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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Bush bequeaths Obama a fixer-upper White House

BY DENNIS RODDY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Outgoing President Bush pleads his achievements but leaves the White House with the United States in economic decline and fighting three wars - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against terrorism. Outgoing President Bush pleads his achievements but leaves the White House with the United States in economic decline and fighting three wars - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against terrorism.
MANUEL BALCE CENETA / AP Enlarge

George W. Bush ushered in the twilight of his presidency last week pleading his achievements beneath the shadow of war and economic decline.

George C. Edwards III, a Texas A&M political scientist, wasn't convinced: "Ordinarily, we like peace and prosperity. We now have prolonged wars and deep recession." Perhaps it augurs poorly for Mr. Bush's place in history that Mr. Edwards holds a chair at the university's Bush school of government and public service.

Almost every quantitative measure, from the Dow Jones Average, to the national debt, to the rate of employment, to the death toll in Iraq and Gaza, points to a presidential tenure that combined overreaching with fecklessness. It is in the evidence of things not seen - an absence of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 - that can be found Mr. Bush's greatest success.

And depending on your point of view, other successes might include his efforts to promote democracy, battle AIDS in Africa, or raise standards for America's schoolchildren.

But when considering most of the major issues that confront the nation, a review of where the country was when Mr. Bush took office and where it is now suggests that the outgoing President has left the Obama administration a White House that is, in many respects, a fixer-upper.

When Mr. Bush was sworn in for his first term, the Nasdaq stood at 2,770, the Standard & Poor's Index at 1,342, and the Dow average at 10,587.

All have plunged. A sample day last week put the Nasdaq at 1,549, the S&P at 872, and the Dow at 8,464. An average Nasdaq investor lost nearly 5 percent of portfolio value annually over the past eight years. Someone holding the Dow lost a third of a percent each year. S&P investors lost about 3 percent yearly.

Incomes, on average, declined 2.5 percent among the poorest fifth of American families since the end of the 1990s, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The top fifth, who benefited most from the Bush Administration's tax cuts, saw their incomes rise by 9 percent.

Jim Horney, an analyst with the center, said the Bush tax cuts provided a short-term stimulus in 2001-2002 as economic growth slowed but failed to recharge the economy. Over the course of the Bush Administration, he said, the tax cuts helped transform budget surpluses projected to total $3.2 trillion by now - based on the policies of the Clinton administration - into deficits totaling $2.1 trillion.

Mr. Bush also pledged to fight for a line-item veto, which he said would help him pay down the national debt to the lowest level since the Great Depression. The line-item veto got nowhere, and the national debt has nearly doubled to $10.7 trillion. Interest payments alone are now the fourth-largest expense in the federal budget.

As it came to a close, the Clinton administration was managing a country essentially at peace, overseeing a nation-building exercise in the Balkans, coming within a hair's breadth of a land-for-peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, improving relations with North Korea after its reclusive leader agreed not to construct nuclear weapons, and focusing on al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists as the primary national security threat after attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole toward the end of 2000.

President Bush came into office opposed to nation-building, skeptical of the Middle East peace process and the North Korea nuclear agreement, and, when it came to national security, focused on regime change in Iraq and Iran and the development of a national missile-defense system. He dismissed al-Qaeda as relatively small potatoes.

As Mr. Obama prepares to take office, the United States is fighting three wars - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against terrorism; its nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan at this stage could be ranked from a failure to a disappointment; the Middle East is blowing up, and North Korea has exploded a nuclear bomb. The Bush Administration's responses to the horrific attacks of 9/11, while protecting the homeland, failed to stop the growth of al-Qaeda and allied groups, which are gathering strength in the hinterlands of an increasingly unstable nuclear Pakistan.

After 9/11, much of the world rallied around the United States and supported, or at least understood, the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had trained its guerrillas and plotted its attacks.

Then Mr. Bush decided to go after Saddam Hussein after claiming that the Iraqi dictator's regime had weapons of mass destruction and close connections to al-Qaeda, neither of which proved true. Attacking an Arab nation, especially while siding with Israel in almost every dispute with the Palestinians, ignited the region and elicited widespread condemnation, especially among Arabs and Muslims.

