Whatever his critics may think of the way George Bush came into office, he is leaving in the spirit he promised eight years ago: a uniter, not a divider.
Bush is presiding over a smooth transition, free from leaks and backbiting. More important, he has delivered a level of policy coordination between outgoing and incoming administrations unprecedented in American history.
This feat is all the more impressive because it occurs at a time of economic crisis—and despite serious ideological divisions between the political parties over how to respond.
The proposed auto bailout represents the outstanding example. Few if any Republicans support it. Bush himself in remarks last week to the American Enterprise Institute made clear his own discomfort with the proposal: “This is a difficult time for a free market person. Under ordinary circumstances, failed entities—failing entities should be allowed to fail. … I'm … worried about putting good money after bad—that means whether or not these autos will become viable in the future.”
Yet on the other hand, the president continued, “I feel an obligation to my successor. I've thought about what it would be like for me to become President during this period. I have an—I believe that good policy is not to dump him a major catastrophe in his first day of office.”
One solution to this conundrum would be to hand that successor a fait accompli: refuse the bailout, apply free-market medicine, and put GM, Ford and Chrysler into bankruptcy before Inauguration Day. Another would be to race to assemble a deal now, before the Democrats arrived. Bush did neither. Instead, he offered a bridge loan, well short of the money needed for a permanent resolution, but sufficient to sustain the auto companies until the early weeks of the next presidency. Barack Obama will have both scope and time to reach his own decision about this grave decision.
In this, George W. Bush is acting very differently from his predecessor. Bill Clinton bequeathed George Bush a series of regulatory time bombs, neatly calculated to explode and wound his new administration. As president, for example, Clinton had resisted tightening permissible levels of arsenic in drinking water. The evidence of benefit from tighter regulations was weak; the cost to local water authorities (especially in some poor states like New Mexico) would be painfully high. In the final weeks of his presidency, however, Clinton okayed the new standard—forcing Bush to choose between inflicting tax increases on localities or looking like a poisoner of the wells.
Similar traps were laid on energy regulations, on Kyoto, and on the International Criminal Court. In every case, Bush followed the actual policy that his predecessor had followed while in office—while falling short of the phony high-toned policy his predecessor had announced on his way out the door. And it has to be admitted, those little time bombs hurt.
Another man might have concluded that it was only fair that he retaliate by bequeathing some bombs of his own. Bush did the opposite, extending more consideration than he had received in his turn. It’s maybe not the biggest presidential achievements. But surely it ranks among the finer.