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American President Essays: George W. Bush

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George W. Bush: Life in Brief

George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, led the country during a time of great challenge and change. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the global war on terror, the war in Iraq, and the economic downtown of 2008 are just some of the major events that Bush had to contend with during his time in office. At different times, President Bush was both the most popular president and one of the least popular presidents in American history, and his administration sparked both passionate defenders and vehement critics. His presidency will continue to be studied and debated for years to come. 

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he became only the second President of the United States whose father had also been president. George H.W. Bush served in office from 1989 to 1993, and John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both presidents in the early 1800s. George W. Bush was also one of the few Presidents to win office despite losing the popular vote. (Interestingly John Quincy Adams also won the presidency without winning the popular vote.)

George W. Bush was born on July 6, 1946, the first child of George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush. The young Bush greatly admired his father and followed in his footsteps throughout much of his life—including serving as President of the United States. Bush was not an exceptional student but attended some of the premier educational establishments in the United States, including Phillips Academy Andover, Yale University, and Harvard University. 

Bush served as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, but remained in the United States and saw no combat. After a number of short-term jobs, Bush landed a position with an oil company in the 1970s and eventually established his own energy company before going on to be part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball club. He married Laura Welch in 1977, and they had twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, in 1981. As President, Bush was known for his evangelical Christian faith, but that faith, and the sobriety that accompanied it, did not come until he was in his forties. 

Bush made his first run for public office in 1978, but failed to win the congressional seat he sought. He did not run for political office again until his father had left the presidency. In 1993, Bush challenged the popular Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards. Focusing on education, juvenile justice, welfare, and tort reform, Bush’s victory stunned much of the nation. He won reelection for governor by a landslide in 1998, and that victory helped launch him into the 2000 race for the presidency. Bush defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona for the Republican nomination and then went on to win a controversial and disputed victory over Vice President Al Gore in November. Although Gore won the popular vote nationwide by more than 500,000 ballots, Bush tallied the constitutionally required 270 Electoral College votes by winning a few hundred more popular votes in Florida after a contested recount. The election spurred weeks of litigation, ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, making it one of the most controversial elections in American history.

George W. Bush launched his administration against one of the most polarized political landscapes in recent memory. The Republicans were eager to reclaim the White House after eight years of the contentious Clinton administration, and many Democrats did not consider Bush to be a legitimately elected President. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” philosophy defined his approach to domestic policy. It utilized traditional tenets of conservatism, such as small government and free market principles, to help people help themselves, and local groups such as churches to help those who could not help themselves. Among his initiatives, President Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to allow religious organizations to work with government to address social problems. Among his top priorities, Bush succeeded in getting Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 with bipartisan support. The law raised national education standards and allocated funding according to test results but was not without its controversy because of its reliance on testing and the weakening of local autonomy. 

Bush’s health care initiative, the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, established prescription drug benefits for seniors and created health savings accounts. It also sought to provide a more competitive market for Medicare services. Beginning in 2003, Bush began pursuing the partial privatization of the Social Security system, a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful initiative. 

President Bush’s economic policy reflected hands-off conservative supply side theory. One of his major domestic accomplishments in his first term was garnering congressional support for $1.35 trillion in tax cuts but only at the expense of making them temporary rather than permanent in the tax code. Although he inherited the beginnings of an economic slowdown, by 2007 the stock market topped 14,164, more than 6,000 points higher than it had been five years earlier, and unemployment fell to 4.7 percent. 

Government expenditures kept growing, however, as tax revenue declined, moving the government from a balanced budget to huge budget deficits. In the fall of 2008, and in the middle of the presidential campaign to replace President Bush, the economy imploded as the bubble of housing prices collapsed and financial institutions began to fail. The stock market crashed, prompting an economic situation that came to be known as “the Great Recession.”

The most transformative event of the Bush presidency occurred on September 11, 2001. Islamic terrorists from a group called al Qaeda succeeded in a coordinated attack using airliners as missiles, crashing into the Pentagon, collapsing the Twin Towers in New York City, downing a plane in Pennsylvania, and killing nearly 3,000 people. The events of that day moved Bush from a President concerned with “compassionate conservative” solutions at home to one focused intensely on threats from abroad. He also went from a President some considered illegitimately elected and unpopular to becoming, for a time, the most popular President in American history. After the attacks, Bush spoke for an angry and mourning nation, and he became a rallying point for the American people. As he recalled in his autobiography, Decision Points, “In a single morning, the purpose of my presidency had grown clear: to protect our people and defend our freedom that had come under attack.”  

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, on September 20, 2001, and laid out what became known as the Bush Doctrine: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” He went further, “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” In his remarks, Bush was indicating that war in Afghanistan was eminent as the terrorists of 9/11 were trained and harbored in that rugged Islamic nation.

On October 7, 2001, coordinated American military attacks began in Afghanistan against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime, which had supported al Qaeda. The Taliban was quickly driven from power, and members of al Qaeda fled into the mountains or across the borders to find refuge. What seemed like a quick and easy war against a Third World nation and terrorist group, however, would become the longest war in American history. The U.S. mission evolved from one of dismantling terrorist cells in the region to bolstering civil society and installing a new democratically elected government in Afghanistan. 

Once the Taliban was in retreat, Bush and his advisers returned to their long-standing concerns about the dangers of Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein. Vice President Dick Cheney summed up the administration’s case in a speech on August 26, 2002, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention. He declared, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” After the administration’s public education effort, Congress authorized the President to use force against Iraq if he found it necessary. 

On March 19, 2003, U.S. and British forces launched a series of strikes on government instillations and other targets in Iraq. A ground invasion followed soon after. Although the regime collapsed quickly and the United States won decisive victories on the battlefield, Iraq soon descended into sectarian violence with U.S. forces caught in the middle of a civil war for control of the country. Despite all the assurances from the Bush administration, based on intelligence from the world’s spy agencies, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. The war there became deeply unpopular with the American public as American casualties mounted, and there seemed to be no good solution on the horizon. As a result, President Bush’s popularity sagged. 

Although initially very popular, Bush’s actions in the “war on terror” became some of his most controversial acts as President. His administration established military tribunals for captured terrorists, approved a list of “enhanced-interrogation techniques,” and instituted the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) to scour domestic communications. Congress established a new Department of Homeland Security, passed the Patriot Act, and authorized war against all those who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks or who might plan future attacks. Vice President Cheney, along with so-called “neoconservatives” in the Bush administration, counseled a very aggressive approach to the post-9/11 world. Many opponents vehemently disagreed with the administration’s policies.

The Bush presidency began with conservative reform goals, such as lowering taxes, but became better known as the presidency that prosecuted America’s war on terror. The September 11, 2001, attacks changed the entire focus of the Bush administration. The long, hard wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost thousands of U.S. lives, billions of dollars, and damaged Bush’s popularity as President. He ended his time in office with low job approval, and with Republicans losing control of Congress in the 2006 elections and the White House in the 2008 election. 

George W. Bush: Life Before the Presidency

George W. Bush was the first child of George Herbert Walker Bush and the former Barbara Pierce. George H. W. Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and became notable as the youngest pilot to earn his wings in World War II. Prior to enlistment, George H. W. Bush fell in love with Barbara Pierce, after meeting her at a country club dance in 1941. They were engaged in 1943, and Bush was deployed shortly afterward as a Navy pilot in the Pacific; he chose to paint his beloved Barbara’s name on the side of his plane. The two married shortly after Bush returned from the war, and George Walker Bush was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut. The elder Bush attended Yale and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in just two-and-a-half years.

After graduation, the Bushes moved to Odessa, Texas, in 1948, and George H.W. Bush worked as an equipment clerk for an oil company. The young family rented a tiny apartment, which was so small that they had to share a bathroom with neighboring prostitutes. The family moved briefly to California, then returned in 1950 to Midland, Texas, which became George W. Bush’s childhood hometown. The young “Georgie,” as he was called, led the life of a typical suburban Baby Boomer that included playing baseball with the neighborhood children. 

In the spring of 1953, Bush’s three-year-old sister, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia. Seeking help, her parents took her to the state-of-the-art Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. Despite the doctors’ best efforts, however, Robin died shortly before her fourth birthday. Just seven years old, George W. was not made aware of his sister’s grave condition. Shortly after her death, his parents came to pick him up early from school. He ran to the car, blissfully unaware that Robin had died two days before. After Robin’s death, George W. became very close to his mother, and many think he inherited or learned to adopt her quick temper, sharp wit, and blunt opinions. The Bush family continued to grow with the birth of Jeb, who was seven years younger than George W., followed by Neil in 1955, Marvin in 1956, and Dorothy in 1959. 

Bush attended Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland and moved to Houston with his family in 1959, where he attended the private Kinkaid School. He spent his high school years at Phillips Academy Andover, in Andover, Massachusetts, which his father had also attended. It was a family tradition and a privilege to attend a school such as Andover, but it was not without drawbacks; life at the exclusive school was regimented, academically rigorous, cold, snowy, and devoid of female students. Bush learned to be self-sufficient but initially struggled in his studies. He received a zero on his first written assignment at the Academy, overutilizing Roget’s Thesaurus in order to boost his vocabulary. 

He was terrified of failing and embarrassing himself and his family. Lights-out was at 10 p.m., but Bush struggled to keep up with his studies and so kept working after curfew by utilizing the little bit of light that seeped under his door from the lights in the hallway. Although academic success came slowly for young George, he made friends easily. Academically, he developed what would become a life-long love for American history. When reflecting on his Andover years, Bush recognized that he received a first-rate education. In his first book, A Charge to Keep, Bush wrote that he learned to “bloom where he was planted” at Andover. He never again felt isolated; “I could make friends and make my way, no matter where I found myself in life.”

For Bush, there was little question of where he would attend college. He followed his grandfather’s and father’s paths by attending Yale University. As he was settling in as a freshman at Yale, his father decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate. George H.W. Bush garnered more votes than any Republican up to that point in Texas history, but he still fell short of victory. George W. Bush assisted with the campaign as much as possible, although he was in Connecticut, and he learned some of the basic lessons of grassroots politics during the experience. 

