Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

History's jury is still out on George W. Bush

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 25, 2013 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
U.S. President George W. Bush waves as he departs the White House June 8, 2006 for Camp David, the presidential retreat.
U.S. President George W. Bush waves as he departs the White House June 8, 2006 for Camp David, the presidential retreat.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer says opening of Bush library rekindles debate over 43rd president
  • He says many of Bush's counterterrorism policies remain and are still being questioned
  • Bush will also be judged on his economic policies and deficit spending, he says
  • Zelizer: How will history view the long-term impact of Bush's pre-emptive wars

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- On Thursday, President Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are due to attend the grand opening of President George W. Bush's presidential library and archive in Dallas, Texas.

The opening of the library offers an opportunity to think again about the legacy of the Bush presidency. As Obama and the former presidents look around the museum, they will see many exhibits that symbolize how the jury is still out on most of the major issues. Events in the coming years will play a huge role in how history is likely to remember Bush's White House.

There are four big questions about his presidency.

Bush 43: 'History will ultimately judge'

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

1. How effective and how just were Bush's counterterrorism policies?

Bush came into office much more concerned about domestic issues like education and taxation, but after the 9/11 terror attacks, he invested a great deal of his power in the counterterrorism program.

He and his supporters have felt that the absence of major attacks until last week and that the re-establishment of calm in the United States was a defining achievement. It is not surprising that one of the artifacts that Obama will see during his visit is the bullhorn Bush used in his famous address to first responders who were working at Ground Zero.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But our continued vulnerability became clear when two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last week, killing three people and injuring many others. The attacks immediately raise the question as to what kinds of risks were not addressed and what holes exist in our security program.

There are already questions facing the Obama administration about the handling of a tip about Tamerlan Tsarnaev received by the FBI from the Russian government in 2011. There are also questions about how Boston responded, as authorities virtually shut down the entire city during the hunt for the suspects and, some argue, unnecessarily gave potential copy cats the impression that they could cause even greater turmoil through similar acts.

In addition, the hunger strike in which Guantanamo prisoners have been protesting their treatment and the infringement of basic civil liberties raises the question about the costs of Bush's programs. The violation of civil liberties through the use of torture proved to be a huge blow to America's international standing. Many critics argue that these practices, many of which Obama has allowed to stay in place, actually has fueled support for terrorist networks overseas.

Brazile: Bush came through on Katrina

2. What is the long-term impact of Bush's fiscal policies?

2002: Bush defines 'axis of evil'
9/11 marks turning point at Bush Library
Dignitaries mark Bush Library dedication

When Bush started his term, the country enjoyed a sizable budgetary surplus for the first time in decades. Once in office, however, Bush chose a series of policies that turned the surplus into a deficit. The president argued that tax cuts offered the best path to stimulating economic growth, adhering to the supply side economics of the Reagan era. Bush and his advisers argued that reducing the tax burdens of Americans, especially wealthier Americans who had money to invest, would grow the economy for all.

The tax cuts, combined with spending for defense after 9/11 and new domestic programs such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit, generated massive federal deficits. The problem for Bush is that the economic record since 2001 has been checkered, with the huge financial collapse in 2008, a recession and an extremely sluggish recovery. Economic inequality has worsened. Thus far, the record remains poor.

3. Did federal education standards improve the nation's schools?

The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) was a major achievement and fulfilled a central objective of the Bush presidency, to impose stringent standards to improve the quality of education. The law extended the reach of the federal government by setting up a strong set of standardized measures to judge school performance.

But the law has been hugely controversial. Many teachers complain that the standards have had a detrimental effect on education, forcing them and students to focus their energy on tests to meet the standards rather than the kind of substance important to the development of a child. As Bush's Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said, "What gets tested gets taught." Right now the debate continues, and there are many advocates on different parts of the political spectrum who argue that the law needs substantial reform. Whether there is a demonstrable improvement in education outcomes as a result of the standards will be a very important factor in determining his legacy.

4. What was the result of engaging in pre-emptive wars?

Bush made a strong argument that pre-emptive war was essential to preventing terrorism. The results of this strategic outlook were wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the operations were initially successful and knocked out the leadership of both countries, the post-war reconstruction had tremendous human and economic costs. While each situation was eventually stabilized, new democratic processes established, and U.S. troops drawn down, the wars remain hugely controversial with the American public.

One of the most ambitious promises from administration officials was that these kinds of wars would not only diminish the chances for terrorism to find state sponsors but also would also change the dynamics of the region and create pressure for dismantling the autocracies that have dominated the Middle East.

But the region remains in turmoil and in transition. While some of Bush's supporters initially hailed the fall of the governments in countries like Egypt as proof that his strategy worked, the election of an Islamist government created new fears. The ongoing battle in Syria between the government and rebels is a reminder that the region remains a tinderbox. The way in which these stories unfold will play a big role in shaping how we evaluate Bush.

These are just some of the open questions that historians, journalists and the public will be looking to answer. The Bush library offers one approach, mostly reflecting the views of his supporters, but Americans will debate the impact of those controversial eight years for a long time.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT