Bush, George Walker: Presidency


In his first months in office Bush moved quickly to win congressional approval of his tax-cut program, as well as to halt or modify the institution of various regulations proposed in the last weeks of the Clinton administration. Many of his proposed measures were generally conservative and probusiness, as in legislation to modify bankruptcy laws, proposals to fund church-run social welfare programs, and the abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and of the antiballistic missile (ABM) treaty (see disarmament, nuclear; Strategic Defense Initiative). In other areas, however, his administration pursued a less traditionally conservative course, for example, securing the establishment of federally mandated nationwide standardized testing for public school students. President Bush was also unusual in assigning greater policy-making and governing responsibilities to the vice president and members of the cabinet than earlier administrations had.

Devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Sept., 2001, confronted Bush with a crisis without recent parallels. Some 3,000 lives were lost in a coordinated assault against the United States, but the perpetrators were a decentralized and elusive terrorist network, not a nation. Bush demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government turn over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic militant heading Al Qaeda, the group behind the attacks; the president adamantly refused to negotiate and said that no distinction would be made between terrorists and those who harbored them. The administration, which had previously pursued an essentially unilateralist foreign policy, now sought international support for military action against bin Laden and Afghanistan and for measures to cut off the financial resources of various terrorist groups. In addition, the Office of Homeland Security was created in the White House to coordinate government efforts to counter terrorist threats.

In October, Bush ordered air and then ground raids against Afghanistan, beginning a war whose immediate goals were the destruction of Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. Afghani opposition forces, with U.S. support, ousted the Taliban and largely routed it and Al Qaeda by the end of 2001, but bin Laden remained uncaptured. The long-term course of the “war on terrorism” that Bush proclaimed, however, was less clear. A second unsettling challenge confronted his government in late 2001 when cases of anthrax resulted from spores that had been mailed by an unknown source to U.S. media and government offices in bioterror attacks. Despite their coincidence, the anthrax and Al Qaeda attacks appeared to be unrelated. In Dec., 2001, Bush officially announced the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty, but he also had agreed to further missile cuts with Russia, which were formalized in 2002 by the Moscow Treaty.

As sporadic fighting in Afghanistan continued, with U.S. forces devoted mainly to mopping-up operations, the administration provided military assistance to a number of nations as part of the war on terrorism. In February the administration announced plans for the largest American military buildup since the 1980s. That increase in defense spending and the loss of revenue due to the 2001 tax cut led to new budget deficits, beginning in 2002. Very strong public support for the president declined somewhat in 2002, largely over domestic issues, where the administration, as in its decision to make the Homeland Security Office a cabinet department (enacted in Nov., 2002; see Homeland Security, U.S. Dept. of) and in its support for increased regulations on business accounting practices, was largely following the lead of Congress in responding to public concerns.

As 2002 progressed, the administration took a forceful stand against Iraq over its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and its resistance to UN arms inspections. Congress authorized the use of the military against Iraq, and the United States continued to build up its forces in the Middle East. Although in November the Security Council passed a resolution offering Iraq a “final opportunity” to cooperate on arms inspections, which subsequently resumed, it became clear that Bush was determined on a course of “pre-emptive war” to prevent Iraq from developing or possessing weapons of mass destruction that might someday be used against the United States. This use of pre-emptive war to protect the United States, often called the “Bush doctrine,” was adopted by the administration in its National Security Strategy (2002). A significant shift in official U.S. policy, it was the result in part of the September 11th attacks.

Bush faced a second crisis involving weapons of mass destruction beginning in Oct., 2002, when North Korea admitted it had a nuclear weapons program. The administration initially responded by ending fuel shipments required under a 1994 agreement and refusing to negotiate until the North Koreans complied completely with their responsibilities under that agreement (neither they nor the United States had fully done so). Subsequently, however, North Korea engaged in a series of well-publicized moves, including withdrawing from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, that were designed to enable it to resume the development of nuclear weapons. Faced with pressure from North Korea's neighbors for a negotiated solution, the administration adopted a somewhat less confrontational tone beginnin in 2003, but the situation remained unresolved.

The Nov., 2002, elections resulted in unexpected, if small, gains for the Republicans, who secured control of both houses of Congress, and enhanced the political strength of the president, who had campaigned vigorously in the off-year election. In December, Bush ordered the deployment of a ballistic missile defense system designed to prevent so-called rogue missile attacks, and the next month he proposed a new round of tax cuts, ostensibly as an economic stimulus. Many criticized the cuts as inappropriate because of the increasing budget deficits and because the most significant cuts would not occur immediately.

In early 2003, Bush, insisting that Iraq must prove it had no weapons of mass destruction or face being disarmed, pushed for an end to inspections and for the use of military force against Iraq. Despite strong opposition from many European allies as well as Russia, China, and most other nations, Bush demanded in March that Iraqi president Hussein step down or face invasion, and on March 19, U.S. and British forces commenced their attack. By mid-April the allies were largely in control of the major Iraqi cities and largely had turned their attention to the establishment of a new Iraqi government and the rebuilding of Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction, however, were found by allied forces after the war, a fact that forced the president to appoint (Feb., 2004) a bipartisan commission to investigate U.S. intelligence failures.