For Bush, Yale was a “work hard, play hard” experience. He majored in history, with a concentration in European and American studies. One course that was particularly memorable for Bush was on the Soviet Union, focusing especially on the struggle between tyranny and freedom. Outside the classroom, he was involved in fraternity life, joining Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) his freshman year, and during his senior year, he was among the fifteen yearly initiates of Yale’s preeminent secret society, Skull and Bones, into which his father and grandfather had also been inducted. He enjoyed athletics, but was unable to achieve much success as a pitcher for the junior varsity baseball team. He came to realize his talent was in rugby rather than baseball, and he made the varsity team in that sport. Bush was briefly engaged to Katherine Wolfman, but the two parted amicably.

Bush graduated from Yale in 1968, a year clouded by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Considering his father’s war record and his family’s values, military service was nearly unavoidable for Bush while the country was at war. He chose to serve in the National Guard, and, in the fall of 1968, he was stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia for his pilot training. His service in the Air National Guard became a point of contention for his political opponents because some accused him of benefiting from political favoritism by avoiding overseas service and combat and of not fulfilling his service obligations in full when he received permission to muster out before the end of his commitment. Moreover, it was argued, National Guard service itself was not an easy option to get for draft eligible men without privileged connections.

Bush continued his education by pursuing a Master in Business Administration (MBA) at Harvard University with the hopes of starting a career in business. After graduation, he headed back to Midland, Texas, where he had been told the oil business was booming. He received a job as a landman for an oil company, researching potential drilling sites and negotiating leases with the owners. After working as a landman for several years, he struck out on his own and founded Arbusto Energy in 1977. The company focused on low-risk but low-return wells, and it discovered a relatively profitable gas field that kept it afloat. The company was succeeded by Bush Exploration, which later merged with Spectrum 7 in 1984. From his experience in the oil business, where his father had also succeeded, Bush learned many valuable lessons. He wrote in A Charge to Keep: “I learned how to manage, how to set clear goals and work with people to achieve them. I learned the human side of capitalism. I felt responsible for my employees and tried to treat them fairly and well.” 

As his 30th birthday approached, Bush began to contemplate settling down. He still resided in a cluttered bachelor apartment, and was known for his love of beer and hard liquor. Both George W. Bush and Laura Welch had grown up in Midland, Texas. They even briefly attended the same school, but the two had never met. They were introduced to one another at a barbeque in July 1977, and the two hit it off immediately. Their first date was playing miniature golf the following evening. Laura, being much calmer and more naturally relaxed than George, balanced his energetic and outgoing personality. After only a few months, they became engaged and were married on November 5, 1977, in a modest ceremony. They honeymooned in Mexico and then spent the majority of their first year of marriage on the campaign trail for Bush’s first run for public office.

Laura and George both desired children but the couple experienced trouble conceiving. They explored adoption before the birth of their twin girls in November 1981. Being the granddaughters of the vice president of the United States, within hours of their birth a press conference was held to announce their arrival. They were named after their grandmothers, Barbara and Jenna.

Bush joined the Methodist Church shortly after his children were born. His spiritual journey would be slow but would gradually lead him to a strong faith. Bush had been baptized at Yale’s non-denominational Dwight Hall Chapel, and his parents had taken him to both Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in Texas but the experience never reached him very deeply. His views began to shift when his father invited the world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham to answer some questions with the collective Bush family assembled in the family vacation house in Kennebunkport, Maine. Graham spoke with Bush, who was moved by his message. He began reading the Bible more seriously and attending Wednesday night Bible studies. By the time he ran for President in 2000, his faith had solidified, and he spoke of it on the campaign trail, particularly when he named Jesus as his favorite philosopher during a presidential debate.

Bush’s behavior and actions in his younger days, particularly as they related to alcohol, raised some questions during his campaigns. He famously responded that he was “young and irresponsible” when he was “young and irresponsible.” His main concern, he said, was to protect his family and not have his daughters follow his mistakes. Just prior to election day in 2000, a bombshell exploded in the press when a story was released that Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving as a young adult. Most friends at the time did not see him as an alcoholic, but rather an occasional binge drinker. According to Bush, a turning point occurred on his 40th birthday, after a celebration at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. He awakened with a severe hangover and attempted his normal three-mile morning run, as he had done for the past fourteen years, but felt miserable. He wrote about his experience in his book, Decision Points: “My problem was not only drinking; it was selfishness. The booze was leading me to put myself ahead of others, especially my family... faith showed me a way out. I knew I could count on the grace of God to help me change. It would not be easy, but by the end of the run, I had made up my mind: I was done drinking.”

The Political Beginnings

On July 6, 1977, George W. Bush celebrated his 31st birthday without much of a resume to show for it. He had been a landman and a political aide but had held no position of distinction. Bush had never seriously considered politics as a profession, although he had worked full time on several campaigns. He considered, and decided against, running for the Texas state legislature after being discharged from the National Guard. Before flight training in 1968, he was a travelling aide to Congressman Edward Gurney’s Senate campaign in Florida and served as the political director to Red Blount’s Senate campaign in Alabama. In 1976, he volunteered on President Gerald Ford’s operation in west Texas for the Republican primary, but he was unable to garner any delegates for the President.

By the time of his 31st birthday, Bush received word that Representative George Mahon, Midland’s congressman for 43 years, was retiring. Most Republicans at the time began supporting Jim Reese, Mayor of Odessa, who had previously challenged Mahon. Bush decided to enter the race. He was the grandson of a senator, Prescott Bush, and his father was politically prominent on the national stage, but young George’s campaign message was that he wanted to go to Washington to stop the intrusion of the federal government into everyday lives.  

Doug Hannah, an old friend from Houston, recalls of Bush on the campaign trail: “He loved it and he was having a great time. My shock was that he was such a good speaker. I started to notice he sounded just like his father—if you closed your eyes, you heard his father.” His father had made the name “George Bush” well known in Texas and nationally, having served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Republican National Committee chairman, and in Congress. Many of his father’s friends also joined the campaign. It was during this period that Bush first became familiar with the brilliant political operative Karl Rove, who went on to become the architect of Bush’s two runs for the presidency. Bush won the primary, but lost in the general election. Losing his first political contest seasoned Bush, but he did not run for office again until after his father had left political office for the last time.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush mounted his own race for the presidency. George W. moved to Washington, D.C., to assist and help oversee the staff. Working closely with famous political operative Lee Atwater on campaign strategy, George W. became a sounding board for his father. Bush staunchly defended his father in speeches on the campaign trail where he thanked volunteers on his father’s behalf. The elder Bush earned the nomination and ultimately defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in the general election. George W. was not interested in becoming a part of his father’s administration, however, so he moved back to Texas to pursue business ventures.

In 1989, George W. Bush organized a group of investors and purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team. Owning the Rangers brought Bush publicity in Texas and valuable management and business experience. His efforts to build a new stadium gave him experience in public-private partnerships. He sold the team in 1998 for a $15-million profit. 

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush faced reelection in an unfavorable political environment, with a recession and controversy over a broken promise not to raise taxes. The younger Bush again assisted his father’s campaign, gathering more political experience and knowledge along the way. When Democrat Bill Clinton defeated his father, the loss freed George W. to begin considering his own political future. He believed that education and school funding plans in Texas were failing under Democratic Governor Ann Richards. Texas had also become a lawsuit capital, and Bush believed he could achieve tort reform, limiting the amount of money that could be awarded in civil cases, such as medical malpractice. He met with Karl Rove to discuss how to get involved, and they saw the opportunity to challenge Richards in 1993. After the failure of her “Robin Hood” education bill, taking from rich districts to give to poorer ones, Bush officially decided to run against Richards. His bid was a long shot, with even his own mother telling him that he could not win against the popular, charismatic incumbent.

With no Republican challengers, Bush was able to focus on the general election from the start, and he developed policy issues centered on education, juvenile justice, welfare policies, and tort reform. He disliked fundraising, but he enjoyed connecting with people at grassroots campaign events. His campaign hit a snag when he went on a publicized bird hunt and accidently shot an endangered Kildeer bird. He paid the fine both literally and politically but later made light of the event. His ability to laugh at himself proved popular with voters. Throughout the campaign, Governor Richards dismissed Bush as “some jerk,” and as “Shrub,” a play on his family name. Refusing to lose his temper, Bush reasoned that voters did not want politicians who could not maintain their professionalism. Shocking much of the political world, Bush defeated the famous incumbent handily, prompting The New York Times to label it a “stunning upset.” The victory proved particularly sweet for the Bush family because Richards had taunted H.W. for having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” at the 1988 Democratic presidential convention. A new Bush was now on the national political radar.

Before his inauguration, his mother handed Bush an envelope containing a letter of congratulations and approval from his father with his treasured cufflinks that he had received from his own father upon earning his Navy wings. On his first day as governor, Bush had the painting by W.H.D. Koerner, “A Charge to Keep,” featuring men on horseback navigating a hard trail, hung in his office as inspiration to him and his staff to keep their campaign promises. The title also reminded Bush of his favorite hymn by the same name, and he later borrowed the title for his 1999 campaign biography.

As governor, Bush worked across party lines to accomplish his goals. He met privately with Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a powerful Democrat, to ensure positive relations with the legislature. In Texas, the legislature meets only 140 days out of every two years, and Bush’s goal was to achieve his top four policy initiatives before the end of the first session. Bullock’s cooperation was crucial. Bush also took the initiative to reach across the aisle to meet with both parties’ leadership before the beginning of the session. Bush, Bullock, and Speaker of the House Pete Laney met weekly to develop strategy. Possessing an explosive temper, Bullock often became frustrated when action stalled. He shouted at Bush during one of their weekly meetings, but the governor diffused the situation with humor. Their bipartisan relationship was characterized by strong differences, but an overarching desire to get things done guided them. Bush earned Bullock’s admiration, and the lieutenant governor later endorsed Bush for reelection, predicting that he would become the next President. During Bush’s first term, welfare and juvenile justice reform were progressing steadily, but efforts at tort reform stalled. Bullock and Bush had strong differences on the limit for punitive damages. Eventually, they were able to compromise at $750,000.

