One-Year Report Card

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Okay, everyone, it is report card time.

It was one year ago this week that George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States. And what a year it has been

I would like today to suggest a report card of sorts, an assessment of the President and his administration: how they have done, how they are doing, and a word or two on what it might be reasonable to expect. Truth to tell, any measurement is made more difficult because this presidential year must be divided into two quite distinct parts: before September 11th and after; the first eight months and the last four. Then there needs to be a further division between domestic issues and foreign policy. We will today nonetheless ignore most of that.

In my opinion the President’s best moment of the year was on September 20th when he addressed a joint session of the Congress. The nation and the world were watching and listening. It was a moment of high drama and George W. Bush was at his best. He rose to the occasion.

The speech was well written and well delivered. It was full of short declarative sentences which will stand as a high water mark of his presidency.

“Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

And then, toward the end of the speech, this:

“¿I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

For this, an A+.

At the other end of the grading spectrum, I choose that moment in Slovenia early last year just after he had met for the first time with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.

On that occasion, President Bush announced that he had gazed into the soul of the former KGB agent and found him to be reliable. It was embarrassing.

For this, a D.

Mr. Bush benefited greatly in his campaign for the presidency by repeatedly proclaiming himself to be a compassionate conservative. This seemed, once in office, to have morphed into something called faith-based initiatives, which looked, at least to skeptical observers, like a dodge-another of those republican efforts to switch the welfare burden from the federal government to almost anyone else.

For this issue, compassionate conservatism, an incomplete, but tending toward a C.

With regard to the economy this crowd, despite their impeccable Republican credentials, needs help. We are assessing here the man who accused Al Gore of fuzzy math. But the President, true to his political profile, as his first big legislative initiative, pushed a whopping big tax cut through the Congress despite many warnings of dire economic consequences.

Now, the U.S. government has, in one year, gone from a generous surplus back to a triple-digit deficit. That’s billions of course. Everyone in Washington is now blaming everyone else and it looks for all the world like a crowd all saying that the dog ate their homework.

For this, I am afraid we are looking a very low grade indeed-far too low to be made public.

Okay, enough of this. Besides, we all know that how one grades this or any other administration depends on one’s political prejudices and mine may not be as favorably disposed to this crowd as yours may be.

But political inclinations aside, I do think it is fair to say that George W. Bush has benefited greatly from the politics of low expectations. As long as general public expectations are low, almost anything the man says or does looks reasonably good.
It is hard to have high expectations of a man who wears his lack of intellectual curiosity as a badge. For many, it is part of his charm. Simplifying complex issues can and probably will keep his poll ratings high until something goes badly wrong. And so far it hasn’t.

And so we have the unusual phenomenon of a presidency that gets low grades on a lot of the component parts but a high grade, overall, from the public.

So stay tuned, everyone. The mythology at most college and universities is that the sophomore year is the hardest. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

This is Olin Robison.

–Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont
and Salzburg, Austria.

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