Whatever you think about the actual state our union is in, there is little doubt George W. Bush has profoundly transformed it. "Tonight is a red-letter night in American history," a campaigning Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Connecticut Monday, redirecting her ire momentarily from Barack Obama back to Bush. "It is the last time George Bush will give the State of the Union. Next year it will be a Democratic president giving it." Perhaps. But curb your enthusiasm, Sen. Clinton: it will still be Bush who dictates what you or any other president will talk about a year hence—and probably for many years after that.
Across the board, Bush has pursued policies that, for better or worse, will set the agenda for the next president and probably define his or her entire tenure. On the economy, Bush's successor will be left with a narrow, nail-biting set of choices, thanks to the lack of fiscal discipline over the last seven years (which turned a $236 billion surplus into a huge deficit), a dramatically changed tax structure and, now, what will likely be known as the Bush recession. Things were so dire this week that even the managing director of the fiscally strict International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, told the Financial Times that America and other countries had to loosen their already lax purse strings and do more deficit spending, despite the fact that the dollar is under attack due to America's overspending. Throw into that mix a new, Bush-appointed Federal Reserve chief, Ben Bernanke, who has nine years to go in his term, and you have to conclude that Bush will cast a shadow that will linger long after he leaves office next January.
On foreign policy Bush leaves an array of challenges that are, at best, in midstream. They will almost certainly keep the next president fully occupied for four more years, and probably eight: an investment of $1 trillion-plus and thousands of American lives, along with many more limbs, in Iraq, and a counterinsurgency, nation-building task that is still in its infancy; another country that by then will be only a year or so from bomb-capability (Iran); and an army that is so badly strapped it will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars before it is back to where it was pre-9/11. On the more positive side, Bush has set precedents for the next president on HIV/AIDS and humanitarian intervention in Africa, especially Darfur, that will be hard to ignore.
On counterterrorism and intelligence, the next president will have to wrestle with Bush's Homeland Security Department, which has grown into a glandular monstrosity that no secretary seems able to tame (and which was at least partly responsible for the disaster that was the Hurricane Katrina response). The intelligence community, reorganized at Bush's command into a new structure in which the CIA director is just one player among many, has also now become a creature unto itself. Bush recently complained, after the embarrassment of December's national intelligence estimate on Iran, that he could not control what it writes. Nor will the next president.
On social and health issues, seven years of neglect have left most of the hard tasks still undone. Social Security, which Bush vowed to rescue at the beginning of his second term, is still insolvent, as is Medicare. And on the political playing field, Bush has wrecked the Republican Party—or so say some of its leading voices. GOP doyenne Peggy Noonan concluded the other day, "George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues." She is not alone in making such sweeping assessments.
Above all the next president will inherit the Augean task of restoring faith in the stability of American leadership after eight years of Bush's "transformational" approach. People around the world used to depend on the United States, in contrast to previous great powers, to play the part of an essentially benign actor on the global stage. We would use our powerful military only in the most extreme exigency, and reluctantly. We might occasionally go out into the world in force, brandishing all our high-tech weaponry and flaunting our sense of exceptionalism, but we would always go home again (though we might leave a military base or two behind). The Bush administration has rocked these beliefs to the core. "Countries are making moves that reduce their dependence on sober and constructive American leadership," says Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry. "My question is: how much of the damage that Bush foreign policy has done is irreversible?"
We won't know for a long time. What we do know is that Bush's imprint will be with us well into the next several State of the Union speeches.