Once tort reform was resolved, the focus shifted to education, the issue closest to Bush’s heart. His flagship accomplishment became the passage of legislation overhauling the education system of Texas, the most sweeping changes in half a century. The bill added elements of choice and competition to the school system, focused on new efforts to insure every child could read, and developed a comprehensive set of knowledge and skill requirements. His efforts in Texas garnered national attention and became a model for other states. Foretelling some of his agenda as President, Governor Bush also pushed through major tax reform, including tax cuts, and instituted programs to assist faith-based initiatives, providing social services through churches and other private institutions.

Bush ran for reelection as governor in 1998 on his record of fulfilling his previous campaign promises and began to share his vision nationally. Seeking to take the rhetorical edge off his politics, he branded his philosophy “compassionate conservatism,” which focused on using traditional conservative ideas, such as small government and free-market principles, to help society. Bush won reelection with a record 69 percent of the vote. His brother, Jeb Bush, was elected governor of Florida that same night, which made them the first pair of brothers to serve as governor at the same time since Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller in 1967.

With his success as governor of a large state, and with the Republican Party eager to reclaim the White House after two Clinton terms, party officials across the nation began discussing Bush as a possible presidential candidate. Bush considered his options, searching for something more inspirational than public opinion or Republican pressure. According to his campaign biography, a rousing sermon in which his minister emphasized the importance of making the most of every moment provided that inspiration he needed. After the sermon, he authorized Karl Rove, his top political adviser, to prepare for a run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

George W. Bush: Campaigns and Elections

Presidential Campaign of 2000

After Bush won reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 with a resounding victory, many national political figures urged him to run for the presidency. On the morning of his second inauguration as governor of Texas, Bush told his mother that he was still struggling with the decision. She was not sympathetic, suggesting that her son should simply decide. The church sermon that day described the calling of Moses by God to lead his people from Egypt. During the service, Bush’s mother leaned toward him and said, “He is talking to you.” The sermon concluded with a message about the opportunity that each individual has to find his calling. Bush felt a calm confidence that he was meant to run for President and authorized Karl Rove to begin preparing for a national campaign. 

National name recognition, family connections, and fundraising ability made Bush a strong presidential candidate. During the Iowa caucuses, however, his campaign hit some rough spots. When he was asked which political philosopher he most identified with, Bush replied, “Christ, because He changed my heart.” The answer caused consternation in the national press but seemed to play well in Iowa, especially among evangelical Christians, and Bush placed first in the caucuses.

In New Hampshire, the competition stiffened, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona. His candidacy appealed to many moderate and independent voters, which outnumbered Bush’s more conservative supporters in the Granite State. McCain, a political maverick, touted new ideas for reform, in contrast to Bush whom he portrayed as part of the establishment. McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire, forcing Bush to regroup, with his wife urging him never to allow someone else to define him again. Rather than blaming his staff, Bush took personal responsibility for the loss and told them that they would finish the race as a team. He was still confident in his candidacy.

The focus then turned to South Carolina where the Bush campaign chose a new theme, “Reformer with Results,” in order to counter McCain by bringing attention to Bush’s bipartisan accomplishments as governor of Texas. The campaign shifted to expanding grassroots efforts and holding more town hall meetings. Bush won the crucial southern state with 53 percent of the vote. The momentum gained in South Carolina, and his extensive grassroots efforts, carried him to victory in nine of thirteen primary states on Super Tuesday. Bush was able to ride this wave of support to the Republican nomination.  

As his primary victory became secure, Bush turned to the important task of finding a running mate. He sent his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to Dallas for a meeting with his father’s old friend and former secretary of defense, Dick Cheney. Allbaugh’s task was to determine if Cheney was interested in being a candidate for vice president, and, if not, whether he was willing to find a running mate for Bush. Cheney passed on the vice presidency but offered to lead a search committee. Bush later wrote that he was seeking “someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked, and most important, someone prepared to serve as President at any moment.”

By early summer, Bush had a list of finalists, but his sights were still set on Cheney. He decided to make another try for the elder statesman, who finally agreed to serve. Cheney brought little, if any, political benefit to the Bush campaign because Cheney’s home state of Wyoming only cast three Electoral College votes and consistently voted Republican anyway. Bush’s top campaign staffers, including Karl Rove, opposed the Cheney choice. Bush, however, saw the value of having a veteran Washington insider and experienced politician by his side.

The 2000 Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia, where Bush delivered a stirring speech that reflected his reasons for pursuing the presidency: “Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short to waste this moment. So tonight, we vow to our nation…we will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals. …This [Clinton-Gore] administration had its moment. They had their chance. They have not led. We will.” 

Two months after the convention, Bush entered his first debate with Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. Like Bush, Gore hailed from a family with a history of political involvement and had an Ivy League pedigree. In addition to his service as vice president during Clinton’s two terms, Gore, a former U.S. senator, was also an experienced debater. The high expectations for Gore helped Bush; as long as Bush did not commit any major mistakes, he would surpass the public’s expectations for him.

Moderated by PBS’s veteran anchorman Jim Lehrer, the first debate between Bush and Gore took place in Boston. Bush made a consistent effort to paint Gore as a Washington, D.C., insider who made big promises and showed few results; Gore attempted to portray Bush as a friend of the rich with little experience in governing, especially at the federal level. Neither candidate committed any major gaffes, and both hewed to their prepared scripts. Inexplicably, Gore audibly sighed at several of Bush’s responses. Violating the debate rules, the vice president frequently interrupted his opponent. Gore’s tactics seemed over-eager and unprofessional. The second and third debates went smoothly, without major gaffes from either candidate. Polls suggested that Bush benefitted more from the televised debates, showing that voters felt better about a Bush presidency than a Gore administration.

Governor Bush felt optimistic about his chances before adviser and confidant Karen Hughes approached him five days before the election with news that a reporter had discovered a drunk driving citation Bush had received years ago. Bush had considered disclosing the DUI earlier in his political career but decided against it because, as he claimed, he did not want his daughters to know about his irresponsible behavior. “Not disclosing the DUI on my terms may have been the single costliest political mistake I ever made,” Bush later wrote. Laura called their daughters to inform them of the announcement before they found out from television news. Bush issued a pithy statement: “I was pulled over. I admitted to the policeman that I had been drinking. I paid a fine. And I regret that it happened. But it did. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Bush worried that he might have cost himself the presidency. Karl Rove estimated that approximately three million people, especially evangelical Christians, stayed home or changed their vote following the disclosure. During the five days following the announcement, Bush lost the four-point lead he had held in the polls. He campaigned hard for the last week and entered election day with the race too close to call. 

On election night, the major news networks initially called the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida for Gore. Florida’s polls had not even closed, and Karl Rove adamantly maintained that the early call was flawed. At about 10 p.m., Eastern Time, CNN and CBS rescinded their early call of Florida, and at about 2:15 a.m., the networks revised their call of the race in Florida in favor of Bush. Shortly after the Florida switch, Gore phoned Bush to concede. Gore had about fifteen minutes to address his supporters before Bush would speak to the crowd waiting outside the state capitol in Austin, Texas. The allotted time passed without a concession speech from Gore. Bush’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, checked the networks to find that the margin in Florida was narrowing once again. Subsequently, Bush spoke with Gore again via phone, and in a terse conversation, Gore told Bush that he was retracting his concession as the numbers in Florida kept changing.

By 4:30 in the morning, the Bush campaign discovered that Gore had sent a team of lawyers to Florida to oversee a recount of the votes. Bush was advised to send an emissary as well and dispatched Washington powerhouse and former secretary of state, James Baker, a veteran of the Regan and Bush 41 administrations.

Pending the election results, Bush returned home to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he avoided television coverage of the recount process. He tried to relax, frequently taking long runs. After weeks of legal battles and recounts, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Gore’s plea for a selective recount. Bush then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On December 12, the high court ruled in Bush v. Gore. By a vote of 7-2, they found that Florida’s inconsistent recount process violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th amendment. By a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that there was no fair way to recount the votes in Florida in time for the state’s votes to be counted in the Electoral College. The election results would stand. By just a few hundred votes, Bush had won Florida and with it the presidency. He had wanted to share the victory in Austin with his 20,000 supporters waiting on election night, but, as he wrote, he “probably became the first person to learn he had won the presidency while lying in bed with his wife watching TV.” 

The national spectacle of the Florida recounts, with its disputed ballots, “hanging chads,” and determinative Supreme Court ruling, undermined Bush’s wish to start his presidency with a strongly united nation. While he won an Electoral College victory 271 to 266, Gore won 500,000 more popular votes from the American people than the victor. Many considered Bush’s election to be illegitimate, and the Congressional Black Caucus even protested during the official counting of the ballots on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was a less than auspicious start for any new presidency.

The Reelection Race of 2004

Four years later, Bush faced U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts. A decorated Vietnam War veteran who had seen combat as a swift boat captain, Kerry became a leader of the anti-war movement once he left the Navy. Bush focused on Kerry’s liberal voting record in the Senate, including a vote against an $87-billion bill to fund the war on terror. Bush chose to highlight this choice in his ads, leading Kerry to respond, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bush saw the opportunity to attack Kerry as a flip-flopper. Kerry, on the other hand, attacked Bush as an unqualified commander in chief, who tricked the American people into an ill-conceived and unpopular war in Iraq. He pledged to the Democratic National Convention and a national televised audience that he would “be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.” To drive the image home, he highlighted his wartime experience in Vietnam, saluting and declaring that he was “reporting for duty,” a line that garnered much popular criticism.

Bush experienced a Vietnam-era controversy of his own during the 2004 campaign when CBS reporter Dan Rather aired allegations that Bush did not fulfill his duties in the Texas Air National Guard, which later proved to be based on false reports and forged documents. Along with making a strong case against a John Kerry presidency, Bush focused his campaign on showing that he could continue to lead the nation on major issues. For his second term, he pledged “to modernize Social Security, reform the immigration system, and overhaul the tax code, while continuing No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiative, implementing Medicare reform, and above all, fighting the war on terror.”

