By Steven Thomma
WASHINGTON — Is George W. Bush about to start a political comeback?
Written off as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history when he left office, the 63-year-old Bush has been keeping a low profile, fading from view as the country turned its attention to his successor, President Barack Obama.
Now, some events might be turning in Bush’s favor just as he and his family emerge to tell their side of the story, first with the release last week of Laura Bush’s memoir, “Spoken From the Heart,” then in November with the release of his book, “Decision Points.”
“The rehab’s well under way,” said Mark McKinnon, a Bush confidant who still bikes with the former president in Texas.
“His loyalists have always believed that history would be much kinder to the president than public opinion was during his term. We also believe that leaders who make tough decisions are rarely popular when they’re president, but that history puts things into context.”
Most notably, the war in Iraq may not turn out to be the political albatross it was while he was in office.
While problems persist there — and the weapons of mass destruction that Bush cited in ordering the invasion never were found — democracy does appear to be taking hold, the U.S. is on track to withdraw combat troops by August, and even Democratic Vice President Joe Biden now calls the war in Iraq a success.
“I am very optimistic about Iraq,” Biden said recently. “You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”
At the same time, Obama already has overrun and overshadowed the soaring budget deficits and record debt that Bush ran up while he was cutting taxes, launching two wars and expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Gross federal debt in fiscal 2001, Bush’s first year as president, was $5.7 trillion; it was $9.9 trillion in fiscal 2008, his last full year. Obama’s budget projects that the gross federal debt will be $16.3 trillion at the end of fiscal 2012, the last full year of his first term.
Still, Americans blame Bush more than they do Obama, by about 3-1, for the weak economy and the deficits, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said his party would campaign against Bush this fall even though the former president wasn’t on the ballot, blaming him for the recession that started on his watch — rather than the Democrats who controlled Congress starting in 2007 — because “presidential leadership sets the tone.”
Republicans see it differently. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, thinks that the Bush comeback is under way.
“President Bush’s reputation is getting better by the day,” Cornyn said. “Bush’s reputation will do nothing but improve over time.”
Perhaps, but it’s also true that Bush’s standing had almost nowhere to go but up. He left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in American history, and they’ve changed little since.
A CBS-New York Times poll in April, for example, found that 27 percent of Americans had favorable opinions of Bush and 58 percent had unfavorable opinions. That was essentially unchanged since the week he left office.
A CNN poll found him gaining 10 percentage points in his first year out of office; a Fox News poll found him losing 11 points.
Besides watching events unfold, a former president such as Bush can influence his post-White House standing by how he acts and how well he makes his case.
Bush insiders say that his refusal to join in the Obama-bashing that’s prevalent in his party probably endears him to many Americans, particularly when compared to that from former Vice President Dick Cheney. “By contrast, it makes President Bush look good,” McKinnon said.
His book could help him, too, if it’s well written and well argued. Richard Nixon spent years writing on foreign policy to bolster that part of his legacy. Jimmy Carter helped his cause with extensive humanitarian work.
Ultimately, even the hint of a rebound for the 43rd president is a reminder that the first verdict might have been premature.
Surveyed in April 2008, while he was still in office, 61 percent of historians said that Bush was the worst president in U.S. history, according to the History News Network at George Mason University in Virginia.
Yet historians also say that it can be decades before they can analyze a president’s impact objectively — time for policies to take hold, for details of internal debates to become known, and for partisans on both sides to leave the stage.
“You can’t begin to really assess a presidency with any sort of objectivity until they’ve been out of office for years,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “It will be 30 years before we can accurately assess the Bush presidency.”
“We aren’t going to have a really good perspective for a while,” said Bert Rockman, a presidential historian at Purdue University in Indiana. “I don’t think his presidency will be regarded as top drawer — it may well be well below the median — but it may not be at the bottom any longer.”