Birthplace: New Haven, Conn.
George Walker Bush was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Conn., the first child of future president George H. W. Bush. In 1948, the family moved to Odessa, Tex., where the senior Bush went to work in the oil business. George W. grew up mainly in Midland, Tex., and Houston, and later attended two of his father's alma maters, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale.
After graduating from Yale with a history degree in 1968, Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard, where he served as a part-time fighter pilot until 1973. After receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1975, he returned to Texas, where he established his own oil and gas business. In 1977 he met and married his wife, Laura Welch, a librarian. The couple has twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, born in 1981.
Coming from a prominent political family—his grandfather Prescott Bush had been a senator from Connecticut and his father a U.S. congressman and political appointee—George W. had been immersed in politics since childhood. In 1977 he entered the fray himself, unsuccessfully running for U.S. Congress from the West Texas district that included his hometown of Midland.
Following his defeat, Bush returned to the oil business. In 1985, however, oil prices fell sharply, and Bush's company verged on collapse until it was acquired by a Dallas firm. Bush then headed to Washington to become a paid adviser to his father's successful 1988 presidential campaign. After the election, Bush returned to Texas and assembled a group of investors to buy the Texas Rangers.
Bush again entered politics in 1993, running for the Texas governorship. Although he had a tough opponent in the immensely popular incumbent Ann Richards, he created a clear agenda focused on issues such as education and juvenile justice and won with 53% of the vote. He was reelected in 1998, not long before he announced plans to run for president.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush adhered closely to the traditional conservative line, favoring small government, tax cuts, a strong military, and opposing gun control and abortion. His choice of running mate, Dick Cheney, secretary of defense during his father's administration, provided his campaign with seasoned Washington political experience.
With the country in a state of general prosperity, the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore was perceived to be one of the least dynamic on issues. As it turned out, the race was one of the closest in the country's history. By early evening on election night, it was apparent that whoever won Florida would win the election. Bush's razor-thin margin of about 1,200 votes prompted an automatic recount. The case ultimately ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Bush officially became the president-elect on Dec. 13, after the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Florida Supreme Court to allow manual recounts of ballots in some Florida counties, contending that such a partial recount violated the Constitution's equal protection and due process guarantees. With Florida in his column, Bush won the presidency with 271 electoral votes, just one more than he needed, although he lost the popular vote by half a million. The divided 5–4 Supreme Court decision generated enormous controversy, with critics asserting that the Supreme Court, and not the electorate, had effectively determined the outcome of the presidential election.
The top item on Bush's domestic agenda—a $1.35 trillion tax cut over 11 years—was swiftly enacted in June 2001. In his first year in office, President Bush also championed an antimissile defense system, meant to intercept long-range missiles lobbed at U.S. shores. Opponents of the plan argued that it was technologically unfeasible and astronomically expensive. Bush's early foreign policy was defined by the rejection of a number of international treaties that the White House felt were detrimental to American interests, including the Kyoto treaty on global warming, the biological weapons convention banning germ warfare, and a treaty to establish an international war-crimes court. Bush also withdrew from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the basis for three decades of nuclear stability with the Soviet Union, but at the same time succeeded in persuading Russia to agree to a landmark treaty that would cut U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles by two-thirds over the next decade.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, irrevocably altered the direction of the Bush presidency; his primary focus became the war on international terrorism. Bush shored up enormous support from the international community to fight terrorism worldwide. On Oct. 7, the U.S. and Britain began air strikes against Afghanistan, after the Taliban government repeatedly refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban collapsed on Dec. 9, but despite this outstanding military success, bin Laden remained at large.
National security efforts included creating the Department of Homeland Security, a domestic security cabinet agency that consolidated 20 federal agencies in a massive government reorganization. More controversial was the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, antiterrorism legislation that presented law enforcement officials with sweeping new powers to conduct searches without warrants, and to detain and deport individuals in secret.
President Bush's broad characterizations of the terrorist threat led him to expand the focus of his foreign policy from al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to other regimes hostile to the United States, regardless of their connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Following the war in Afghanistan, Bush designated Iraq as the primary new threat to American security. He famously labeled Iraq, along with North Korea and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil.” Over the course of 2002, President Bush announced that the U.S. foreign strategy of containment and deterrence was an outdated cold war policy, and introduced the Bush doctrine, which asserted that in an age of terrorism, the U.S. could no longer wait by defensively until a potential threat to its security grew into an actual one—a preemptive strike was called for. In Sept. 2002, Bush addressed the UN, challenging the organization to swiftly enforce its own resolutions against Iraq, or else the U.S. would have no choice but to act on its own. Many world leaders expressed alarm at this shift in U.S. policy, which stressed unilateralism rather than international consensus. The alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's links to terrorism, and Saddam Hussein's despotism and human rights abuses were cited as the casus belli for “regime change.” The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution imposing tough new arms inspections on Iraq, but after three months of inspections that resulted in only modest Iraqi cooperation, U.S. patience ran out: on March 19, President Bush declared war on Iraq and U.S. troops, along with their British allies, began bombing Baghdad. By April 9, Baghdad had fallen, and by May 1, combat was officially declared over.
