ANALYSIS: The Complicated Legacy Of George W. Bush’s Leadership After 9/11

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Dylan Housman Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Former President George W. Bush has oddly been praised by liberals and demonized by conservatives since former President Donald Trump took the helm of the Republican Party.

Bush did not toe the party line during the Trump presidency, occasionally calling out Republicans for embracing anti-immigration sentiment and pledging too much fealty to Trump. He’s called the new party nativist, he voted for Condoleezza Rice in the 2020 election and has made numerous pro-refugee, pro-immigrant statements.

As a result, partisan opinions of him seemingly flipped, with Democrats longing for the days of a “respectable Republican” like Bush while the new GOP revolted against his perceived treason against the party. But despite the pivot to nonpartisan observer, the legacy of Bush’s policies post-9/11 remain underwater with everyday Americans. (RELATED: Comparing The State Of The GOP: Post-Trump Vs. Post-Bush)

That dynamic was evident during the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, when Bush gave a speech in which he honored those who were lost, commended the American spirit and warned against the threat of domestic extremism.

The “new respect” from the left was once again on display, with some of the harshest critics of Trump and the GOP lavishly praising his Republican predecessor. On the right, some observers took issue with Bush’s allusion to domestic terrorism as a major threat to the country.

Bush’s post-9/11 legacy is more complex than simple partisan politics. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, his approval rating soared to new heights presidents today could only dream of. Ninety percent of Americans approved of the job Bush was doing two weeks after the attack, the highest mark ever totaled in Gallup’s history.

The president, less than one year into his term, used this newfound political capital to make sweeping decisions that would change the trajectory of the world forever. Abroad, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were launched, the Bush Doctrine of preemptive military strikes was adopted and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” what others call torture, were used to try and quash terrorism.

At home, the Patriot Act stands out as the defining domestic legacy of 9/11. Americans would go on to be surveilled in ways never seen before after the attacks, in the name of stopping the next 9/11. (RELATED: Watch George W. Bush’s 9/11 National Geographic Special On The 19-Year Anniversary Of The Terrorist Attacks)

While Bush enjoyed astronomical approval numbers at that time, and some mainstream media figures and centrist now look fondly upon his reaction to the attacks and eloquence in speaking about them, the American people hold a very mixed opinion of just how good a job the administration did starting on Sept. 12, 2001.

A 2015 poll from the ACLU found that 60% of Americans wanted the Patriot Act to be reformed to limit the spying power the government has over regular citizens. For years, a majority of Americans have believed the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to Iraq, according to Gallup. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan wasn’t worth it.

Veterans of the war in Afghanistan rate Bush’s handling of the country lower than Trump’s, who campaigned on withdrawing all U.S. troops. Americans are also strongly opposed to torture of terrorists and suspected terrorists, a 2005 Gallup poll found.

These factors led to Bush’s approval rating ending up in the 20s by the end of his presidency, compared to the 90% approval he once enjoyed.