George Bush Is the Least Popular Living President

Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.

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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Since leaving office, George W. Bush has stayed largely out of the spotlight and away from the daily grind of politicking, declining to take public swipes at Barack Obama so as not to “undermine” the sitting president. The ex-decider, however, hasn’t been rewarded for riding off into the Texas sunset.

(PHOTOS: Presidents in Profile: 20 Portraits from the White House Archives)

According to a new CNN/ORC International poll, Bush has the lowest favorable rating of any living president. Only 43 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of the 43rd president, lower than Jimmy Carter (54 percent), George H.W. Bush (59 percent) or Bill Clinton (66 percent). Dubya also had the highest unfavorable rating, 54 percent, of those presidents.

(More:  TIME’s Exclusive Interview with George W. Bush)

Bush’s absence from the White House, however, has made the hearts of some voters grow slightly fonder. Favorable opinions of the president are identical to the results of a similar poll conducted in 2010, but are also up from his mid-30’s rating in 2009, his first year out of the White House, according to CNN. Still, the relatively low opinion that Americans still have of his presidency probably played a role in Bush’s decision to opt out of a role as surrogate for Republican presidential candidates during the current election cycle.

Mitt Romney’s people are apparently fine with that. When Bush gave a rushed, closing-elevator-door endorsement of Mitt only weeks ago, the Romney camp didn’t do much to play up the news — unlike when Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, pledged his support in a photo-op with the candidate. As many reporters noticed at the time, the Romney campaign seemed to give Bush’s endorsement as much attention as those of Jeff Foxworthy and Donald Trump.

MORE:  The President’s Club: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity


The economic legacy of George W. Bush can only be measured in trillions of dollars—in fact many trillions. And it's all waste and loss.

President George W. Bush's First Legacy: The Mountain of Debt

During Bush's two terms in office more than $3 trillion has been poured down the black hole of wars in Iraq and the Middle East. More than $5 trillion has been served up in tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest 10 percent households in the U.S.

According to U.S. Federal Reserve Bank data, since Bush assumed office in January 2001 government debt levels have risen by more than $3 trillion—the total as of the end of March 2008. It does not yet include the cost of bank bailouts this past September: $300 billion for Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, $85 billion for the insurance company giant AIG, and the infamous $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout at the close of September amounting to another minimum $1.085 trillion.

President George W. Bush's Second Legacy: System Collapse

The unwinding of the $21 trillion in net debt accumulated during the Bush administration is the root cause of the current financial crisis.

The write-downs and write-offs by banks and other financial institutions, the bankruptcies by companies and consumers, the losses of home values, the foreclosures, etc.—all represent the "unwinding" of that record level of $21 trillion new debt. The September bank bailouts represent an effort by finance capital and America's corporate elite to shift a major portion of this debt from their corporate balance sheets to the public balance sheet and taxpayer.

The bank bailouts will not stop the debt unwinding as they do not address the fundamental causes of the housing and commercial property price collapse underway since the beginning of the year and now accelerating. The only thing settled by the bailouts—TARP, Fannie Mae, AIG, and others—is who will pay for the crisis, not how to end the crisis.

President George W. Bush's Third Legacy: Epic Recession

The direct consequence of financial crisis and implosion is a general credit crunch—a system-wide sharp contraction of credit. A credit contraction has been progressively growing in the economy since last January. A credit contraction occurs when banks and financial institutions have, or expect to have, significant losses due to bad loans and investments and are increasingly reluctant to loan out reserves they may have on hand. They may need the cash on hand and reserves to cover anticipated losses and prevent becoming technically bankrupt if their losses exceed their reserves. Over the past year financial institutions have tightened their lending terms. But even the slow down in lending hit a wall and entered a new, more intense and serious stage with the financial events of September.

From housing and commercial property markets to industrial loans to municipal and corporate bonds to commercial paper and even markets in which banks loan to each other, all began to shut down in September. There is no inter-bank lending market at present in the U.S. or even globally for that matter. They have shut down. The Fed and other central banks have become, in effect, the only banks willing to lend to other banks. Even money markets are contracting. Money market funds, mutual funds, pension funds, and hedge funds are all in the process of contracting and reducing lending.

President George W. Bush's Fourth Legacy: Record Budget Deficits

With bailouts, with expected losses in tax revenues in 2009 due to the now deepening recession, and with the certain need for further fiscal stimulus by the federal government to save state and local governments from bankruptcy and provide unemployment insurance for the millions more jobless to come, the next U.S. budget deficit will easily double from its current projected level of around $500 billion. (Yes, that's another $1 trillion.) A mind-boggling trillion dollar budget deficit will all but ensure that whoever wins the November 2008 election, few if any of their campaign promises or programs will see implementation. Instead, a national economic austerity program will likely be the agenda come January 2009. Critical programs like health care reform, student loans, sustainable environment, jobs creation and protection, foreclosure mortgage relief, retirement systems reform, etc., will likely all be sidelined more or less permanently.

The massive budget deficit is the consequence thus far of three primary causes: the $3 trillion Mideast wars, the $5 trillion tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and now more recently the multi-trillion, still rising bailouts of finance capital at taxpayer expense. The fourth is the deepening recession itself, which will result in a major shortfall of tax revenues to the federal government. The fifth is the need for the federal government to spend significantly more in order to stimulate recovery from the downturn.


