George W. Bush held his last press conference this morning, and he was asked, once again, if he thought he'd made any mistakes:
Q Four years ago, you were asked if you had made any mistakes. [Ed. note: You may recall, he was unable to give an answer.]
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q And I'm not trying to play "gotcha," but I wonder, when you look back over the long arc of your presidency, do you think, in retrospect, that you have made any mistakes? And if so, what is the single biggest mistake that you may have made?
THE PRESIDENT: Gotcha. I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better, or, you know, mistakes I made. Clearly putting a "Mission Accomplished" on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.
I've thought long and hard about Katrina -- you know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. The problem with that and -- is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission. And then your questions, I suspect, would have been, how could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?
I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. And the reason why is, is that -- you know, one of the lessons I learned as governor of Texas, by the way, is legislative branches tend to be risk-adverse. In other words, sometimes legislatures have the tendency to ask, why should I take on a hard task when a crisis is not imminent? And the crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.
As an aside, one thing I proved is that you can actually campaign on the issue and get elected. In other words, I don't believe talking about Social Security is the third rail of American politics. I, matter of fact, think that in the future, not talking about how you intend to fix Social Security is going to be the third rail of American politics.
One thing about the presidency is that you can make -- only make decisions, you know, on the information at hand. You don't get to have information after you've made the decision. That's not the way it works. And you stand by your decisions, and you do your best to explain why you made the decisions you made.
There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.
Anyway, I think historians will look back and they'll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. Along Jake's question, there is no such thing as short-term history. I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed: Where does a President's -- did a President's decisions have the impact that he thought they would, or he thought they would, over time? Or how did this President compare to future Presidents, given a set of circumstances that may be similar or not similar? I mean, there's -- it's just impossible to do. And I'm comfortable with that.
A quick rundown of these "mistakes" reveals that he mostly regrets poorly executed symbolic gestures. Otherwise, he's perfectly comfortable with the policies he's enacted and doesn't think he made any mistakes in that regard. Evidently, the economic and foreign-policy wastelands he has created were only the result of bad symbolism.
Take his explanation of Katrina, for example: What could he have done differently? Well, Bush can only think of how maybe he should've landed his plane in Baton Rouge but then realized it might be its own set of bad optics, so he stayed away and went to cut a birthday cake with John McCain instead.
But the Katrina disaster was directly related to the failures of conservative governance, as Kevin Drum enumerated in detail at the time, summing up:
So. A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reduce the role of government. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning functions were taken away.
Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell.
Or, as Paul Krugman put it the other day, "what happened with Katrina wasn’t that the administration started to fail; what happened was that for the first time its failures were visible to all."
Even more revealing, perhaps, is Bush's explanation for the misleading rationalizations under which we invaded Iraq: "Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment." Bush, we know now, was determined to invade Iraq and "take out Saddam" no matter what. His disappointment, as he tells it now, clearly was not that he relied on deliberately skewed intelligence that told him what he wanted to hear, but rather simply that Saddam didn't have the damned things. It's all that darned Saddam's fault we invaded Iraq under false pretenses.
I think Ben Sargent's retrospective on the Bush Legacy says it all, really: