George W. Bush is back in the news with the opening of his presidential library (when did these become a thing, anyway?). There have been some weak attempts to defend him, and more repetitions of what we already know -- that George W. Bush was a poor president that made bad decisions, a man so obsessed with being 'the decider' that he banished any of the doubt and self-reflection needed for serious decision making*.
I've been returning to something that the great, curmudgeonly historian David Foner said -- that George W. Bush was the worst president ever. Now I didn't think that then and I don't think that now -- we've had more wicked presidents (Jackson) and presidents that have presided over (and helped create) greater national disasters (Hoover, Buchanan).
But there is a narrow sense in which I think Bush is 'the worst ever' -- never before has a president -created- so many problems without any need or excuse. Never before has a president been given such a strong hand -- a budget surplus, international leadership both moral and political -- and squandered it so completely, leaving us with financial collapse, trillion-dollar deficits, a misbegotten and mismanaged war, and Abu Ghraib. The other presidential failures -- Hoover and Buchanan come to mind -- were given great challenges and failed spectacularly. George W. Bush was given one significant but manageable challenge - 9-11 - and failed badly, and then he conjured up more failures (deficits, Katrina's aftermath) from thin air and sheer incompetence.
I've studied a bit of American history, and I think this is unique. Other presidents (Nixon, Jefferson) mixed unforced errors with brilliant accomplishments, while others (Adams) had brilliant accomplishments amidst general incompetence. George W. Bush doesn't just belong aside Harding and Filmore amongst the mediocre presidents, he belongs at the bottom of them all, circling the drain with Buchanan and Hoover.
*This probably has a bit to do with his MBA education and his stints in the corporate world, honestly.