude of our government toward securities regulation has left the entire nation exposed to unknowable risks due to opaque accounting and inadequate financial reporting requirements.
Indeed, President George has been anything but curious when it comes to the role of the White House as a check against the excesses of the free market system. The addiction of housing markets to easy credit and the U.S. banking system’s dependence on high degrees of leverage was a suicidal cycle that top economists should have been able to predict, and yet even after the implosion of Bear Stearns, a sure sign that the core of the financial system was infected with toxic mortgage-backed securities, there was no clear national strategy enunciated to investigate the spreading fallout of the housing bubble. President Bush turned to his favorite panacea: tax cuts. For further action, he shrugged and pointed to the nation’s top bankers, Paulson and Bernanke. As the financial crisis accelerated, Bush, who had delegated all responsibility for developing a solution to the problem, was reduced to a rubber-stamp lame duck, signing off on whatever drastic interventions his experts proposed to prevent the implosion of capitalism.The challenges which faced our 43rd President were monumental, but such is the nature of being this great nation’s leader. There were desperate times during the Bush Presidency when the nation and the world looked to him for guidance and could only hope he could chart out a course which would unite the people and confront danger boldly.
History will show that when all eyes were upon him and the power to move the world rested in his hands, George W. Bush often delegated responsibility to someone else and dodged the tough questions with empty obfuscation and ideological rhetoric. Although it is certainly true that one man cannot carry a nation, let us hope that President Barack H. Obama will bear the full weight of his office no matter what challenges the nation will face and embark upon the “era of responsibility” he announced in his inaugural address by first accepting the great responsibility of the Presidency.
Matthew W. Hutchins is a 2L and Publisher of the Harvard Law Record.