With George W. Bush’s presidential library opening, conservatives are finally able to come out of the closet and admit they love the guy and think he was a good president rather than continuing with this embarassing five-year farce of pretending they don’t even remember who he was. Since I’m a fan of positivity, I thought I would chime in with my take on the positive aspects of the Bush presidency that often get overlooked:
— The good Bush begins with the oft-derided No Child Left Behind Act that passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities near the beginning of Bush’s presidency. The bill pumped more federal money into K-12 schools while sensibly requiring them to do more to measure student learning. A particularly crucial aspect of NCLB that’s often driven backlash is that it requires demographic breakouts. Since socioeconomic factors are a major driver of educational outcomes, crude estimates of school performance tend to be dominated by compositional affects. In Texas, for example, poor kids do better than the national average for poor kids (and Latinos do better than the average for Latinos, African-Americans do better than the average for African-Americans) but the relatively small share of middle-class white kids in Texas public schools pushes their NAEP scores well below the national average. Education policy and the appropriate use of standardized tests remains controversial, but I’m confident we won’t go back to the pre-Bush standard.
— There’s also the matter of the 2003 Medicare Reform. Democrats lambasted this bill to provide prescription drug coverage to elderly Americans on the grounds that it was too generous to pharmaceutical companies and not generous enough to seniors. Be that as it may, it represented a huge advance over the status quo and arguably the largest expansion of the U.S. welfare state between Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama.
— The Bush administration’s Housing First approach to homelessness seems to have been a big success and is now broadly supported.
— In the international realm one might say the same about PEPFAR.
— Back in 2008, the partnership between Nancy Pelosi and the Bush administration delivered a number of important macroeconomic stabilization measures. That includes TARP but also the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 that paved the way for the federal bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Last but by no means least there was a Bush-Pelosi stimulus that consisted of direct cash payments. This has become an ideological orphan, but my view is that if we ever get macroeconomic stabilization right it’ll be through a path that looks more like the Bush approach to stimulus than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
— Bush also had some worthy failures, like the 2007 Immigration Reform effort and his eventually overriden veto of the 2008 Farm Bill.
Does this outweigh exceptional poor macroeconomic performance and well-known national security policy failures? Probably not. But American politics is a big and complicated place, nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, and a lot of things look different once the partisan fights of the moment are over and done with.