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Looking for Clues to Bush's Future
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Looking for Clues to Bush's Future

Politics

Looking for Clues to Bush's Future

Looking for Clues to Bush's Future
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With two years left in his presidency, there is no way to know how history will judge George W. Bush. Perhaps it's worth a look back at other chief executives: Truman, Reagan and Clinton. They also faced a critical point six years into their presidencies.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In coming weeks, President Bush and his advisers will be contemplating what the president will try to accomplish in his final two years in office. Any two-term president has to work harder to remain relevant. That's especially true for a president whose party was defeated soundly in midterm elections.

NPR's David Greene sent us this Reporter's Notebook from the White House.

DAVID GREENE: In their rare moments of reflection presidents have often talked about how grueling their job is; how confining and lonely it can be to serve in the White House, and how the experience is so unique that only fellow U.S. presidents really get it. Earlier this year, President Bush was speaking to cadets at West Point. He spoke at length about Harry Truman. Mr. Bush's message seemed to be that his battle today against terrorists is not unlike Truman's fight to defeat communism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: President Truman set a clear doctrine. In a speech to Congress he called for military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey and announced a new doctrine that would guide American policy throughout the Cold War. He told the Congress it must be the policy of the United States to support free...

(Soundbite of speech by President Truman)

President HARRY S. TRUMAN: ...to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

GREENE: That was Truman in 1947 laying out his now-famous doctrine. But Truman's presidency took a downturn, and when he reached the six-year mark foreign policy challenges were mounting as the conflict in Korea had begun.

President TRUMAN: What the free nations have done in Korea is right, and men all over the world know that it's right. Whatever temporary setbacks there may be, the right will prevail in the end.

GREENE: Republicans summed up Truman's record harshly as communism, corruption, and Korea. Truman's job approval ratings dipped into the low 20s. They rebounded little before Truman left office and Republicans took the White House for the first time in two decades. In the years since of course, historians have been more friendly, recalling Truman as a plain talker who did set forces in motion that eventually ended the Cold War.

Truman has been followed by other presidents this century who reached their six year marks looking politically damaged.

President RONALD REAGAN: All the facts concerning Iran and the transfer of funds to assist the anti-Sandinista forces will shortly be made public. Then the American people, you, will be the final arbiters of this controversy.

GREENE: The controversy was the Iran Contra scandal, which engulfed Ronald Reagan's White House. At the end of 1986, it looked like Reagan would close out his presidency under a cloud of investigation, if not worse. But Reagan reenergized his administration with some new faces and he made himself a prominent player on the world stage with trips like this to Berlin.

President REAGAN: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

(Soundbite of cheering)

President REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

GREENE: Reagan left office with nearly six in ten Americans approving of his performance. Of course, there is only one president this century who can say I survived an impeachment.

President BILL CLINTON: I have accepted responsibility for what I did wrong in my personal life, and I have invited members of Congress to work with us to find a reasonable, bipartisan and proportionate response. That approach was rejected today by Republicans in the House.

GREENE: That was December 1998. Bill Clinton had two years left and Republicans were after him, maybe too aggressively for their own good. Many voters seemed to think the GOP made Clinton's private life a bigger issue than it should have been. By the time he said goodbye in January of 2001, Clinton had a solid majority of Americans backing him.

President CLINTON: Hillary, Chelsea and I join all Americans in wishing our very best to the next president, George W. Bush, to his family and his administration in meeting these challenges and in leading freedom's march in this new century.

GREENE: President Bush himself talks about leading freedom's march. That march has taken him today to a moment of political uncertainty. He once spoke of how much political capital he had. For the moment, he doesn't seem to have much at all. But he can look back to the likes of Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. At this moment in their terms none of them could have predicted what was to come and how they would rebound in their own ways.

Whatever these next two years bring for Mr. Bush, there's one last thing he can surely take from his predecessors. He'll be more the prisoner of events than the author.

David Greene, NPR News, The White House.

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