Two wars, soaring deficits and a stock market collapse have left many Americans nostalgic for the Clinton years, but judging by President Clinton’s own international yardsticks, President Bush measures up pretty well.
A display near the entrance to Mr. Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., measures world progress in seven categories, ranging from reducing nuclear warheads and poverty to expanding technology and rising literacy.
But the gains under Mr. Clinton were matched during President Bush’s tenure, which saw the number of nuclear warheads drop dramatically, world foreign direct investment rise to the highest annual level on record, the number of people living on less than $1 a day drop below 1 billion, and literacy continue its ascent, according to the latest figures from international organizations and compiled by The Washington Times.
It’s arguable how much of that progress Mr. Bush should claim credit for. And the president’s record in matching Mr. Clinton’s domestic successes - a different statistical portrait at the Clinton library - is more mixed: Crime has dropped further under Mr. Bush, but employment has stagnated and poverty has grown.
Still, as the responsibility for Mr. Bush’s legacy passes from the rough drafts of the press to the first drafts of historians, using Mr. Clinton’s own measurements gives some sense for how Mr. Bush might be judged.
On the international categories, Mr. Clinton highlights at his museum - spreading democracy, reducing nuclear weapons, increasing world trade, boosting information technology, reducing poverty, expanding literacy and controlling the spread of AIDS - Mr. Bush topped Mr. Clinton’s record on all but the first, where the percentage of countries with electoral democracies was down slightly from 63 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2008, after rising 10 percentage points in Mr. Clinton’s term.
On nuclear warheads, Mr. Bush oversaw a continued reduction in stockpiles of the major nuclear powers; total world investment set a new record in 2007; worldwide poverty rates dropped significantly; and the rate of HIV or AIDS infections leveled off, even as treatment options expanded.
The White House is not crowing.
“The president is proud of the progress made in some areas, but fully understands that not all problems can be solved in one presidency, that is why he has focused on leaving his successor a good foundation to build upon,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
The Clinton library referred questions about the measurements to Mr. Clinton’s foundation, which did not respond to several requests for comment on how the measures were determined and how Mr. Bush stacked up.
For their part, historians are unlikely to be convinced by the numbers, which Joan Hoff, a history professor at Montana State University, said libraries cherry-pick to portray themselves in the best light.
“I just hate these figures, I really do, because they just present such a distorted picture of what’s happening,” said Ms. Hoff, former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, criticizing employment numbers as incomplete and electoral-democracy numbers as masking the real state of people living in nominal democracies but without much freedom.
Mr. Bush is counting on a post-presidency rehabilitation a la President Truman, who left office with the Korean War unpopular, but has since been judged more kindly. But Mr. Bush has a giant hump to overcome to reach Truman status, or even to reach Clintonesque levels.
An unscientific survey of 109 historians taken last year for the History News Network (HNN) found 98 percent rated Mr. Bush’s tenure a failure and 61 percent rated him the worst ever. That’s up from 12 percent who rated him worst in a 2004 survey.
Robert S. McElvaine, who teaches history at Millsaps College in Mississippi and conducted the surveys, said Mr. Clinton oversaw a period in which the budget was balanced and in which the one war he conducted, in Yugoslavia, didn’t cost the U.S. military any lives. Mr. McElvaine said Mr. Bush’s accomplishments are less apparent right now, and said his chances are slim for a Truman-style rehabilitation by historians.
“I don’t think they’re great,” Mr. McElvaine said in an interview, adding that the one opening Mr. Bush has is if Iraq eventually develops into a stable democracy and freedom spreads in that region.
Ms. Hoff agreed Mr. Bush could benefit if historians take a different view of the Iraq war after documents are declassified and they have a chance to evaluate the region’s stability.
But she said Mr. Bush’s reputation will always be tarnished because he leaves office with the country in deep economic trouble - even though presidents are rarely responsible for downturns.
“When you go out with a depression, that lingers, and you can never eliminate it from your record,” she said.
She said when Mr. Clinton left office, he was determined to rehabilitate himself from the scandals that made him the first elected president ever to be impeached. Mr. Bush, though, has not shown the same motivation for his policy failures.
“He has yet to indicate he has done anything that requires repair or rehabilitation, and consequently he doesn’t have the motivation,” she said.
Mr. Bush’s record is more mixed on Mr. Clinton’s measures of U.S. progress, though Mr. Bush continued to make gains on most measures.
The crime rate continued to slide, though not as quickly as in the 1990s; employment payrolls were up 7 million in November 2008 compared with 2000, though that’s far below the 22.5 million jobs added in Mr. Clinton’s tenure and doesn’t include December’s half-million drop; and poverty actually increased to 12.5 percent in 2007, from 11.3 percent in 2000.
But the percent of homes with computers grew 22 percent to reach 73.4 percent in 2006, and the number of people 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees also grew dramatically, from 44.8 million to 58.2 million.
Even with the numbers, it’s not always a straightforward comparison between administrations.
The Clinton library’s display of people living with HIV or AIDS does not appear on the library’s Web site, though the other six international categories do. And the library display uses old numbers for AIDS patients, even though the U.N. revamped its estimates recently, making the Bush-versus-Clinton numbers fail to match up.
Still, the trend line is clear on HIV-AIDS, and it’s one area in which historians are likely to give Mr. Bush credit. In 2003, he created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and has since committed billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the effort, drawing praise from all corners.
Complicating Mr. Bush’s rehabilitation effort, and that of any president, is that future generations may view badly many actions that are little-noticed at the time.
“Every administration leaves office with certain land mines buried, and depending on how history plays out, the land mines either remain buried or somebody steps on them and they blow up,” said Rick Shenkman, author of six history books including the recent “Just How Stupid Are We?” and founder of HNN.
He said one of those could turn out to be Mr. Bush’s deal with India on nuclear technology, which he said creates a new incentive to acquire weapons. “That’s made nuclear weapons over the long haul a prize that dictators are going to want to reach for with more alacrity now than they did eight years before.”
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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