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Commentary: Bush still doesn't get it

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Bush ends his second term with a tarnished presidency
  • He says Bush wasn't incompetent or dishonest but he showed arrogance
  • Rollins says the four former presidents who met with Obama all had great failures
  • He says lesson for Obama is that things often don't go as planned
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Ed Rollins, who served as political director for President Ronald Reagan, is a Republican strategist who was national chairman of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign.

Ed Rollins says failing to find the WMDs in Iraq was far more than a disappointment.

Ed Rollins says failing to find the WMDs in Iraq was far more than a disappointment.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- One week from today, a historic presidency begins and a tarnished presidency ends.

The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, cannot come quickly enough for the vast majority of Americans.

This young man with the keen disciplined mind and the buffed body begins a presidency with high hopes, goodwill and a never-ending list of problems left on the Oval Office desk by George Walker Bush, the ever-confident occupant of that high office who seems like the dinner guest who will not leave.

In all my years around Washington as an observer and as a member of several administrations, I have rarely witnessed an event as bizarre as President Bush's farewell press conference yesterday.

It reminded me of Richard Nixon's November 17, 1973, question and answer session before 400 Associated Press managing editors at the height of the Watergate scandal, in which he declared: "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook."

Well, to the best of my knowledge, Nixon wasn't a crook (in the technical sense). He was dishonest, he abused the office of the presidency, and telling the truth wasn't his strong suit. And he resigned in disgrace and would have been impeached if he hadn't. But there were also periods in his presidency that were very good for this country and the world.

President Bush is not a crook either. And even more importantly, I don't believe he is dishonest or an incompetent. The mistakes of his presidency were caused by overconfidence, bad information or a certain arrogance that was still fully on display yesterday.

How can you reflect on going to war, a war of choice, and argue that "not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment," as President Bush did yesterday? And putting the "not finding the weapons" in the same breath as "We shouldn't have hung the sign, 'Mission Accomplished' "!

A disappointment is when you're a football fan and your team lost in the playoffs or in the national championship game. Eliminating weapons of mass destruction was the rationale for sending hundreds of thousands of men and women to Iraq to risk their lives and spending billions of dollars of American taxpayers' money. Find out how some readers are angry over Bush's legacy

The rationale for the war wasn't that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy -- which he was -- and that he violated every sanction and agreement that the United Nations put on him.

President Bush went on to say: "One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions based on the information at hand. You don't get to have information after you make the decision -- that's not the way it works."

That is correct and that may be the most important lesson our new president can learn from the failures of the last. Make sure you get the information to make the right decisions.

President Bush, referring to the Abu Ghraib scandal and the missing weapons of mass destruction, said, "I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but things didn't go as planned, let's put it that way."

The lesson for President-elect Obama is often things don't go as planned.

Last week four men who have been president had lunch in the White House with the newly elected president. As I looked at the picture of the five members of the most exclusive club in the world standing in the Oval Office, I felt sad.

Two of the men, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, now in their 80s, had been overwhelmingly defeated in their bids for re-election. President Clinton and President Bush, both in their 60s, had periods of great failure.

President Clinton was impeached. The present president leaves office with the lowest approval ratings in modern history. None of these were bad men -- just the opposite.

Why did their presidencies not live up to those high expectations that we all have for our new leaders on Inauguration Day?

In some cases, they fought their natural allies. President Carter was particularly inept at dealing with Congress; so was the current President Bush. Carter and the two Bushes failed at communicating with the public and were unable to articulate what their programs were and build support for them in Congress. Clinton, a good communicator, was terribly undisciplined.

President Obama will need to set his priorities early. He can't do all he's promised in the first term. He needs to build strong relationships with the Congress and let them play a big role in setting his agenda.

He needs to use his tremendous communication skills and continually explain to the country what he wants to do and why. Then he needs to take his campaign machine and motivate the grassroots organization he built to get Congress to support his programs. He must be patient but persistent in making his case.

As we hope for the change which is coming next week, I just want to pause and reflect and say to President Bush, "Thank you, for serving your country." To our new president: Best of luck and you have our prayers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

All About Barack ObamaGeorge W. BushRichard Nixon

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