The two candidates debated three times during the fall campaign. Kerry was aggressive, particularly in the first debate, which caught Bush by surprise. Networks showed split screen images of Bush reacting to Kerry’s charges in that first debate, and the President appeared arrogant and disdainful. Bush corrected his expressions in the next two debates, while Kerry committed a major gaffe on a question about homosexuality when he cited the fact that Vice President Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. Critics derided Kerry for gratuitously dragging the vice president’s family into the campaign.

Election day started with a shockwave through the campaigns and the media. According to exit polls, the President was doing poorly, even in strong Republican states such as Mississippi and South Carolina. Although they could not yet share their findings publicly, it was clear the media were bracing for a major upset. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, however, was convinced the methodology of the exit polls had to be wrong and, in the end, he was correct. The election would come down to the swing states of Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. Though they were close, the Bush team became convinced they had won all four and, with them, the presidency. At about four in the morning, however, rumors began circulating that Kerry and Edwards would file a lawsuit over the results in Ohio. Provisional ballots had not been counted in the state by the end of election night, leaving the results in some doubt. Consequently, Bush chose not to declare victory and again denied his supporters, gathered near the White House, a chance to celebrate. Bush sent Chief of Staff Andy Card to explain: “President Bush decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election. We are convinced that President Bush has won reelection with at least 286 electoral votes.” Kerry called the next morning to concede. 

In the end, Bush won 286 Electoral College votes to Kerry’s 251, along with 50.73 percent of the popular vote. Having lost the popular vote in 2000, this majority, bare though it was, added some popular legitimacy to the Bush presidency and gave him confidence he had could focus on his domestic policy goals. Bush declared that he had earned political capital from the campaign and now he intended to spend it. His hopes, however, were soon dashed.

The Iraq War grew more unpopular as the insurgency escalated and American causalities continued to mount. The government’s seemingly inept reaction to the decimation caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, further detracted from the President’s popularity. A series of scandals involving Republican politicians also undermined the party’s support. The 2006 midterm elections were a disaster for President Bush and his party as they lost control of both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships across the nation. Bush’s legislative agenda never recovered.

George W. Bush: Domestic Affairs

Despite George W. Bush’s best intentions, his administration encountered its share of challenges: the disputed 2000 presidential election, which initially undermined its political legitimacy; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which recast its focus and priorities; the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and finally the 2008 financial crisis at the end of Bush’s tenure. Few could have predicted the course of George W. Bush’s presidency based on his campaign or tenure as governor of Texas. Crises often intrude on presidential plans, and those historical moments all helped determine the shape and fate of the Bush presidency.

Bush did not take his governing decisions lightly, beginning to think of the structure of his White House more than a year before the actual presidential election. He picked a veteran vice president, Dick Cheney, to serve as a key senior adviser, and he surrounded himself with a senior staff that he trusted implicitly. Within the Bush team, Karl Rove worked on overall political strategy to ensure that the administration met its goals and was reelected in 2004, Karen Hughes oversaw how policy was communicated to the public, and Chief of Staff Andy Card facilitated decision-making and implementation by directing the rest of the staff. Bush wanted to create a flexible but tight and orderly structure from which he could obtain useful advice and through which his decisions could be effectively implemented. 

Although President Bush was not successful with all of his appointments, and some were politically controversial, his Cabinet was recognized for its overall competence, and it had a few historic standouts, including the first African American to serve as secretary of state (Colin Powell), the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice), and the first Asia Pacific woman to serve in a presidential cabinet (Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao). Bush also presided over the creation of a new Cabinet-level department when the Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Social Policy: Compassionate Conservatism in Practice

During the presidential campaign, Bush often used the term, “compassionate conservative,” to describe himself and his political approach. The term meant using traditional conservative ideas, such as small government and free-market principles, to accomplish social goods and help those in need. Bush had cited the phrase in his successful campaigns for Texas governor, and he employed the term on the presidential campaign trail as well.

Although “compassionate conservativism” was not a lasting tenet of his administration, one of Bush’s first actions in office reflected that philosophical approach. On January 29, 2001, with his first executive order, Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, based on the idea that local groups and non-profits could better serve people in need than the federal government in Washington. Bush believed that faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups could respond to people’s needs more effectively than government. Because federal money was given to faith-based charities, the move sparked much debate and controversy. Opponents charged that the approach violated the constitutional concept of church/state separation because it used federal tax dollars to fund the activities of religious organizations. Thousands of faith-based and community organizations received federal grants because of Bush’s new policy. 

Early in Bush’s first term, a firestorm arose over government funding for stem cell research. Medical researchers believed that stem cell lines, created from the destruction of human embryos, could be used to develop treatments for various diseases including Parkinson’s and diabetes. Congress had consistently passed the Dickey Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for research in which embryos were destroyed. The Clinton administration, however, adopted a novel interpretation of the law, which allowed the government to fund the research as long as the destruction of the embryos was privately funded. Bush faced the decision of whether to distribute the money appropriated by the National Institutes of Health during the Clinton administration. Bush saw both sides of the argument; while he worried about the slippery slope this type of research could create, especially its relation to abortion, which he opposed, he was also reminded of his sister’s death from leukemia and appreciated the possibilities of finding cures for such diseases. 

As he had with policy decisions related to abortion, Bush’s final decision was guided by his belief that life began at conception and was to be protected. Demonstrating his views of the issue’s political power, Bush announced his decision in a rare prime-time address to the nation from his Texas ranch, in August 2001. He stated that he would authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research but only for existing stem cell lines. The only cells that could be used for research, in other words, were those that had come from embryos that had already been destroyed prior to his decision. The public generally supported the decision, favoring the federal funding for stem cell research in embryos already destroyed. But many in the scientific community and in the Democratic Party staunchly opposed his limits on scientific research. The discussion of stem cell research continued for the rest of his administration, with Bush vetoing two bills intended to overturn his decision in 2006 and 2007.

Tax Cuts

During his campaign, Bush promised a major tax cut that he hoped would stimulate the economy. According to his economic advisers, such tax cuts would give people and businesses more money that they could reinvest, which, the President hoped, would cause economic growth and, over the long term, actually increase the taxable income of the American people. In February 2001, for instance, Bush spoke in favor of tax cuts as a way to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Opponents of such economic thinking argued that any tax windfalls for the wealthy would not be spent on reinvestment but on frivolous luxuries and risky speculative ventures.  

Bush proposed a tax plan that called for a $1.6 trillion reduction in taxes. It doubled the child tax credit, incentivized more retirement savings, and phased out federal estate taxes. All income brackets received a tax cut, including new rebates for taxes paid in 2001. Republicans in Congress moved quickly to support the bill.  Senate Democrats, however, forced a compromise that reduced the final tax cut to $1.35 trillion and made it impermanent, setting up the tax cuts to expire in 2011. Even this compromise was a major victory for the President and his economic vision.

The tax cut, however, was not accompanied by a reduction in government spending. As a result, 2001 was the last time the government had a surplus for the foreseeable future. Budget deficits soared as tax revenue declined but entitlements increased, discretionary spending grew, and the country began to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Using the political capital gained from Republican victories in the 2002 midterm elections, Bush pushed for a second round of tax cuts. He believed that this would further stimulate the economy. The bill proposed a reduction in capital gains taxes and allowed for up to $60,000 of tax-free savings annually. Democrats believed that these actions were not attempts to bolster the economy, but an attempt to eliminate taxes on investment income and force a reduction in the size of government. The package passed narrowly after Vice President Cheney broke the Senate deadlock. Federal taxes on dividends and capital gains reached their lowest level since World War II. Bush was able to pass another modest tax cut in 2006, but it was not nearly as expansive as he desired.  

Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts constituted one of the most important domestic actions of his presidency. They reduced federal revenue by an estimated $4 trillion over a period of ten years, worsened wealth inequality in the United States, and increased the federal deficit. Meanwhile, the economy grew sporadically. In October 2007, the stock market topped 14,164, up from approximately 8,000 in 2002. Unemployment declined from 6.3 percent in 2003 to 4.7 percent by 2007. Despite these signs of progress, the United States budget remained unbalanced, and a major economic catastrophe loomed in the final months of the Bush administration.

Education Reform: No Child Left Behind

Bush had successfully reformed the Texas education system with an emphasis on standards and testing. As President, he wanted to implement such initiatives across the nation. At the Republican National Convention in 2000, Bush proclaimed that the United States had engaged in the "the soft bigotry of low expectations" by expecting lower performances from minority and underprivileged children.

The No Child Left Behind Act expanded federal funding for education, allowed more freedom for localities to spend federal funds, set federal standards for school achievement, and encouraged more freedom of choice between private and public schools. The act also mandated that 100 percent of U.S. children must have basic reading and math skills by the 2013-2014 school year: literally, no child was to be left behind. Schools that failed to meet the standards were offered help. But if they continued to fail to make the established goals, they would be penalized.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the plan with bipartisan support, including leadership from liberal stalwart, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. President Bush signed the act into law on January 8, 2002. The program was controversial because of its high standards, reliance on testing, cost, and the weakening of local autonomy, a staple of the U.S. education system. By the time Bush had left office, fourth-grade reading and math scores and eighth-grade math scores had reached their highest levels in history. The program, however, remained contentious as parents and teachers complained about “teaching to the test” and administrators struggled to meet requirements and deal with the bureaucracy. Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a new education bill in 2015 during the administration of Barack Obama.

Medicare and Social Security Reforms

Bush worked tirelessly toward his vision of an “ownership society” of personal responsibility that he announced in his second Inaugural Address. He called for increased ownership of houses, businesses, retirement accounts, and health insurance. Bush’s health care initiative was designed, in part, to prevent a more robust federal plan from being enacted, something like to what was passed as the Affordable Care Act during Barack Obama’s presidency. Bush intended to create private “health savings accounts” to be used in combination with health insurance plans, which would have high deductibles and would thereby be more affordable. He wanted people to be able to make more decisions for themselves about their health plans while controlling some of the costs of health care. Health savings accounts highlighted Bush’s larger proposal to reform Medicare and the health care system. 