The often-careless rounding-up of terrorism suspects, their incarceration and mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq reinforced the view that the United States no longer thought it had to abide by the international rules it once had championed.

Probably the most critical gauge of both energy and environmental policy - and it has major national security implications, as well - is the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Every president since Jimmy Carter has vowed to end or reduce our reliance on foreign suppliers of oil.

The reasons are manifest: The more oil we use, the more carbon we throw into the air, which creates local air pollution and contributes to global warming. The more foreign oil we use, the more money we send overseas - much of it to regimes or people who don't like us - the more we export political power to other countries, and the more necessary we believe it is to intervene in the Middle East.

So while oil prices rise and fall - and they have done so dramatically during the Bush Administration - it is more important to track the depths of our oil addiction.

In January, 2001, the United States imported 389.2 million barrels of oil, a number that dropped slightly during the post-9/11 economic slump but rose by January of last year to 418.2 million barrels.

As a percentage of national consumption - the best measure of U.S. vulnerability to foreign suppliers - the figures are worse. In 1974, the year of the Arab oil embargo and the first energy shocks, the United States imported 35 percent of its oil. By the time Mr. Bush took office, the number had climbed to 53 percent. As he departs, the figure is 58 percent and projected to reach 66 percent by 2020.

The Bush Administration's main prescription for our foreign oil dependency has been to drill at home. It has pushed relentlessly for more offshore drilling and for exploiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Opponents point out that drilling those areas full tilt would do little to reduce our dependency either short or long-term. Congress recently approved a limited expansion of offshore drilling but has deep-sixed the refuge idea year after year.

In the meantime, the administration has done virtually nothing to encourage energy conservation, and its efforts to develop alternative energy have been real but fitful. The Department of Energy oversees federal efforts to develop biofuels, wind, geothermal, and an array of other energy sources, as well as energy-savings programs. In 2001, it was appropriated $1.2 billion. This figure did not see a significant leap until 2006, when the administration started to acknowledge the perils of our oil addiction and global warming and provided a still-modest budget of $1.66 billion.

The states have been out in front of the federal government, according to Timothy Duane, an energy policy expert at the University of California at Berkeley. Two-thirds of them now require that a certain percentage of energy supplies marketed in their boundaries comes from noncarbon sources.

Health care, a field so vast that it encompasses science, technology, business, and a huge portion of the federal budget, swung skyward in both cost and size. That was its trajectory before George W. Bush and it changed little during his eight years.

What did change was the ideological approach to health care. Bill Clinton rode to office, in part, on the strength of a promise to deliver health-care coverage to every American, as does virtually every other industrialized country. He didn't, and Mr. Bush never tried.

Still, the bulk of the increase in the number of Americans without health insurance cannot be laid at Mr. Bush's door. The Committee on the State of the USA Health Indicators reports that between 1990 and 2002, the number of uninsured Americans rose from 32.9 million to 43.3 million, a 31 percent jump. Between 2002 and 2007, the last years for which the report has figures, the number rose to 45.7 million, up roughly 5 percent.

Much of the rising cost in health care did take place on Mr. Bush's watch, though. Since his election, the average employee contribution to company-provided health insurance has risen by more than 120 percent and average out-of-pocket costs for deductibles and co-payments for medications rose 115 percent, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser foundation.

Possibly the most striking aspect of the health-care crisis is the bite it has taken from the economy and the federal budget.

Medicare, the program that underwrites medical benefits for the elderly and disabled, accounted for $216 billion, or 2.2 percent of GDP, during Mr. Bush's tenure. By last year that number had grown to $445.4 billion, or 3.2 percent of GDP. A major reason, say experts, was a commitment to increase Medicare coverage for medical prescriptions.

Another is the mixed blessing of human longevity, which has been rising since the beginning of the last century.

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dennis Roddy is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at:

droddy@post-gazette.com

or 412-263-1965.



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