As we move within 24 hours of inaugurating a new president, most of America’s attention is focused on the future, with a great many Americans hopeful about Barack Obama and his coming presidency. But what about the guy packing up the White House? Does he deserve more than a passing goodbye after eight years?

Bush is leaving office with record low approval ratings. And, realistically, for a president who has mismanaged two wars, incompetently handled the response to Hurricane Katrina and, finally, presided over the largest economic disaster since the Great Depression, it’s surprising as many as 22% of Americans consider his presidency a good one.

What is most fascinating (and disappointing) about Bush is not the trouble he caused so much as his inability to react competently to the trouble caused by others. He had little opportunity to prevent 9/11. He doesn’t control where hurricanes land. And he didn’t sell any subprime mortgages. The triumvirate of crises faced by Bush could and probably would have happened under a President Gore or a President Kerry (or a President McCain, for that matter). And those men may have failed in their own ways. But no president gets to take a pass because the challenges they faced were exceptional or because others may have been equally inept.

Bush leaves office as a perceived failure because he was an average man in an era when we needed a great man. Too often he chose partisanship and cronyism over leadership and experience. Too often he substituted platitudes for solutions. And, most disastrously, he proved too susceptible to the siren songs of ideology, trusting in intractable advisors who thought they knew better than anyone else, the evidence be damned.

The one great positive that can be said of the Bush presidency is that we suffered no attacks on American soil after 9/11. This is no small thing and no coincidence. The problem is, did we overreach in our quest for security? Bush showed, time and again, a predilection towards authoritarianism when dealing with potential threats. That’s not to say he was authoritarian, but that’s the direction he reached, expanding executive powers to new levels while stripping away checks and balances. He may have prevented further attacks, but did the cost to our freedom have to be so great? That is a question for historians, I believe. But from the vantage point of the present, I am disturbed by the new governmental powers implemented under Bush’s watch.

Given the circumstances faced in the last eight years, I believe many a man or woman would have failed as our president. But Bush’s failures are not merely a matter of circumstance. They are a result of his own personal deficiencies and his inability to lead all of us (rather than only some of us) during difficult times. I do not know how history will remember him. But I think it’s appropriate he leaves office with such a low approval rating.

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