Bush argued that Medicare, the government program to provide health insurance for people over 65 years old or disabled, was outdated and heading toward bankruptcy. His ideas for reform included an option for prescription drug benefits that would only be delivered through private insurance plans. Senior citizens who desired the new benefit would have to purchase private insurance plans from private companies. Bush hoped that this proposal would increase competition and allow market forces to regulate the health care system. Under Bush’s plan, the government-run program would compete with private plans. On December 8, 2003, Bush signed the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 into law in the DAR’s Constitution Hall near the White House. The bill was viewed as a quasi-victory for Bush. It created new benefits and competition increased, but it was the largest expansion of Medicare benefits since the program’s creation in 1965, and more funds were spent on the program than the administration had anticipated.

Beginning in 2003 and focusing most seriously after the 2004 reelection, President Bush pursued the partial privatization of the Social Security system, which provides benefits to disabled, unemployed, and retired people. The popular program, a response to the Great Depression, began in a vastly different time when retirements (and lives) were shorter and there were more workers per retiree to pick up the tab. By the early 2000s, projections indicated that entitlements, including Social Security, would constitute 70 percent of the federal budget by 2030. Social Security’s revenue had fallen below its forecasted rate, due to an aging population that retired in its 60s but would live for decades longer than retirees did in the 1930s. Social Security expenses would soon exceed the amount being paid into the system, which would drive the system into debt and eventual bankruptcy. Many in Washington wanted to reform the system to make it sustainable for the long term, but what form those changes were to take was the subject of great disagreement.

Bush called for a fundamental reform that allowed younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes, which funded Social Security, into private savings accounts. Although Democrats were resistant, Bush believed that he could convince the American people through a “60 Stops in 60 Days” nationwide tour. Democrats vowed to block any discussion of Social Security reform until Bush removed private accounts from the table. Along with strong opposition, Bush’s proposal faced another problem; his plan’s fatal flaw was the conspicuous absence of how to maintain funding for those currently receiving Social Security benefits when the program’s funding was reduced as workers opted for private retirement accounts. Bush spent any political capital he had received from reelection on this losing cause. With no serious hope for passage, the administration dropped the proposal in 2005. Bush later wrote, “The collapse of Social Security reform is one of the greatest disappointments of my presidency.”

Supreme Court Appointments

Shortly following his election, Bush ordered his advisers to produce a list of potential candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court, stipulating that the list include women, minorities, and people with no previous judicial experience. Bush utilized this list when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notified him that she wanted to retire to take care of her ailing husband in the summer of 2005. Bush narrowed his list to five candidates including both future appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Roberts emerged from the short list, presenting Bush with a baseball analogy for the role of judges, which resonated with the former owner of the Texas Rangers. Bush wrote in his autobiography, Decision Points, that Roberts explained, “a good judge is like an umpire, and no umpire thinks he is the most important person on the field.” 

Three days before the confirmation hearing for Roberts in September 2005, however, the President received the news that Chief Justice William Rehnquist had died. Bush decided that Roberts would be the perfect fit for the now vacant position of chief justice and switched his appointment. The U.S. Senate confirmed Roberts by a wide majority, and the administration began searching for a suitable candidate to replace O’Connor.  

Bush believed that a woman should fill the position, and he nominated Harriet Miers, a Texas lawyer and friend who was currently serving as White House counsel and had participated in the Roberts search. The pick shocked the political world, and many of Bush’s own supporters waged a campaign against Miers who had no previous experience as a judge and was thought to be an unreliable conservative. The President was forced to withdraw her nomination and then chose Samuel Alito, who was confirmed after a contentious confirmation hearing. Robert’s replacement of Chief Justice Rehnquist did not have a measurable and immediate impact on policy, but Alito’s conservative vote replaced O’Connor’s more moderate voice and moved the Court’s rulings to the right.

Hurricane Katrina

On August 29, 2005, the nation’s costliest natural disaster struck in the form of a hurricane named Katrina that battered Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Before Katrina made landfall, the President put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on its highest level of alert. Relief supplies were readied, and the military made preparations for the emergency. These federal efforts were intended to support state and local officials in their relief efforts. Bush also signed an emergency declaration allowing Louisiana to use federal resources to pay for the state’s disaster-response preparations. Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a voluntary evacuation of New Orleans, but many residents of the city did not respond. Bush pushed for Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco to force Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation. By the time the evacuation came, it proved too late for many of the city’s residents, especially the poor, sick, and elderly.

As water from Lake Pontchartrain began pouring over New Orleans’ levees and flooding the historic city, eventually covering 80 percent of the city, tens of thousands of residents were stranded, especially in low-lying areas like the Lower Ninth Ward. People were stuck on roofs or carried away in the flood. Thousands gathered for shelter at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. It was later reported that conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated with leaking roofs, no air conditioning, and broken restrooms. Widespread looting and violence soon broke out in the streets. The city and the whole area were hampered by lack of electrical power, not enough rescue workers or supplies on the ground, and confused and overwhelmed relief efforts.

Bush and his administration were accused of negligence, incompetence, and even racism for the response to Katrina. Bush argued that when natural disasters occur, it was commonly accepted by law and precedent that state and local authorities lead the response, while the federal government supports their efforts. Local and state authorities in Louisiana were ill prepared and bickered over how to respond to the disaster. President Bush flew over the destruction, and photographs were released of him peering out the window of Air Force One. The images backfired as they made Bush seem detached and distant from the suffering. For many citizens, this image represented the failure of the federal response to Katrina and Bush’s lack of concern for the victims. 

The federal response to Katrina paled in comparison to the dramatic measures that Bush took to aid and comfort those in need following 9/11. Even fellow Republicans questioned his approach with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wondering how Bush’s leadership could have eroded so substantially. Bush was frustrated with the results of the relief efforts but did not take measures to improve them. He praised the coordinator of federal efforts, famously stating to Mike Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Despite the failures, Bush’s language seemed to indicate that he either did not care or did not understand what was happening. He later wrote, “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster…I made an additional mistake by failing to adequately communicate my concern for the victims of Katrina.” 

Local police were unable to control crime in the city. By August 31, about four thousand National Guard troops were in place. The Guard, under the command of the governor, was overwhelmed; Bush, realizing the problem, proposed the deployment of federal troops to assist. However, the concept of federal intervention was not popular in the Deep South, and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibited members of the U.S. military from conducting law enforcement within the United States. During his visit on September 2, President Bush unsuccessfully tried to convince Governor Blanco to consent to the use of federal troops, federalizing the relief efforts. A second plan was faxed to Blanco for approval the following day. She, once again, declined. Bush then decided to send in more than seven thousand troops to New Orleans, but without law enforcement powers. Bush later explained, “I decided that sending troops with diminished authority was better than not sending them at all.” 

By the time Bush returned to the Gulf Coast on September 5, order was returning to the area as people were evacuated, search-and-rescue operations were completed, and water was being pumped out of New Orleans. During the following months, President Bush worked with Congress to secure $126 billion in funding to rebuild the battered region. Long before that, however, the political damage had been done. The federal response to Hurricane Katrina was one of the most widely criticized events of Bush’s tenure, and his popularity dropped accordingly.

Financial Crisis of 2008

The U.S. economy began to decline in late 2007. Economic concerns drove the Federal Reserve to lower the Federal Funds Interest Rate, which it did seven times. The financial giant, Bear Stearns, headed towards failure, which led the federal government to guarantee $29 billion of their assets with government funds in hopes of avoiding the repercussions of its failure. In February 2008, President Bush responded to the economic slowdown with a $168 billion stimulus package, which was passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress and gave $130 million directly back to taxpayers. In September 2008, the financial giant, Lehman Brothers, declared bankruptcy. The stock market then collapsed with the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunging from a record high of 14,164 in October 2007 to 8,577 in October 2008; consumer spending fell, and the economy seemed to grind to a halt as hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs.  

The root of the problem was a bubble in the housing market, which made the sale of mortgages extremely profitable. Large deregulated banks bundled mortgages into supposedly low-risk collateralized debt obligations and sold them to investors and to other large institutions. These transactions proved extremely profitable because of inflated real estate prices and lax regulation. Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and his successor, Ben Bernanke, had taken a hands-off approach with the market, believing that it would regulate itself. Federalized loan agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lowered standards for mortgages due to pressure from Congress to increase home ownership among the poorer sectors of society. When lower-income borrowers began defaulting on their loans, the housing bubble finally burst; the number of repossessed houses doubled in a year’s time.

Banks were trapped; they possessed trillions of dollars in toxic assets. When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September 2008, it caused more panic in an already unstable market. Credit began to seize up, threatening a cataclysm, similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The federal government took over the mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to prevent the two companies from failing. Although Bush generally opposed too much government involvement in the economy, he was supportive of a strong government response to the economic crisis, and he worked with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to propose legislation. In October, President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which established the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). TARP authorized $700 billion of expenditures to stabilize banks, restart credit markets, support the U.S. auto industry, and help Americans avoid foreclosure on their homes. Along with the tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis caused the federal deficit to skyrocket. The Obama administration maintained and grew the stimulus efforts, but the recession continued to hobble the American economy well into the next presidential term.

George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs

The Bush administration’s responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, expanded presidential power in matters of national security. Bush transformed from being a President with questionable legitimacy, who had been selected in a controversial election, to taking on immense presidential emergency powers, defining the threat, and attacking the enemy. His administration justified its actions by citing Article II of the U.S. Constitution that outlines the powers of the President as commander in chief as well as legal authorizations passed by Congress. Following 9/11, Bush’s leadership became a rallying point for the nation. The American people were inclined to trust him because they believed in his ability to maintain their safety. In the weeks after the attack, Bush’s approval rating rose to 90 percent—the highest recorded job-approval rating in U.S. presidential history.  

