In this article I will try to decipher how George W Bush will be ranked by historians in the future. It has been over twelve years since he left the White House and a little over three years since the last major rankings by historians have come out. The question here is how will Bush rank twenty years from now? Even closer, how will he do in the next round of polls that are due to come out within the next year or two? One can expect CSPAN and the Siena Institute put out new presidential polls, as they have done so early in the last several presidents terms.
The best place to start when predicting Bush’s future rankings would be to look back at how he has ranked thus far. Bush has been ranked in ten presidential polls, and his rankings are as follows:
|Wall Street Journal 2005||19th|
|The Times of London 2008||34th|
|United States Presidency Center 2011||31st|
|American Political Science Association 2015||35th|
|American Political Science Association 2018||30th|
Looking at the above rankings one could surmise that Bush doesn’t stand much chance of gaining a respectable ranking, but other presidents have risen from being low in the rankings. Dwight Eisenhower initially ranked in the bottom ten in the 1962 Schlesinger poll, and he followed that up with a 19th place ranking in the 1968 Maranell Poll and a 20th place finish in the 1970 Dodder poll, both of which ranked 33 presidents. Ronald Reagan was ranked poorly upon leaving office as well, Finishing 20th & 22nd in the 1990 and 1994 Siena polls as well as 25th in the 1996 Schlesinger poll and 26th in the 1997 Ridings-McIver poll. Both Eisenhower and Reagan have risen to the top ten in recent polls however. This doesn’t guarantee that Bush will move up in the rankings, as Richard Nixon has languished near the bottom of the rankings, only barely escaping the bottom ten in the last two decades. Bush’s rankings in the last three polls are higher than they were when those polls were previously taken. In the Siena rankings he went from 39th to 33rd. In the CSPAN rankings he went from 36th to 33rd and in the APSA rankings he went from 35th to 30th. That’s an increase of 4.7 positions in a relatively short timeframe.
Another factor that seems to be prevalent throughout presidential rankings is that Presidents that served longer tend to rank more highly. Across the last three polls, the average ranking of presidents by length of service is as follows:
- Eight plus years is 13.1
- More than four years, but less than eight years is 14.5
- Exactly four years is 27.6
- Less than four years 32.9
Certainly Bush’s two full terms in office could benefit him in future ranking. As things sit right now he is the lowest ranked president to serve two full term, with an average ranking of 32.0 across the last three polls. The next closest ranking two termer is Grover Cleveland, with a 23.3 average ranking. Cleveland’s thin record, which consisted mainly of denying disabled veterans pensions and withholding aid from drought victims, certainly doesn’t stack up very well in comparison.
Presidents during major foreign wars tend to have high rankings as well. Ten of the twelve wartime presidents rank in the top twenty in presidential polls, and this doesn’t include John Kennedy (11.33) for sending the first combat troops to Vietnam or Barack Obama (12.33) for his continuation of the war on terror. The average rankings of wartime across the last three major polls of wartime presidents is as follows:
- Abraham Lincoln 1.67
- Franklin Roosevelt 2.67
- Thomas Jefferson 5.67
- Harry Truman 7.00
- Woodrow Wilson 11.00
- Lyndon Johnson 12.00
- James Madison 12.00
- James Polk 15.33
- William McKinley 18.33
- George H. W. Bush 19.33
- Richard Nixon 30.33
- George W Bush 32.00
The good news for Bush is that Wartime presidents tend to rank highly, the bad news is that historians tend to rank Democratic war presidents above Republican ones, even in cases where the Republicans were more successful war leaders. Two of the more expertly ran wars were the Spanish-American war, under William McKinley and the first Gulf War on George H. W. Bush, yet they rank towards the bottom of the wartime presidents. Lyndon Johnson, who led a total debacle in Vietnam, ranks quite respectably as the 6th highest wartime president.
Now let us look at factors beyond length of service and being a wartime president and how one could expect them to be viewed by future historians.
Bush’s reaction after the 9/11 attacks
Bush was calm and in control after the attacks, being careful not to add to the panic. The speech he gave at ground zero was reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt‘s “Day of infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor. Bush’s “War on Terror” reframed the national purpose in the way that Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” did. Bush’s leadership in the months after 9/11 should certainly boost his rankings, as it would be hard for someone to honestly argue that greatness wasn’t on display.
Creation of the department of Homeland security
Not only do historians love it when presidents create new departments and reorganize the government, the Department of Homeland Security was largely successful in it’s purpose: stopping terror attacks before they happened. The United States didn’t suffer another major terrorist attack during the rest of Bush’s term.
Domestic Policy initiatives
Bush had two major domestic policy initiatives that one would expect historians to view in a positive light. The first was the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs under the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. Considering that almost every private healthcare insurance policy already covered prescriptions, it made sense to extend prescription coverage to senior citizens. The Medicare Part D plan that Bush passed is the type of major legislation that most historians champion, so it makes little sense that Bush garners little credit for its creation.
The next major piece of legislation was No Child Left Behind, which required states to set performance standards to ensure that children were being properly educated and not just passed through the system. Bush also increased education funding by over 80% after adjusting for inflation during his term to pay for implementation of the act. It only makes sense that if the government is going to spend large amounts of money on education that it would ensure that the money is being spent wisely.
The Global AIDS initiative
In his 2003 State of the Union address Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was created to address the global AIDS epidemic. Launched in in 2003, PEPFAR has provided more than $80 billion in cumulative funding for HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention, and research since its inception. PEPFAR was initially targeted in African countries with high rates of infection. The AIDS epidemic has been stabilized in Southern and East Africa, where life expectancy has been rising, reversing a trend where it had been dropping in the 1980s and 1990s.
Looking at everything together, I believe that Bush’s rankings will continue to improve in the future. His domestic policy programs should serve to bolster his ratings, as should the PEPFAR initiative. Few would argue that the Afghanistan War was the wrong war, but some will argue against the Iraq War. Whereas it is true that Iraq didn’t aid Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein did support international terrorism, and the Iraq War was saw as part of the larger War on Terrorism. One could certainly argue that the Iraq War was far more justified than Korea, Vietnam or World War I. The only other thing Bush really has going against him is that Democrats tend to rate higher than Republicans, but that can be overcome, as evidenced by Eisenhower and Reagan. Bush will likely be boosted by the Presidency of Donald Trump, as historians have a new man to focus their anger against. So where do I expect Historians to eventually rate Bush? My best guess would be somewhere between 12th and 18th. As far as the upcoming rankings that are just around the corner? Probably somewhere between 25th and 30th.