President George W. Bush's Eighth Legacy: Destruction of Retirement

Another Bush legacy has been the destruction of the retirement system established in the immediate post-World War II period. That system was based on the idea of a three-legged stool structure that included Social Security, employer-provided pensions, and personal savings. Bush actively undermined all three, resulting in a crisis of historic proportions for the more than 44 million retirees and the 77 million baby boomers who will join their ranks starting next year.

The crisis in Social Security is not the one described by the Bush administration a few years ago, as Bush desperately attempted to privatize the system. The crisis is the more than $2.3 trillion dollars that has been siphoned out of the Social Security Trust Fund, transferred to the U.S. general budget, and spent in order to pay for wealthy and corporate tax cuts, chronic wars under Bush, and ballooning defense budgets. Social Security payroll tax collections for two decades have actually subsidized the U.S. budget, not undermined it. Every year the Social Security program produces a surplus, at the rate of sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars. And that surplus is diverted in full and spent. Defenders of the historic theft say we owe it to ourselves and can put it all back in the trust fund whenever we need. True. But to replace it requires that the U.S. government borrow back the $2.3 trillion from banks and other private sources, paying interest on that debt, and thus adding at least $200 billion more a year for 10 years to the coming $1 trillion a year budget deficit. In accounting terms it is possible; in economic and political terms it is not. Bush has borrowed over his eight years in office more than $1.3 trillion of the $2.3 trillion Social Security Trust Fund surplus.

President George W. Bush's Ninth Legacy: Dismantling Health Care

Bush has been even more successful in privatizing, and thus dismantling, the post-war health care financing system. By allowing health care insurance premiums and other costs to double during his term, rising more than 10 percent every year, he has forced employers and workers alike to give up health care coverage altogether or to reduce that coverage in order to afford rising premiums and other costs. There are now more than 47 million Americans without any kind of health coverage whatsoever, an increase of 9 million since 2000. More than 1.3 million working Americans lost their health insurance coverage in 2006 alone. Approximately 12 percent of all children in the U.S. have no health coverage.

Despite this collapsing coverage, the U.S. spends nearly twice as much, about 17 percent, of its total GDP on health care. That compares with 9 to 10 percent for those countries with single payer health delivery systems in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere. It means the U.S. spends more than $1 trillion a year to mostly insurance companies that push forms around while delivering no health services.

For those still with health insurance, the rising cost burden has also shifted significantly from employers to their workers—by as much as 30 percent, according to some studies. Thousands of companies have been allowed to abandon their health plans altogether, most notably the big auto companies which are dumping their health care funds, underfunded by $50 billion, onto the auto workers' unions.

President George W. Bush's Tenth Legacy: Income Shift

Every year for the first five years of his terms in office Bush pushed historic tax cuts totaling more than $5 trillion. Estimations from sources like Brookings, Urban Institute, and others are that about 73 percent of the cuts benefited the wealthiest 20 percent households—30 percent, or $1.5 trillion, of that 73 percent benefited the wealthiest 1 percent households; roughly 1.1 million out of the total 114 million taxpaying households in the U.S. But these figures don't include tax cuts for corporations. Nor do they include similar massive tax shifting at the state and local levels. Where has all that tax cut money gone, one might ask? A good deal of it into hedge funds, private equity funds, and other forms of private, unregulated banking, thus stoking the fires of speculative investment in subprimes, derivatives, and other unregulated financial securities. Other amounts have no doubt contributed to the explosion of offshore tax shelters. According to the investment bank Morgan Stanley, in 2005 offshore tax shelters increased their funds from $250 billion in 1983 to more than $5 trillion by 2004. More recent estimations by the Tax Justice Network indicate tax shelters now hold more than $11 trillion. A reasonable estimate is that wealthy Americans likely account for at least 40 percent of that total—around $4-$4.5 trillion. Exactly how much is not currently knowable, since there are around 27 offshore tax shelters, according to the IRS, in mostly sovereign nations like the Cayman Islands, the Seyschells, Isle of Man, Vanuatu, and the like that have closed their tax doors and do not cooperate with IRS attempts to investigate how much wealthy U.S. taxpayers have stuffed away in their electronic vaults.

This explosion of income and wealth at the top at the expense of those at the bottom has been estimated in recent academic studies by Professors Emmanual Saez and Thomas Picketty. Based on their analysis of IRS taxes paid over the history of the federal income tax since 1917, the wealthiest 1 percent of households in the U.S. received about 8.3 percent of total income in the U.S. in 1978. By 2006, that wealthiest 1 percent was receiving 20.3 percent of total income generated in the U.S.—not including tax sheltered income or corporations' retained income or profits diverted offshore. This 20.3 percent represents a return to almost exactly what the top 1 percent received in 1928 (21.09 percent) on the eve of the last Great Depression.
These legacies are interdependent, one feeding on and exacerbating the other. It is not possible, for one example, to understand the current financial crisis and emerging global epic recession apart from the massive shift and concentration of income in the hands of the wealthiest household-speculators and corporate-speculators. That is not the sole explanation of the present systemic financial collapse or growing threat of global depression increasing now almost daily. But the financial and economic crisis underway at present cannot be fully comprehended apart from the former either. Reversing the legacies, removing the toxic effects on the future of American economy and society cannot take place without correcting the fundamental causes. That includes reversing once again, as in the 1930s and 1940s, the perverse and distorted income and wealth distribution afflicting society itself. 
Ajay Jain