September 11th Attacks

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, George W. Bush began his day like any other, by reading his Bible, then taking an early morning run. The biggest headline in the paper that morning read that basketball star, Michael Jordan, would be leaving retirement to rejoin the National Basketball Association (NBA). President Bush was in Florida that day to visit the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota to highlight education reform. As he entered the school, he received a report that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. At that point, it was believed to be an accident. While he was taking part in a reading lesson with the children, his chief of staff informed him, “A second plane hit the second tower…America is under attack.” Bush later wrote about his response: “I made the decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm…I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is to project calm.”  

On the way to Air Force One, President Bush spoke to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice who informed him that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, home to the Department of Defense, just outside Washington, D.C. Bush was evacuated to Air Force One from which he called Vice President Cheney to inform him that he would make decisions from the plane; Cheney would then implement his orders on the ground. All commercial flights were grounded shortly after the attacks. Bush’s first decision as a wartime commander in chief outlined the rules of engagement for unresponsive airliners near Washington, D.C., and New York City. He instructed Cheney to ensure any suspicious planes were first contacted and ordered to land. If this approach failed, President Bush ordered the planes to be shot down. 

Bush then faced another tough decision: where to land Air Force One. He wanted to reassure the nation by returning to Washington, but his Chief of Staff Andy Card and the Secret Service believed that the danger of being attacked was too high as they had strong evidence that more planes had been hijacked. Bush was adamantly opposed to appearing “on-the-run,” but realized that, as President, his safety was crucial. Air Force One was diverted to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for fuel. 

Communication was difficult on Air Force One; it relied on local signals for live updates of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. Communication with Cheney and Rice over the secure line to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center in the White House was intermittent. On the plane, President Bush often received contradictory or wrong information. Bush could not even contact his wife, who was in the Capitol, where she had been scheduled to testify before a Senate Committee that day. After finding out that a fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania, Bush asked Cheney, “Did we shoot it down, or did it crash?” No one knew the answer. Bush wondered if he had ordered the death of innocent Americans. Later, he learned about the heroics of the passengers aboard Flight 93 who had attempted to overtake the hijackers to prevent the plane from reaching its target, which may have been the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

The September 11th attacks were carefully coordinated; each of the hijacked planes that struck New York departed within an hour and forty minutes of each other and were traveling to California from Boston, which meant they would strike in quick succession with tanks full of explosive jet fuel. Only eighteen minutes after the first collision, the second airliner struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Airport security, which primarily consisted of poorly paid and barely trained employees of private contractors, had been easily evaded. Bush signed legislation in November 2001 that created the Transportation Security Administration, which federalized all airport security screeners, a drastic departure from his laissez-faire labor policies but a necessary response to ensure national security.

Bush contacted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and informed him that he considered the attacks an act of war and approved Rumsfeld’s decision to raise the military readiness level to DEFCON Three. He also told Rumsfeld that their first priority was to deal with the immediate crisis but then to mount a serious military response. From the Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Bush held a national security meeting via videoconference in which he stressed that the country was at war against terror. 

Bush returned to Washington, D.C., that evening to address the nation. He made his position clear, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” He closed with Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” Bush decided on three goals in the days that followed the attack: 1. Keep the terrorists from striking again; 2. Make it clear to the country and the world that the United States had embarked on a new kind of war; 3. Help the affected areas recover and make sure the terrorists did not succeed in shutting down the economy or dividing society.  

Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11. Bush set Friday, September 14, 2001, as a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. At a service held in Washington’s gothic National Cathedral, Bush eloquently comforted the crowd, “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.” He then flew to New York City to visit Ground Zero, the site of the collapsed World Trade Towers, praying and weeping with the families. Bush decided to address the crowd and climbed atop a pile of collapsed metal. He was given a bullhorn, and when people yelled, “We can’t hear you,” Bush memorably shouted back, “I can hear you!…The rest of the world hears you…and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”  The 9/11 attacks gave the Bush presidency a clear focus: to protect the American people at home and defeat terrorism abroad. The Bush administration’s response to the attacks combined military action overseas and strong defensive measures at home.


President Bush quickly formed a war cabinet on September 11, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Chief of Staff Andy Card, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The principal target of U.S. military intelligence following 9/11 was identifying and addressing the source of the attacks. The immediate efforts of George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), successfully identified al Qaeda, a militant Islamic terrorist organization, and its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban, an extremist Islamic regime that controlled Afghanistan, offered bin Laden sanctuary, and al Qaeda trained thousands of terrorists in camps located in that country. In return for protection, bin Laden utilized his extensive personal fortune to support the Taliban. The insurgent leader had been identified as a threat before the September 11th attacks. The CIA had developed an operation to quietly neutralize bin Laden prior 9/11, but it was never implemented as bin Laden had not been considered a threat to homeland security. 

Prior to September 11, the United States had funneled CIA funds to the anti-Taliban group, the Northern Alliance, to combat the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. After 9/11, the war cabinet quickly acted to target al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, but, by late September, the Bush administration had yet to determine the scope of the military response to 9/11. Some of his advisors argued for broad military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His cabinet was divided on the issue, even within itself: Colin Powell publicly opposed expansion to Iraq, but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld favored ousting Saddam Hussein as part of the reaction. Bush initially ruled out expanding the war to Iraq, but he expected to revisit the question once the situation in Afghanistan was under control.  

Bush believed that the threat of U.S. power had lost credibility with terrorists due to irresolute responses to attacks during the 1990s. Seemingly, terrorists felt that they had an open invitation to attack, only expecting minimum retaliation. In the words of Osama bin Laden, the Americans were “paper tigers” who could be made to “run in less than twenty-four hours.” President Bush decided to respond decisively with American troops in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against those responsible for the September 11 attacks, and Bush signed it on September 18, 2001. On October 7, the United States began air strikes against Taliban military installations and al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.  

General Tommy Franks’s war plan, which became known as “Operation Enduring Freedom,” consisted of four phases. The first phase connected the U.S. Special Forces with CIA teams to clear the way for conventional troops. Then the United States mounted a massive air campaign to take out al Qaeda and Taliban targets, and conducted humanitarian airdrops to deliver relief to the Afghan people. The third phase called for ground troops from both American and coalition partners to enter the country and work with Afghan forces to hunt down remaining Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Finally, the American troops would stabilize the country and help the Afghan people build a free society. 

By early November, Special Forces and the Northern Alliance had liberated Mazar-i-Sharif, a strategic city in northern Afghanistan; most of the major northern cities fell soon after, forcing the Taliban to retreat from Kabul into the mountains of the South and East. Hamid Karzai, leader of southern oppositions forces, joined with Marines to take Kandahar on December 7, 2001, forcing the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda members to flee to the eastern border. In early 2002, “Operation Anaconda” effectively drove out the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda combatants. By spring 2003, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al Qaeda mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was captured. Forces continued to focus on completely removing the Taliban and finding Osama bin Laden who had fled to Pakistan.

The Bush administration soon had to deal with the fact that rebuilding in Afghanistan would be a lengthy, complicated, and expensive process. By the summer of 2006, attacks throughout Afghanistan had drastically increased. The multilateral approach, dependent on international cooperation, had begun to fail. Bush decided to expand and improve U.S. involvement. He chose to take action in the fall of 2006, ordering a troop increase from about 20,000 to more than 30,000 over the next two years. The United States more than doubled funding for reconstruction, increased the size of the Afghan National Army, expanded intelligence efforts, and worked to reduce corruption in the new Afghan government.

After the majority of the insurgents had been driven from Afghanistan, the focus shifted to finishing off al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. Negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan were productive; he promised to hunt the terrorists within Pakistan’s borders, and the two governments agreed to exclude U.S. soldiers from operations within the country to avoid political tension. Despite Musharraf’s promises, political crisis and preparations for a potential war with India prevented a legitimate effort. Bush could not send ground troops into the nation, but the United States increased missile strikes and surveillance efforts by unmanned aerial vehicles against terrorists in the tribal regions.

The Bush Doctrine

Before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush declared a new approach to foreign policy in response to 9/11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush declared that the United States considered any nation that supported terrorist groups a hostile regime. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush called out an “Axis of Evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and he declared all a threat to American security. British and French allies did not receive Bush’s declaration enthusiastically because they believed Bush’s language to be overly aggressive.

These remarks later matured into the policies known as the Bush Doctrine, officially traceable to September 2002, when the White House released the National Security Strategy of the United States. The doctrine generally focused on three points. The first was preventive war in which the United States would strike an enemy nation or terrorist group before they had a chance to attack the United States. It focused on deterring any potential attacker. The second point was unilateral action in which the United States would act alone if necessary to defend itself either at home or abroad. The third point embraced spreading democracy and freedom around the world, focusing on concepts such as free markets, free trade, and individual liberty.

Reactions to the Bush Doctrine were mixed. Neoconservatives within and outside his administration strongly supported the idea of the United States acting on its own to ensure the country’s security and to protect the American people—preemptively, if necessary. Some opponents believed the doctrine was overly bellicose and its emphasis on preemptive war was unjust. Others believed the emphasis on spreading democracy around the world was naïve and unrealistic. As the situation in Iraq became increasingly unstable, the ideas behind the Bush Doctrine receded in prominence, even within the Bush administration.


As it turned out, Iraq was a war of choice rather than a war of necessity. The Bush administration had been considering how to address Iraq since the President’s first meeting of the National Security Council, months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In light of intelligence reports describing an Iraqi plant that could be used to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the administration considered Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq a dangerous threat. Bush and neoconservative members of his administration wanted to develop Iraq into a democratic country friendly to U.S. interests in the heart of the Middle East, and he was clear that if Hussein was developing WMDs, the United States would not stand idly by. 

