Soft Bigotry, Meet Low Expectations.

After I read Ross Douthat’s column this morning, I tweeted that I was nominally on board with his attempt to massage George W. Bush’s reputation.

Three hours, two cups of coffee, and a nice helping of sense later, I think I can safely say that my original assessment was a little…off.  First, here’s Douthat in his own words:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch. […]

And perhaps his best decisions, on the surge and the bailout, were made from the bunker of a seemingly-ruined presidency — when his approval ratings had bottomed out, his credibility was exhausted and his allies had abandoned him.

This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.

I’m not sure how much of this is the fault of the medium rather than the messenger, but I don’t think Douthat quite grasps the gravity of President Bush’s mistakes.  The Iraq War wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill piece of unfortunate, but easily corrected, policy.  It was – and is – a strategic and humanitarian disaster of the highest order.  Over the course of six years, the United States has squandered trillions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and done almost irreparable damage to Iraq’s social fabric.  In retrospect, the surge was a welcome breath of pragmatism from the Bush administration, but even with that (limited) success in mind, it’s incredibly difficult to say that President Bush “fixed” anything.


The same goes for the financial crisis.  While there’s plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the housing market and subsequent collapse of the financial system, it’s fair to say that the Bush administration deserves a fair amount of blame for stoking the “irrational exuberance” that in turn stoked the housing bubble.  What’s more, the twin collapses have yielded a tremendous amount of suffering, especially among the poor and working-class.  Since the recession officially began in December 2007, the country has had a net loss of about 5 percent of its non-farm payroll, the brunt of that borne by the most economically insecure members of our society.  The bailouts and TARP were certainly good moves by the administration, and should be recognized as such despite their flaws, but again, to say that those make up for the initial failures is a bit of a stretch.

And I guess that’s my main complaint with Douthat’s column.  To borrow a phrase from President Bush, what Douthat has written is a classic example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  Saying that we should applaud President Bush for taking steps to salvage his disastrous presidency is like praising a roommate for cleaning up a bit after trashing the apartment.  Not only should the place never have been trashed to begin with, but cleaning up after oneself is a matter of course and not particularly praiseworthy.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Molly

    Absolutely. What a great message for future leaders: push an entitled low-achiever down the path to presidency, and though he may be completely unqualified, incompetent and dangerous, as well as a religious zealot and warmonger, the fact that he was completely undeserving of his post (and simply ended up there through the gifts of family legacy and old money) frees him from any personal responsibility for his political actions or their consequences. What I hate most about folksy neocon politicians and that “aw, shucks” seems to absolve even the most violent and unethical political extremist of just about any crime. What seems to elicit the angriest, most hateful reactions is a decent shot at rectifying established inequalities–especially if the legislation is being led by someone thoughtful and articulate. Dumb, rich and status quo will always get the same “he-aint-so-bad” reaction, and I knew GW would never truly be held accountable for his crimes.

  • When he personally commits about 200M to the Gulf Coast, I’ll consider adding a tiny asterisk to the notation in the history books that’s he’s the WORST president ever.