The official phase of the war was swift, but the post-war reconstruction period proved far more difficult. The country was enveloped in violence and chaos and its infrastructure was in ruins. While the Bush administration successfully turned over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004, within months pockets of Iraq were essentially under the control of insurgents. President Bush assured the country that despite these difficulties, the United States would stay the course until Iraq emerged as a free and democratic country. More than a year-and-a-half of searching for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction—one of the prime reasons Bush cited for launching the war—yielded no hard evidence, and the administration and its intelligence agencies came under fire. There were also mounting allegations that the existence of these weapons and their imminent threat to American security was exaggerated or distorted as a pretext to justify the war. The Senate Intelligence Committee's unanimous, bipartisan “Report on Pre-War Intelligence on Iraq,” harshly criticized the CIA: “most of the major key judgments” on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were “either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence report.” The report disputed the CIA's assertions that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program and that it had chemical and biological weapons, and also concluded that there was no relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. With the justifications for the war evaporating, the Bush administration began emphasizing that the removal of dictator Saddam Hussein had been grounds enough for waging war, and that the United States was more secure as a result of it.
Critics of the administration's policy in Iraq described it as a distraction from the war on terror, preventing the United States from effectively battling the war on its genuine fronts. Since the start of the U.S. war in Iraq, the two remaining countries in the “axis of evil,” North Korea and Iran, had grown into alarming nuclear threats. The Bush administration's diplomatic efforts made little headway against Iran and North Korea's defiance and evasion.
On the domestic front, President Bush promoted an “ownership society” that would give Americans more control over health care, education, and retirement. In Jan. 2002, he passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal program dedicated to improving schools across the country. In June 2003 he signed into law the largest expansion of Medicare since its creation. The law provided prescription drug coverage under Medicare for the first time.
In early 2003, President Bush unveiled a sweeping economic stimulus plan that characteristically centered around tax cuts. The plan, in its original form, would have cut taxes by $670 billion over ten years; Congress approved a $350 billion version. Although all workers were to benefit from the tax plan, it strongly favored two groups: two-parent households with several children and the wealthy—nearly half the proposed tax benefits were reserved for the richest 10% of American taxpayers. Critics of the plan, including fiscally conservative Republicans, argued that it was unsound to offer tax cuts while the country was involved in an expensive war and in the midst of a jobless recovery. The federal budget deficit, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, reached a record $412 billion in 2004. The White House countered that the Bush tax cuts had in fact kept the recession remarkably shallow and brief.
The 2004 presidential campaign between the president and Democratic senator John Kerry was one of the most closely followed and heated races in recent history. Terrorism, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, health care, the economy, and the deficit were the major issues. Kerry accused the president of mismanaging the war on Iraq and the fight against terrorism and promised to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The president accused his opponent of being a “flip-flopper” on issues and of not having the leadership to fight the war on terror. On Nov. 3, President Bush won reelection with 286 electoral votes and 51% of the popular vote. Moral values and fighting terrorism were cited as the two main issues that won the president his second term.
In the first year of his second term, Bush's priority was the restructuring of Social Security, but despite months of campaigning, the president failed to convince the electorate that the program was in need of a major overhaul. Legislative accomplishments included the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), an energy bill, which did not, however, address Americans' growing concern over high fuel prices.
Iraq's continued insurgency, lack of political stability, and the acknowledgment that only a small number of Iraqi forces were capable of replacing American troops stationed in the country led to increased domestic discontent. In the face of growing American casualties and the absence of a clear strategy for winning the protracted war beyond “staying the course,” the president's approval ratings plummeted in 2005. In early September, the delayed and inept handling of Hurricane Katrina's emergency relief efforts led to widespread criticism of the Bush administration, even among its Republican base. Trust in the president's ability to lead the country during a crisis had been a central factor in his reelection, but two-thirds of Americans considered his response to Katrina inadequate. In 2005 and 2006, Bush appointed two solid conservatives to the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
In 2005 it was disclosed that President Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap domestic calls without obtaining legally required warrants. Controversy concerning the expansion of presidential powers also arose when it was revealed that Bush has used “signing statements” to indicate that he would not comply with more than 800 provisions of 100-plus signed laws. The most publicized of these signing statements was Bush's exception to a provision banning “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” of prisoners in American custody. In June 2006, the Supreme Court issued the most significant ruling on the limitations of presidential powers in decades, stating in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that the Bush administration's failure to obtain Congressional approval for special military tribunals to try terrorist detainees rendered the tribunals unconstitutional, and that they also violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.
As security in Iraq deteriorated in 2006 and reconstruction efforts foundered, the increasingly unpopular war became the president's greatest liability. November 2006 mid-term elections led to a seismic shift in the political landscape, with Democrats gaining control over the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in twelve years. A day after the election, President Bush, acknowledging that his party had taken a “thumping,” announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose intransigent Iraq policies had made him the bete noir of Democrats and many Republicans. In December, the bipartisan report by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, concluded that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating” and “U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end.” The report's 79 recommendations included reaching out diplomatically to Iran and Syria and having the U.S. military intensify its efforts to train Iraqi troops. The report heightened the debate over the U.S. role in Iraq, but President Bush kept his distance from it, indicating that he would wait until Jan. 2007 before announcing a new Iraq strategy.
See also Encyclopedia: George Walker Bush.