Many members of the Bush administration who had been in office during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s considered Iraq unfinished business. In the Gulf War, the United States had successfully driven Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but stopped short of crossing into Iraq, leaving Saddam Hussein’s regime in power. Many senior policymakers had wanted to include Iraq in the immediate response to the attacks of 9/11 but President Bush decided to focus on Afghanistan. The administration temporarily put Iraq on the back burner while it turned its attention to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban was in retreat by November 2001, Bush and his advisers returned to their concerns for Iraq. Although Bush publicly denied that a specific invasion plan for Iraq was underway, he began receiving briefings from U.S. Central Command on a war plan. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met privately to discuss options. Blair preferred to wait for additional U.N. weapons inspections, but Bush wanted more immediate action to stymie the Iraqi dictator. President Bush had personally decided on the need to go to war, long before congressional or U.N. action. In March 2002, Bush sent Vice President Cheney to a conference of eleven countries in the Middle East to build support for a war. Blair and Secretary of State Powell wanted more international cover. They proposed the U.N. offer a disarmament proposition before military action would take place. If Iraq rejected the proposal, it would showcase its defiance of the international order, and the United States would have more political cover to respond.  

On September 7, 2002, during a war cabinet meeting held at Camp David, Bush allowed Vice President Cheney to debate Secretary of State Powell on the proper route forward. Cheney argued for a quicker move to war while Powell, the former U.S. Army General, counseled a slower approaching involving the United Nations. Professional military advisers also voiced concerns that achieving victory in Iraq would require a long, costly operation and that containment had been an effective policy so far. President Bush opted for further U.N. action with the knowledge that the United States would still likely pursue war with Iraq. Bush went on a public-opinion offensive, stressing that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction were a threat to U.S. security. In an August 2002 speech, Vice President Cheney made the Administration’s case quite clear: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

The CIA and National Security Council, however, did not necessarily concur. They believed that Iraq did, in fact, have WMDs, but that it did not necessarily have the capabilities to use them that Bush and Cheney believed. Furthermore, there was no evidence connecting Iraq with the attacks of 9/11. Bush continued to assert that the United States could not trust Saddam Hussein with WMDs and that they could easily be transferred to terrorists.

President Bush went to Congress with his case for the need to have the power to go to war if he found it necessary. A passionate debate ensued that ended with Congress passing a resolution authorizing the President to go to war with Iraq if he found it necessary. Bush spoke to the United Nations on the dangers of WMDs in the hands of a murderous dictator, making his case that it would be far riskier not to act, than to act. The United Nations approved a resolution for rigorous new arms inspections of Iraq, but without a positive response from Iraq. On March 17, 2003, Bush ordered Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours. In a speech to the nation, Bush noted: “Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it.” 

Characteristically, Hussein chose confrontation. On March 19, British and U.S. forces launched a bombing campaign of military and government offices in Baghdad. Ground troops invaded soon after, cleanly destroying the targets with relatively few American casualties. Iraq did not use any weapons of mass destruction against the invading force. It later was discovered that the regime had actually disposed of its WMD stockpile as requested, but had hid its actions from the world. It was a very costly bluff that would cost Saddam Hussein his country and his life, along with the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, too.

The Surge and Iraq Exit Plans

Although the United States and its allies quickly overthrew Saddam Hussein and defeated his forces, the situation in Iraq became increasingly unstable over time. Critics charged that the Bush administration did not have an adequate plan for Iraq after the initial war was won and Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. The Bush administration’s strategy had been to reduce the U.S. military presence as Iraq’s stability improved. Yet the goal proved unattainable, owing in part to the power vacuum left by the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the rise of sectarian violence within the two dominant strains of Islam in Iraq.

After the United States toppled the government, Iraq soon began to descend into chaos with increasing instability and violence from suicide attacks, car bombs, kidnappings, and beheadings. Sectarian violence racked the country as religious and ethnic sects battled for control. Insurgent forces targeted U.S. troops and supporters, as they sought to overthrow the new government. By the summer of 2006, an average of 120 Iraqis were dying each day from insurgent attacks. Al Qaeda saw an opportunity to exploit the instability in Iraq, and its recruits flooded into the country to train terrorists.

To counter the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the Bush administration developed a plan for a troop surge to increase the number of U.S. troops in order to stabilize Iraqi society and secure the civilian population. General David Petraeus was appointed to oversee a “surge”  of 20,000 troops in January 2007. American troops patrolled cities on foot with members of the Iraqi military to prepare them to step into a more independent role. The Democrat-controlled Congress vehemently disapproved of Bush’s actions and attempted to pass a war-funding bill mandating a troop withdrawal deadline later in 2007. Bush vetoed the bill, and, on May 25, 2007, he signed a bill fully funding the war with no set withdrawal date. American military deaths were at their highest average for the first several months of the surge, but there was a clear shift in the culture; counterinsurgency tips from Iraqi civilians doubled by May 2007 as U.S. troops created coalitions with Iraqis to increase stability. By the end of 2008, U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths had both declined by more than 60 percent.  

Agreements for Withdrawal and Iraqi Security

Bush emphasized a policy of “return on success”; essentially, the more successful the war effort, the more troops that could return home. The administration’s plan for withdrawal was to reduce the number of troops as the situation improved until the number deployed reached pre-surge levels; the United States would then reassess the situation. In 2008, the Bush administration entered into the Strategic Framework Agreement, which established a political, economic, and security relationship with the new government of Iraq; the agreement encouraged Iraqi sovereignty and created a normalized diplomatic relationship with it. Bush also signed the Status of Forces Agreement, defining the security relationship between the United States and Iraq as well as providing a plan for U.S. withdrawal by December 31, 2011, provided that stability continued to increase. In all, more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq during Bush’s presidency. 

Interrogation and Surveillance

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration felt its primary responsibility was to protect America from another attack. It justified many of its subsequent actions as being part of the commander-in-chief powers granted to the President under Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. Some of the actions that the Bush administration implemented were controversial. Two specific controversial areas were the administration’s treatment of captured prisoners and domestic surveillance. 

 A few days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which President Bush signed on September 18, 2001. It allowed the President to use force against those involved in the attacks or to prevent future attacks. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law in October 2001 to expand domestic security and surveillance, disrupt terrorist funding by cracking down on activities such as money laundering, and increase efficiency within the U.S. intelligence community.

On November 13, 2001, President Bush signed a military order that established military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens fighting for al Qaeda or involved in terrorism against the United States. These tribunals functioned differently from courts within the U.S. legal system. The Bush administration decided to hold the accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, without a right to a writ of habeas corpus, that is, they could not challenge whether the U.S. government was holding them legally and therefore could be held indefinitely. The Bush administration also classified those accused terrorists as unlawful enemy combatants instead of prisoners of war, which placed them outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Additionally the Bush administration authored legal memos justifying enhanced interrogation for those accused of fighting against the United States in the war on terror. These enhanced interrogation methods included sleep deprivation, slapping, waterboarding (simulated drowning), and subjecting prisoners to cold in order to extract information. Many critics considered these methods to be torture. The administration’s approval of enhanced interrogation methods led to much debate within and outside the government and along various points, including its legality, effectiveness, ethics, and the precedence created by the U.S. employing such tactics.

Enemy combatant cases gradually made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that President Bush had overstepped his authority by setting up military tribunals without congressional approval. In response, Bush worked with Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act of 2006, although the Supreme Court later ruled part of it unconstitutional because it suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

When photographs emerged in 2004 of prisoners being mistreated in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it brought heightened worldwide scrutiny of the American government’s policies of treating prisoners. It also came to light that the CIA had been using rendition to move suspected terrorists from one country to another for the purposes of interrogating them. Under the policy of rendition, the CIA transferred prisoners to secret locations around the world that were outside the U.S. legal system to try to extract information about future terrorist attacks and the al Qaeda network, for example. Rendition was not new as it had been used during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, though less frequently.

Another controversial action of the Bush administration was domestic surveillance. President Bush created the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor electronic communications without warrants to collect information about terrorist activities. Under the program, one of the people being monitored had to be a suspected terrorist, and one of them had to be outside the United States. When the program became public in 2005, critics were concerned that the program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which was passed after the Watergate scandal. After President Richard Nixon ordered domestic spying on U.S. citizens, Congress passed FISA to regulate government surveillance, limiting it to foreign intelligence purposes and requiring that the government obtain warrants from a special FISA court before engaging in surveillance. Many Americans were concerned that the Terrorist Surveillance Program violated privacy rights and civil liberties for U.S. citizens. The Bush administration argued that it did not have to obtain warrants for this wiretapping because it had the authority through the commander-in-chief powers and the Authorization for Use of Military Force Act passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Issues such as enhanced interrogation, military tribunals, rendition, and warrantless wiretapping generated considerable controversy and public discussion. The Bush administration defended these measures with the argument that their priority had to be keeping the American people safe, and in an increasingly dangerous world, extraordinary measures were justified, They also pointed to other U.S. Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who relied on strong executive power to conduct war and deal with times of uncertainty. Critics argued that if the United States sanctioned torture and ignored its legal safeguards, the country was turning its back on important founding principles such as the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and the protection of civil liberties. These debates were not fully resolved during the Bush administration and continued into the Obama presidency. 

Foreign Aid

In his memoir, Decision Points, President Bush wrote that he “considered America a generous nation with a moral responsibility to do our part to help relieve poverty and despair.” The most expansive and effective initiative of the Bush administration to bring relief to foreign nations was the policy to fight HIV/AIDS. When he took office in 2001, the United States was spending a little over $500 million a year to fight AIDS throughout the world, but the money was spread across six different agencies that appeared to lack a clear strategy. In Africa, HIV/AIDS had become an epidemic, with one out of every four adults carrying the disease in some countries. By 2010, the total number infected in Africa was projected to surpass 100 million people. Bush’s first step in fighting the disease was to make a commitment of $200 million to the U.N. Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS on May 11, 2001. 

