10 Things President Bush Did Right for Civil Liberties

George W. Bush signs Patriot Act amongst peers
The reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

During his time in office, President Bush did a lot of things many Democrats and liberals didn't like, but in retrospect, his civil liberties record was, at worst, mixed. Here are 10 things Bush did to protect or advance American civil liberties.

Transformed the Immigration Reform Debate

George W. Bush Speaks with Iranian business owner.
George W. Bush meets with customers at a Dunkin Donuts owned by Iranian-born businessmen Abolhossein Ejtemai and Ali Assayesh to push his plan to reform immigration policy. Pool / Getty Images

In 2006, there was a debate within the Republican-dominated Congress over the future of America's 12 million undocumented immigrants. The dominantly conservative House of Representatives favored mass deportation of illegal immigrants, for example, while many Senators favored the creation of path that would lead many illegal immigrants to citizenship. Bush favored the latter approach. Both the Senate and the House turned more Republican and more conservative in the 2010 elections, and the course Bush advocated failed, but he did favor it and spoke in its favor. 

Declared the First Federal Ban on Racial Profiling

George W. Bush shaking hand with congressmen.
George W. Bush greets congress members after he delivered his first speech before a joint session of the 107th Congress on Capitol Hill. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

During his first State of the Union address in early 2001, President Bush vowed to end racial profiling. In 2003, he acted on his promise by issuing an order to 70 federal law enforcement agencies calling for an end to most forms of racial and ethnic profiling. Few would argue that this solved the problem, which remains unsolved in the following Obama presidency. It seems to be a problem deeply ​embedded in American life and will almost certainly take more than a Presidential Order to solve, but Bush deserves some credit for trying. 

Did not Appoint Justices in the Mold of Scalia and Thomas

George W. Bush stands with John Roberts during swearing in ceremony.
George W. Bush watches as John Roberts is sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Win McNamee / Getty Images

No one would call Bush's two Supreme Court appointments liberals. However, both Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts--Roberts in particular--are to the left of Justices Clarence Thomas and deceased Anthony Scalia. Legal scholars differ about the extent to which Bush's appointments shifted the court to the right, but they certainly did not extend the bold rightward trajectory that many had expected.

Accepted Record Numbers of Refugees and Asylum-seekers

An Afghan refugee speaks next George W. Bush.
Farida, an Afghan refugee, delivers her address as U.S. President George W. Bush listens prior to the signing of the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act in Washington. Mike Theiler / Getty Images

During the second term of the Clinton administration, the United States accepted an average of 60,000 refugees and 7,000 asylum-seekers per year. From 2001 to 2006, under the leadership of President Bush, the United States accepted more than four times as many asylum-seekers--some 32,000 annually--and an average of 87,000 refugees each year. This often goes unmentioned by Bush's critics, who more often compare his record unfavorably with refugee admissions under President Obama, who admitted a half-million.

Used the Bully Pulpit to Protect American Muslims

Bush Meets With Muslim Leaders
George W. Bush meets with Muslim leaders September 17, 2001 after touring the Islamic Center of Washington, DC. Getty Images / Getty Images

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment rose ​precipitously. Almost every other president in the history of the United States who faced terrorist attacks from abroad ultimately gave in to xenophobia--President Woodrow Wilson being the most egregious example. President Bush did not, infuriating elements of his base by meeting with pro-Arab and pro-Muslim civil rights groups after the attacks and holding Muslim events at the White House. When Democrats relied on anti-Arab sentiment while criticizing the transfer of several U.S. ports from British to UAE ownership, it became clear just how far this xenophobia had spread--and just how important Bush's more tolerant response had become. 

Integrated the Executive Branch

Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales departs a Rose Garden event at the White House. The event was a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Win McNamee / Getty Images

The top four positions in the executive branch are those of the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, and the attorney general. Until President Bush came to power, none of these four offices had ever been occupied by a person of color. President Bush appointed the first Latin attorney general (Alberto Gonzales) and both the first and second African American secretaries of state: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Although prior to Bush's presidency, there had been legislators and Supreme Court justices of color, until the Bush presidency senior members of the executive branch had always been non-Latin whites. 

Extended Federal Pension Benefits to Include Same-Sex Couples.

George W. Bush receiving standing ovation.
George W. Bush reacts to a standing ovation before signing the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Although President Bush's rhetoric has not always been clearly favorable to LGBT Americans, he didn't change federal policies in ways that could detrimentally affect them. On the contrary, in 2006 he signed an historic bill that gave non-spousal couples the same federal pension standards as married couples. He also appointed an openly gay man as ambassador to Romania, refused to turn lesbian and gay families away from the White House Easter egg hunt as some religious conservatives had advocated, and refused to overturn President Clinton's executive order banning federal employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. His warm words about the Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter and her family exemplify Bush administration actions that were openly favorable to LGBT Americans.

Protected the Right to Bear Arms.

Vice President Cheney speaks at the NRA National Convention.
Dick Cheney speaks to National Rifle Association members outlining the Bush administration's support of second amendment rights during the 133rd Annual NRA convention. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Two of these ten Bush actions are less widely admired. When President Bush came into office, the Clinton-era assault weapons ban was still in effect. Even though he had supported the ban consistently during his 2000 campaign, President Bush made no serious effort to seek a renewal of the assault weapons ban and it expired in 2004. President Bush later signed legislation preventing local law enforcement agencies from forcibly confiscating legally-owned firearms--as was done on a large scale in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Some Americans interpret Bush's actions as admirable and supportive of the second amendment to the Bill of Rights. Other see them as regrettable capitulations to the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association. 

Signed an Executive Order Banning Federal Eminent Domain Seizures.

Susette Kelo speaking during hearing.
Susette Kelo, plaintiff in the Supreme Court ruling Kelo v. New London; property rights case testifies on eminent domain during a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. The committee is hearing testimony on the Kelo decision and investigating the taking of homes and other private property. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Bush's order banning federal eminent domain seizures is also controversial. The Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo v. New London (2005) gave the government power to seize private property for commercial use if the local government deemed the commercial use helpful to the community as a whole, giving the government more power to seize private property than it had before. While executive orders hold no legislative power, and the federal government has not historically made eminent domain claims, President Bush's executive order banning them tilted the playing field in favor of those resisting federal powers generally.  Was this a sensible response that preserves American liberties and private property rights or a capitulation to extreme libertarians determined to resist the Federal Government's reasonable attempts to provide the greatest good for the many? Opinions differ.   

Did Not Create "an America We Won't Recognize."

George W. Bush shaking hands with congressmen.
George W. Bush shakes hands with Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey after signing the USA Patriot and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2005. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Bush's greatest contribution President Bush to civil liberties may simply have been his failure to live up to widely held dismal expectations. During the 2004 campaign, then Senator Hillary Clinton warned us that re-electing Bush would radically transform our country, leaving us with what she called "an America we won't recognize." While President Bush's civil liberties record is mixed, it is only incrementally worse than that of his predecessor, President Clinton. Presidential scholars generally recognize, as well, that the 2001 World Trade Center attacks changed American sentiment substantially away from civil liberties and toward protective measures that weakened them. In short, it could have been worse.

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Head, Tom. "10 Things President Bush Did Right for Civil Liberties." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/presidency-of-george-w-bush-721584. Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). 10 Things President Bush Did Right for Civil Liberties. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/presidency-of-george-w-bush-721584 Head, Tom. "10 Things President Bush Did Right for Civil Liberties." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/presidency-of-george-w-bush-721584 (accessed May 28, 2023).