Undoing Eight Years of Bush: Liquidate the Legacy

By Steve Breyman

There is likely no more important task for the incoming Obama administration than to undo as much of the damage George Bush wreaked on the country and the world as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Major constituencies (labor, environmentalists, women, progressives, etc.) have weighed in with their interim agendas and lists of things to (un)do. Obama apparently has a team focused on early undoing of certain yet to be named Bush executive orders. Some of us are keeping an eye on the Bush presidency’s flurry of last-minute actions to burrow appointees, rewrite rules, and gut regulations. However, as far as I know, there is no massive, coordinated, rush effort to tally all that is still undoable from the past eight years.

We cannot wait for historians to meticulously document it all (although the Organization of American Historians might sponsor a series of annual research conferences to jump start, structure and maintain the academic effort). There is enough work here for a thousand doctoral dissertations across multiple fields (to be funded by visionary foundations), but we need quick results. Since we do not have a magic wand to make all the horrors disappear, prizes might be offered for the most innovative and speedy methods for “Bush Impact Assessment.” Perhaps a supercomputer with data-mining capabilities could be assigned to the effort.

Neither can we wait for further tell-all books from former Bush aides, although the more of these the better. The case for impeachment gathered by John Conyers and others in recent years is just a small part of the research that must be done. This is so because some of those crimes revolved around decisions (e.g., to invade Iraq) that are difficult if not impossible to do over. And this is so because much of the carnage inflicted over the past decade was “legal.”

The first order of business for new Cabinet members should be this: present the President with a prioritized list of the top ten Bush policies, programs, (de)regulations or fiscal issues that require undoing. The “Obama Nation” that sprang up during the campaign should be invited to take part. The same young folks who donated countless hours to running down and debunking racist and other rumors about the then candidate or who changed their middle names to Hussein in solidarity with the senator from Illinois might be deployed to generate their own favorite lists. We ought not to worry about redundancy in the lists; it is likely an indicator of the importance of recurring items. A special unit should be devoted to unearthing the catalog of evils that emanated from the Office of the Vice President. The operative assumption for the researchers should be that every decision of any consequence made by every Bush agency and every Bush-appointed official requires undoing or some other repair.     

But we also need to pay attention to “nondecisions” in the liquidation of the Bush legacy. There were undoubtedly tens of thousands of incidents where the federal government ought to have taken some action but did not for reasons of ideology, incompetence, or stupidity. What of the eight hundred or more signing statements Bush appended to laws passed by Congress? Has someone compiled and sorted them all yet? Can the new president simply withdraw or otherwise cancel them? Can we get Obama to promise not to append any of his own in the years to come? Presidents already get to implement laws in the ways they see fit. They ought not also get to add ‘implementation addenda’ to them.

Draft lists could be vetted by making them public. The Cabinet’s “final” lists should be presented at a prime time news conference, and posted to the website of each Department. Each Secretary must not only generate a priority list, but also must defend it in public, assign an aide to oversee the effort, and report quarterly on progress towards implementing it. Transparency is essential to the effort. The change that we can see is the change that we can believe in. Should an agency quickly make its way though its ten-item list, then it ought to rapidly draft a fresh list and reiterate the process. Journalists and bloggers should keep careful track of the results, actual and claimed.  

None of this is to insinuate for a moment that the federal government passed to Bush by Bill Clinton was some golden exemplar of fairness, justice, and equality. It is only to acknowledge the obvious: the Bush administration was among if not the single worst in American history. Lightening its stain on history is good public policy in and of itself, and permits the Obama administration a fresh start. There will be those who claim that undoing Bush is ‘getting mired in the past’ or is insufficiently forward-looking. But we cannot move forward if weighed down by the mistakes of the recent past.  

-Dr. Steve Breyman teaches political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: breyms@rpi.edu.

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