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Judging Bush with a bird's eye

Today's tasks are so vast for a US leader that they can easily lead to mistakes, lapses, and hubris.

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If future historians are kind to George W. Bush, they will judge his presidency more in the context of his times than by his blunders and triumphs. Their verdict may still be harsh, but they could soften it by considering that the task of governing America is now so big and complex that it is difficult for one person to handle it without making major mistakes.

A modern president's plate is too stacked with demands, posing a threat of burnout or miscue. Barack Obama, after receiving his first CIA briefing about hot spots, reportedly said (hopefully in jest): "Why would anyone want this job?" No wonder he ran on "hope."

Today's presidents begin humbly but often resort to hubris to deal with overwhelming challenges, from terrorism to healthcare to global warming. Mr. Bush bit off more than he could chew in Iraq (although the "surge" may yet save his goals). To prevent a second Sept. 11 – quite an achievement – he interpreted the Constitution in odd ways. He was so fixed on fighting terror that he allowed the biggest budgetary expansion since FDR.

Bush tried to reform education with mandatory testing but it took a 670-page law and made teachers testy. While he warned of housing problems early on, he didn't prevent a busting of that bubble. Finally, he had to jettison his free-market mantra to avoid a financial market meltdown.

The late Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt once warned president-elects that they "are almost bound to overestimate the power that will soon be theirs." And the late historian Samuel Huntington said the US has been so overloaded with social demands since the 1960s that it is increasingly "ungovernable." A 2006 CNN poll found 58 percent of parents do not want their children to grow up to be president.


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