Bush won congressional approval of his new tax cuts (albeit at a reduced level) in May, and those cuts combined with the effects of the slowly recovering economy and the costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation produced a record budget deficit of $374 billion. In mid-2003 the administration signed free-trade agreements with Singapore and Chile, and a Central American agreement was negotiated at year's end. Negotiations continued on a Free Trade Area of the Americas (though they suffered a setback in 2005), and additional bilateral trade agreements were signed later in the administration's tenure. A Medicare overhaul bill also was finalized in late 2003; it included a prescription drug benefit for the first time.

In 2004 several U.S. and British investigative bodies criticized several of the rationales for invading Iraq; a Senate committee reported that much of the CIA's assessment of Iraq was not based on sound intelligence. The administration was also embarrassed by revelations in May that U.S. forces had abused Iraqi prisoners, actions that may have been engendered by U.S. policy changes after Sept., 2001, on how such prisoners could be treated. In July the commission investigating the terror attacks of Sept., 2001, called for a major reorganization of U.S. intelligence agencies. The president publicly supported the recommendation, but the legislation languished when House Republicans passed an alternative, and a reorganization plan was not passed until after the November elections.

Early in 2004 Bush came out in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and he pushed unsuccessfully for a senatorial vote on such an amendment in July, a move that prefigured his appeal to socially conservative voters in the fall presidential campaign. Campaigning also as a war president, Bush defeated Democratic senator John Kerry in the Nov., 2004, presidential contest. He also secured increases in the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, which subsequently (2005) enabled him to win passage of laws that increased the restrictions on filing for bankruptcy and on filing class-action lawsuits. In other areas, however, such as changes to social security (2005) and immigration law (2006), Bush's electoral victory did not translate readily into an ability to win passage of legislation.

Less than a year after his reelection, the slow, often inadequate government response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina (Aug., 2005) seemed to catalyze public dissatisfaction with the president. Bush was dealt an additional setback by conservative allies in October when his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court was attacked, and she was forced to withdraw. Conservatives were subsequently strongly supportive, however, of his nomination of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Court.

The administration suffered further embarrassment when I. Lewis Libby, Jr., Cheney's chief of staff, was charged with (and, in 2007, convicted of) lying to and obstructing an investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer's name, and it was subsequently revealed (2006) that the president ordered the release of other previously classified information by Libby. (In 2006, however, it was disclosed that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had first revealed the CIA officer's name, ostensibly inadvertently.)

The revelation (Dec., 2005) that the National Security Agency had, at Bush's order, wiretapped international communications originating in the United States without obtaining the legally required warrants also stirred controversy, particularly when officials justified it by asserting that the president's constitutional powers to defend the United States were not subject to congressional legislation. That argument subsequently appeared to be undercut by the Supreme Court, which ruled (June, 2006) that the president could not establish military commissions to try terror suspects held at Guantánamo because he had not been authorized by Congress to do so. In Sept., 2006, however, Congress passed a bill designed to answer the Court's objections, though many critics objected to the legislation because it stripped terror suspects of habeas corpus and other rights. (That portion of the bill was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.)

As the Nov., 2006, mid-term elections approached, the conduct of and progress in the war in Iraq loomed as a significant national issue, though somewhat less so than a series of congressional scandals, a matter not under the president's control. Nonetheless, the loss of Republican control of the House and Senate were seen as a referendum on the war, and the day after the election Bush accepted Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation, despite having pledged the week before that Rumsfeld would serve until Bush's second term ended.

In December the congressionally commissioned Iraq Study Group recommended increasing Iraqi security forces involved in the war there, diminishing U.S. combat forces, making diplomatic overtures to Iran and Syria, and other changes; many of the recommendations were regarded questionably by military experts. Bush opted (Jan., 2007) for a temporary increase in U.S. forces aimed mainly at establishing security in Baghdad and destroying insurgent power centers elsewhere in Iraq. By its end in mid-2008, the “surge” appeared to have been successful.

Despite confrontations with Democrats in Congress over the war, Bush won passage (May, 2005) of a war funding bill that did not include troop withdrawal deadlines. He failed, however, to win passage the next month of an overhaul of U.S. immigration law. His commutation (July) of the prison sentence of Lewis Libby (the vice president's former chief of staff, who had been convicted of obstruction of justice; see Cheney, Dick) was applauded by conservatives but otherwise met with disapproval from Americans. In late 2007 and early 2008 his administration engaged in efforts intended to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Beginning in 2007 a long-running housing boom collapsed as housing construction and mortgage lending contracted; combined with a more general subsequent credit crunch and a rise in energy costs, this resulted in a recession that began in Dec., 2007. As the problems continued into 2008, the Bush administration sought to counter the economic crisis with income tax rebates, support for innovative Federal Reserve actions to ease credit, and a housing bill designed to shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (corporations that guarantee U.S. mortgages) and to provide mortgage relief for some homeowners.

Despite these measures, financial conditions continued to worsen, and in Oct., 2008, as the financial system seemed on the verge of disruption, the administration won passage of a $700 billion financial rescue package that was used primarily to recapitalize the banking system. Bush also later agreed (Dec., 2008) to provide loans to U.S. automobile manufacturers struggling as a result of the recession that began a year before. His second term ended on a much bleaker note that it began, with the nation suffering from its worst recession since the early 1980s and Bush's approval ratings at a record low for a president (in sharp contrast to the record high ratings he received in the weeks after the Sept., 2001, attacks. He was succeeded as president by Democrat Barack Obama, whose election was due in part to Americans' unhappiness with the situation their country found itself in during the last year of Bush's presidency. In 2010, the former president joined with his predecessor to raise funds for the victims of the Jan., 2010, Haitian earthquake.

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