A President's job evaluation has two parts: what he decides to do, and how competently he does those things.
Let's judge the two biggest things the Bush Administration did during the last four years: the invasion of Iraq as part of the war on terror, and the management of the economy through large tax cuts.
Conservatives and liberals disagree, often vigorously, about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good thing to do as part of the war on terror. Most people would agree that there are at least a few sensible arguments on each side of this question. As President, George Bush had to make a call on a controversial issue, and he did it, which is his job. Over time, we will gain a better perspective on whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do or not, and the Bush presidency will be judged accordingly.
On the other hand, we can already judge how competently the invasion of Iraq was carried out. The answer is, not very competently at all. Of course, the actual military overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime was surprisingly quick and efficient, but the outcome was never in doubt. The incompetence comes from the lack of planning for post-overthrow Iraq. The Secretary of Defense was clearly inspired by a vision of the Liberation of Paris in 1944 when cheering crowds showered flowers on arriving American troops. However, he failed to emulate the meticulous planning for occupied Germany and Japan that took place in the closing years of World War II.
As it has worked out, a number of poor and hasty decisions in occupied Iraq have resulted in Iraq becoming a vastly greater incubator for terrorism than it was under Saddam Hussein. Our opponents have not only succeeded in portraying us as an occupying power, where we hoped to be liberators, but have forced us to act like an occupying power, alienating the people of Iraq. In addition to poor planning, allowing us to be out-maneuvered in the public relations battle, poor lines of authority have allowed shameful abuses like Abu Ghraib that continue to turn ordinary Iraqi citizens against us.
The bottom line is, whether or not it was the right thing to do in the first place, the invasion of Iraq was botched. And our country is substantially worse off because it was botched.
The facts are straight-forward: George Bush started his term with a balanced budget and the realistic prospect of reducing the national debt. Now, both the budget deficit and the national debt have gone up to record levels, and there are a million fewer jobs than when this administration took office. What economic growth there is, has been purchased with deficit spending, which we will all have to pay off through higher taxes in the future.
Different leaders seem to follow two different theories of how they should treat the economy. The "fiscal responsibility" approach says that we should pay our debts and balance the budget. Starting from deficit spending, this means a combination of spending less and raising more through taxes. The "trickle-down" approach says that reducing taxes, especially on the wealthy, results in more economic activity, growing the economy and raising tax income even at lower rates.
The Reagan and part of the first Bush administration took the "trickle-down" approach, and the result was ballooning deficits and increased debt. The Clinton administration and the last part of the first Bush administration took the "fiscal responsibility" approach, which eventually led to a balanced budget. This should have been strong evidence that fiscal responsibility works better than trickle-down economics.
However, the current Bush administration decided to run another experiment with the trickle-down approach. It hasn't worked. The economy has taken a kick in the head, and we are mortgaging our children's lives.
The Bush administration gets poor grades for deciding on a course of action when most of the evidence available suggests that it won't work. Essentially, they are running an extremely expensive experiment with our economy, in the hopes that the previous evidence was unreliable. Unfortunately for all of us, the data from this experiment supports the original conclusion that "trickle-down" doesn't work, and that "fiscal responsibility" is the better approach. For failing to pay attention to the data from their own experiment, the Bush administration gets additional poor grades for competence.
The President makes tough decisions, and some of them will be unpopular. But his performance is judged on whether those decisions turn out to be right, and whether they are carried out competently.
The Bush administration receives failing grades for competence in carrying out the policies it decides on. In Iraq, incompetent planning and oversight has led to a failure in transforming Iraq into a viable state, much less a democracy. In the economy, dramatic tax cuts were a risky experiment in light of the available evidence, but the real incompetence was in failing to pay attention to the evidence from the ballooning deficit and debt and the falling number and quality of jobs, and calling an end to the experiment.
This is not an ideological issue. The issue here is competence, especially the ability to deal with the world as it is, not just the world as one might wish it to be.
Liberals may vote against George Bush because they disagree with the decisions he has made. But conservatives should vote against him because his administration has demonstrated its incompetence in carrying out those decisions.