Bush's Grades: Good, but Can Do Better

The President sees a safer, stronger, and better America. Here's a closer look at where he has succeeded -- and fallen short

By Richard S. Dunham

President George W. Bush has much to be thankful for this holiday season. At the midpoint of his first term, the Republican Party under his leadership controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- a first for the GOP in 50 years. His job-approval ratings remain at historic highs, eclipsing the previous records for sustained popularity set by John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He scored a stunning diplomatic victory in the U.N. Security Council with unanimous backing on a plan for sending weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

Closer to home, his twin daughters just turned 21, so he doesn't have to hold his breath any longer about their underage-drinking exploits. A great believer in personal responsibility, the President now can tell the girls that he loves them, but they're on their own. While he won't publicly judge his offspring, Bush doesn't hesitate to judge his own Presidency. Before heading to his Crawford (Tex.) ranch for Thanksgiving, he issued a report card on his first two years in office.

Not surprisingly, Bush gave himself high grades. He boasts of "a remarkable time of bipartisan accomplishment on the issues that matter most to Americans." The President says he "made great progress on bringing people together to enact [an] agenda for a safer, stronger, and better America."

Do his accomplishments match his own hype? Let's assess exactly how much credit Bush deserves for the top 10 achievements he claimed:

Strengthening Homeland Security. Yes, the President stared down Democrats and union leaders to get pretty much what he wanted in the new Homeland Security Dept. And the public strongly supports his security initiatives, from increased aviation-industry and border security to violating the civil liberties of those deemed enemy combatants during wartime.

Still, public-health and safety experts say the nation remains ill-prepared for responding to certain types of biological, chemical, or nuclear attacks. Americans can only hope they never have to find out. Grade: Strong B.

Expanding Economic Opportunity. Bush boasts that "immediately upon taking office...[he] took steps to address the nation's economy." Among the accomplishments, he cites the 2001 tax cut, short-term help for displaced workers, long-term stimulus to encourage businesses to create more jobs, terrorism-insurance legislation, and Trade Promotion Authority.

All that may be true, but the White House allowed the extended unemployment benefits to run out right after Christmas. That's terrible timing. Meanwhile, polls show that most Americans think Bush hasn't done enough to turn the economy around, and his economic team has at times appeared flummoxed. Plus, Bush and congressional leaders are already talking about a new stimulus plan when the new Congress convenes in January. Grade: C.

Winning the War on Terrorism. Bush has garnered huge budget increases for national security and defeating terrorism. The U.S. and its allies have done an effective job at eradicating terrorist leaders one at a time. Still to be done: Find the elusive Osama bin Laden. Grade: A minus.

Improving Education for Every Child. Bush teamed up with Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to pass bipartisan education reforms that establish national standards, increase accountability, foster parental involvement, and, at least in theory, boost federal funding for public schools.

Bush calls the achievement "the most historic education reforms in a generation." That will be true -- if a GOP-controlled Congress doesn't cut school funding to pay for the war on terrorism. Grade: A.

Building a Global Coalition. Bush and able U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte surprised the skeptics by winning a unanimous vote to give weapons inspectors a free hand inside Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The President has made it clear that he'll use military force if he deems it advisable, whether or not the rest of the world goes along.

Despite persistent international criticism of his "cowboy unilateralism," Bush has built an unlikely global coalition against terrorism, though supposed allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have embarrassed him over the past few months. The biggest test will come if, or when, the U.S. decides to wage war against Iraq. Grade: B.

Maintaining Fiscal Discipline: The President says he "worked with Congress to fund key priorities and meet national challenges, and held the line on unnecessary spending." But the bottom line is that the largest surpluses in U.S. history have turned into deficits as far as the eye can see.

White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels has done a good job of keeping congressional appropriators from digging an even deeper ditch with billions in pork-barrel spending. But the President is going to have to restrain spending -- even at the Pentagon -- if the nation is to avoid deficits in excess of $300 billion. Grade: C.

Making Prescription Drugs More Affordable: Bush failed to win congressional approval for a new prescription-drug benefit for American seniors. With lawmakers deadlocked, the White House launched a Medicare prescription-drug discount-card program and the Food & Drug Administration issued new rules improving access to generic drugs. Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, they have no excuse for not coming up with a comprehensive program for all elderly Americans. Grade: C.

Strengthening Health Care for All Americans: Bush has expanded community health centers and pushed for giving patients more choices. But more Americans than ever lack health insurance. Grade: B minus.

Cracking Down on Corporate Corruption. The President claims that he "proposed and signed tough corporate-accountability legislation that will expose and punish acts of corruption, restore confidence in Corporate America, and protect small investors." Well, nobody can say the Justice Dept. is going easy on corporate crooks. The so-called perp walks of 2002 did send a strong signal. We'll see what happens when the defendants go to trial and sentences are handed down.

Still, Bush has been a bit disingenuous about the corporate-reform legislation. For months, he resisted the tough bill authored by outgoing Senate Banking Committee Chairman Paul Sarbanes. But give the President credit: He eventually embraced the legislation and proudly signed it. Bush's action helped to neutralize an issue the Democrats were hoping to exploit in the 2002 elections. Grade: B.

Protecting Family Farmers and Promoting Agriculture. On May 13 Bush signed the biggest budget-buster of 2002, the Farm Bill. It gave agribusiness just about everything it wanted. Economists were appalled, but the President was still criticized by some farmers for not providing billions more in emergency drought relief.

Bush can hardly do more for this sector. If it's hoping for more help in coming years, it's likely to take the form of new market-opening trade pacts. Grade: B minus.

The President gets "incompletes" on a host of other subjects: energy policy, pension reform, and so-called faith-based initiatives to allow religious groups greater access to government contracts. Bush couldn't convince the old Congress to pass his proposals in these areas this year. With his newly enhanced clout, he'll have no excuse to fall short in 2003.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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