In early 2002, Bush concluded that the Global Fund was not sufficiently responding to the AIDS crisis; the United States had contributed substantially to the fund by 2002, but the President believed that the program was insufficient. Bush announced the International Mother and Child HIV Prevention Initiative on June 19, 2002. The initiative focused on treating AIDS in women and stopping the spread of the disease to children by training local health care workers and purchasing medicine over the next five year. In 2003, Bush proposed a $15-billion initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which Congress passed to bring relief to Africa. By 2008, five years after the passage of PEPFAR, there was a large increase in the number of Africans who received AIDS medicine, from 50,000 to 3 million people. The plan was renewed in summer of 2008, which doubled the U.S. commitment to fight HIV/AIDS. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, PEPFAR had paid for the treatment of 2.1 million people and testing and counseling for more than 57 million. Many believe that the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa will be one of President Bush’s most important legacies.

In addition to AIDS, Africans were also suffering widely from malaria, which by 2005 accounted for 9 percent of deaths in Africa. In June 2005, Bush announced his President’s Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion program spanning five years that would fight the disease in fifteen African countries; it aimed to cut malaria deaths in half by the end of the plan. The initiative depended on prevention efforts such as indoor spraying of mosquitoes and insecticide-treated bed nets as well as delivering medicine to protect Africans from the ravages of malaria. The President’s Malaria Initiative continued after Bush left office, with the U.S. government’s Malaria Strategies for 2009-2014 and 2015-2020, hoping to continue to prevent or control the disease.

Bush announced the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), on March 14, 2002, as the centerpiece for his plan for foreign economic development. To be eligible for MCA funding, recipient nations were required to avoid corruption, enable market-based economic development, and encourage the health and education of their people. The Bush policy sought to treat economic aid as a long-term investment, rather than as short-term aid. The program invested $6.7 billion in 35 partner countries. Through this policy, the Bush administration expanded the number of U.S. free trade agreements from three to seventeen. Also, working with the G-8 partners, $34 billion in debt was cancelled for poor African countries, and many tariffs were eliminated on African exports. 

George W. Bush: Family Life

George W. Bush is part of a large family (he is the oldest of five siblings) with a long tradition of public service. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. His father, George H.W. Bush, was vice president (1981-1989) and U.S. President (1989-1993). His brother, Jeb Bush, was governor of Florida (1999-2007) and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. George W. and Jeb were the first brothers to serve as governors at the same time since Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller served in the late 1960s.

George W. Bush married Laura Welch in 1977, and by all accounts she was the perfect balance to him. Her reserved, thoughtful personality complimented Bush’s more outgoing approach to life. They had twin girls in 1981, named Jenna and Barbara after their grandmothers. During Bush’s time in the White House, his daughters were attending college, with Jenna at the University of Texas at Austin and Barbara at Yale University. Attending college while their father was President often brought the girls unwanted attention from the media but both worked on his 2004 reelection campaign. They started off answering telephones at the campaign headquarters but eventually became comfortable enough to begin independently giving surrogate speeches for their father.

Long before he began his own political career, Bush and his family spent time around political campaigns and in the White House as an adviser to his father. The Bush clan often gathered in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the family has a vacation house. George W. is more of a Texas man, however, and he bought a ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 1999 just before he ran for president. Known as the Western White House during his presidency, Bush often retreated to the ranch to bike, clear brush, and escape from the press. His daughter, Jenna, was married at the ranch in 2008. She and her husband, Henry Hager, gave George and Laura their first grandchild, a girl named Mila, in 2013, and a second, named Poppy for Bush 41, in 2015.

As President, Bush often made time for exercise, being a frequent runner and sometimes mountain biker. He was not often spotted out and about in Washington, D.C., but preferred to escape to Camp David or his Texas ranch. Security concerns for the President after 9/11 made forays into public spaces logistically complicated and costly. Bush was known for his emphasis on loyalty and spent free time with his family and close friends.

George W. Bush: Life After the Presidency

George W. Bush was 62 years old when his presidential term ended. He left office with a dismal 33 percent approval rating and with 60 percent of the American public believing that he would be considered below average as President in the annals of history. When confronted with this situation, Bush wittily replied, “I was also the most popular president,” which he was following his response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Upon leaving office, Bush returned to Midland, Texas, and promptly took up residence at his beloved Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. No typical politician, he seemed to enjoy the relaxation and time away from power.

Bush read several books about George Washington during the final year of his presidency and said that if historians were still analyzing the first President, then the 43rd would never fully discover how history viewed his own administration. Political adviser Karl Rove stated that despite the possibility of regrets, Bush “has an inner confidence…that what he did was right.” After leaving office, Bush lived a quiet life in Texas and largely refrained from any connections to politics, particularly resisting opportunities to criticize his successor. 

George and Laura also bought a home in an exclusive Dallas neighborhood near Southern Methodist University. The former President quickly became a part of the Dallas community, attending local events and hosting barbecues at his home. He supplemented his income with paid speeches and was very involved with the George W. Bush Institute that he established at SMU. In his free time, he enjoyed biking, attending Texas Rangers baseball games, reading American history, and golfing. Inspired by a similar hobby of his hero Winston Churchill, Bush also began painting; primarily producing portraits of his pets and of world leaders that he came into contact with while serving as President. His paintings attracted national attention and were displayed in his presidential library.

Bush worked quietly to solidify his legacy. The George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU in Dallas consists of the Bush Presidential Library and Museum and the Bush Institute. The Institute was created for the purpose of continuing discussions about the best policies to foster economic growth, human freedom, education, global health, and various women’s initiatives. He also polished his legacy by publishing a memoir in 2010, Decision Points, which gave personal insight into his policy decisions and experiences as President. Bush’s charity work was quite extensive, with several efforts devoted to fundraising for wounded veterans, including an annual 100-kilometer mountain bike ride and the Warrior Open Golf Tournament. He also took trips to Africa to raise awareness for cervical cancer, and was a strong advocate for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress. In 2014, he surprised much of the publishing world by unveiling a previously secret project he had undertaken to write a biography of his father. 41 was published on Veteran’s Day, an appropriate date to celebrate his war-hero father.

Bush remarked about his life in retirement, “I think part of having a fulfilling life is to be challenged. I’m challenged on the golf course, I’m challenged to stay fit, and I’m challenged by my paintings…I am happy.”

George W. Bush: Impact and Legacy

The legacy of George W. Bush remains, much like his 2000 election, a subject of profound controversy, and any truly objective evaluation will likely be years in the future. He entered office as one of only a handful Presidents to lose the nation’s popular vote. The election of 2000 and the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore remain two of the most controversial political developments in the last half-century. Some thought that President Bush should begin his term by trying to find common ground and avoid controversy to take some of the edge off the nation’s polarized politics coming out of the 2000 election. Instead, as one of his first actions, President Bush issued an executive order creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which further alienated some who thought government money should not go to organizations affiliated with churches. Yet he did reach across the aisle on other issues including the No Child Left Behind Act, which was the most impactful change in education policy in a generation.

Within nine months of taking office, President Bush was afforded the chance to unite the nation after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. By most accounts, Bush did a masterful job of speaking for and to the American people. His crisis leadership, including insisting on returning to the White House the night of the attacks instead of holing up in a safe bunker elsewhere, gave the American people confidence that someone was in charge. He became the most popular President in the history of polling, reaching an astounding 90 percent approval rating in the wake of the attacks.

Following an authorization from Congress to eliminate those who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership was driven into the mountains and across the boarders into neighboring countries, including Pakistan. Those early successes, however, turned into the longest war in American history, and the President never was able to achieve the greatest symbolic goal of the effort, the killing or capturing of the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden; U.S. special forces achieved that goal in 2011 under Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama.

Following the 9/11 attacks, President Bush also presided over a restructuring of the American national security apparatus and the passage of the Patriot Act, which gave the government vast new powers in the effort to combat future acts of terror. Both efforts, especially the Patriot Act, sparked strong divisions within the American people throughout the Bush presidency. In 2002 and into 2003, Bush used the fear of further terrorist attacks to argue for a preemptive war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq under the rationale that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The initial attacks and invasion were extremely successful and popular but in the end no weapons of mass destruction were found anywhere in the country and a strong insurgency arose that resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans over the next eight years. The war grew increasingly unpopular, and the Democrats used it as a major wedge issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections, in which they first took over Congress and then the White House two years later.

On the domestic front, the Bush presidency scored early successes in gaining passage of large tax reductions and a major reform of the American educational system with the No Child Left Behind Act. The tax cuts, however, were not made permanent, as the President wished, and the bipartisan education reforms proved very controversial with their emphasis on testing and school report cards. The tax cuts were eventually made permanent during budget negotiations in the Obama administration but No Child Left Behind was eventually replaced with a new national education plan in 2015.

After his reelection in 2004, Bush sought major changes to Social Security, arguing a partial privatization plan could insure its solvency. He spent considerable political capital seeking such a change, but his efforts went nowhere in Congress. He also sought major immigration reforms that never materialized. As the tax cuts of 2001 reduced revenue to the government, while spending continued to increase partly due to the expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government racked up large deficits. Ultimately, those deficits, exacerbated by the financial recession of 2008, helped create a politically impactful insurgency on the political right that went under the banner of the “Tea Party.” The last few months of the Bush presidency were marked by a major crash of the stock market, a controversial bail out of financial institutions and car companies, and a recession that would wipe out millions of jobs and impact the U.S. economy for many years.

The Bush presidency transformed American politics, its economy, and its place in the world, but not in ways that could have been predicted when the governor of Texas declared his candidacy for America’s highest office. As President, Bush became a lightning rod for controversy. His controversial election and policies, especially the war in Iraq, deeply divided the American people. Arguably his greatest moment as President was his initial, heartfelt response to the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. Soon, however, his administration was overshadowed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush’s place in U.S. history will be debated and reconsidered for many years to come.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Gary L. Gregg II 

Professor Gregg is the director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. He also holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in leadership. His writings include: 

Considering the Bush Presidency. (with Mark J. Rozell, Oxford University Press, 2004)

Thinking about the Presidency: Documents and Essays from the Founding to the Present. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College (2nd ed.). (ISI Books, 2008)

America's Forgotten Founders (2nd ed.). (with Mark D. Hall, ISI Books, 2012)

The consulting editor wishes to thank Connor Tracy and Travis Wilson for serving as research assistants on this project.