Tuesday, August 16, 2005

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A Strong Presidency?

How strong a President is George W. Bush?

It's a complicated question. Generally I subscribe to the 20-Year Rule for evaluating Presidents, reasoning that about that much time has to pass before all the consequences of any one administration become clear. But it's never too early to think about this.

In one sense, obviously, Bush is a stronger President than any of his recent Republican predecessors, because he can work with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. He and his associates have near-total control of the Republican electioneering apparatus for all national and some state races; while very unpopular with Democrats, Bush has only some occasional critics among Republicans. He has no determined opposition. Finally he has, evidently at the instigation of Vice President Cheney, consistently sought to limit the amount of information made available to the press, ostensibly to restore some of the Presidential authority over access to internal governmental deliberations that drained away as a result of the Iran-Contra investigation and the scandals of the Clinton administration.

But all these things suggest a rather negative kind of strength -- a mastery of means but not necessarily of ends. Consider the veto, used by every President since Garfield to block enactment of legislation the President opposed. Bush has never used the veto even once. By contrast Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills in eight years, Ronald Reagan 78 in eight years, Bush's father 44 in four years (the Chirstian Science Monitor has a handy reference chart and some context). One could argue that this merely signifies that Bush has such mastery over political Washington that Congress only passes the legislation he wants. To me it looks more like he has a talent for surrender.

Past Republican Presidents faced off against Congressional advocates of more spending. Bush doesn't. It doesn't matter what kind of spending, or how large the deficit is. If Congress can agree on a highway bill, a farm bill, or any appropriations measure, Bush will sign it. Some of the traditional Republican rhetoric on behalf of small government and fiscal responsibility remains in Bush's public statements, but he doesn't mean any of it.

What about the fight against terrorism, Bush's signature issue? I use that expression advisedly; as an issue, it has been by far his greatest political advantage since 9/11. But the actual fight has been mostly left up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not only the strategy and tactics for meeting terrorists in battle but for most of Bush's administration the foreign policy as well. Driving some of that foreign policy within the administration has been Vice President Cheney, whose role and influence is vastly greater than any modern Vice President and arguably much greater than any in our whole history. Past Presidents have been reluctant to give any substantive responsibility to the one subordinate that cannot fire. It is fair to wonder if Cheney has had such a large role because Bush is wiser than all his predecessors, or because he has no choice. Rumsfeld's dominance of the central issue facing Bush's administration should inspire the same question.

Lastly, consider this year's Social Security campaign. You don't need to be a master accountant to figure out that private social security accounts, the creation of which was sold in 1999 and 2000 as an innovative way to spend the federal government's surplus, were going to be a much tougher sell now that the surplus is a distant memory. What was the point of the campaign, then? You could argue it was a campaign of conviction, but that seems to me an argument from faith.

The obvious visual evidence this spring indicated that for Bush the campaign was its own reward. Bored with the routine of the White House, disengaged from both the legislative process and the day-to-day management of the fight against terrorism, Bush sought a reason to do what he loved doing -- giving stump speeches to, exchanging banter with and absorbing adulation from adoring, pre-screened audiences. That his Social Security proposal wasn't going anywhere was almost beside the point.

I'll discuss later the reasons I don't think Bush is particularly unusual among politicians at the highest levels today. For now, though, let's just say that he is a very talented candidate, who has put a lot of thought and work into becoming a very successful candidate. In an era when the business of campaigning for office appears to swamp most aspects of government, this orientation has taken him to the top of American politics.

But being a strong candidate and being a strong President have never been the same thing. Right from the beginning Bush has been a tiger with respect to measures most American supported, or at least those that appealed to Republican activists and contributors. Presidents don't get to take only the popular side of public issues, though, or only push measures their strongest supporters endorse. They can't expect success either from making bold proclamations and leaving all the work of making them good to others, or from extending the campaign months or years beyond the last election. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan -- none of the strongest modern American Presidents, and only a few of the others, would have found any of this worthy of discussion. They would, I suspect, have recognized weakness in the White House when they saw it. We are seeing it now.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM


Bush does have some opposition from the pro-American wing of his party: those who voted against CAFTA and who oppose Bush's open border policies.

BTW, the permalink doesn't work, perhaps you need to save the entry again to get it to rebuild.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

Excellent post. I wonder if Bush's lack of resistance to appropriations bears any relation to maintaining Congressional support for the fight against terrorism, his "signature issue?" If so, would one chalk it up as further evidence of a strong presidency?

posted by: Meter on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

Bush does not have a strong presidency.

He simply bounces from one situation to the next
hoping things will work out ok.

No thinking involved at all.

He is not in command.

The events around him are.

posted by: James on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

Pish Tosh James! It is not that events command our Dear Leader...it is that domestic and world events use his administration like a pimp uses a whore.

posted by: j swift on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

If Bush stays the course in Iraq, regardless of the political cost (which might be high in 2006), that would be a point in his favor.

If he brought the Iranian or the North Korean confrontation to a positive conclusion, that would be another point in his favor.

If there is no further successful terrorist attack on our soil under his watch, that will be another point on his side. If an attack occurs, and he responds to it forcefully and clearly, he will get double Brownie points.

If, in 20 years, the democratic process now underway in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and so forth will have led to a positive paradigm shift for the Middle East in general, he and his Administration will be praised for their courage and audacity.

posted by: JohnFH on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

JohnFH, So, if we are not attacked it's good for Bush and if we are attacked it's good for him too?

posted by: msj on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

If an attack occurs, and he responds to it forcefully and clearly, he will get double Brownie points.

Based on the past history of this administration, there can be little doubt that they will try to get those points.

However, if it turns out that terrorists were able to launch an attack because they infiltrated our country over the deliberately porous borders, it might lead to both the Democratic and Republican parties being out of favor for decades. The elites - big business, media, etc. - that profit off or support illegal immigration probably wouldn't do too well either.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]


I'm afraid so: if we are not attacked, Bush will get the credit. If we are, and he forcefully responds, the American people will throw him their support even more.

It would be the same if John Kerry were president.

posted by: JohnFH on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

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posted by: search engine on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

Beg to differ. Bush is using Captain vs Chief Executive Officer, or Good Cop/Bad Cop. He's also useing Bill Clinton's "take their issues from them cause my base has no where else to go" strategy. He has whipped his oppositions butt in the political battle.
He has accomplished more than would be expected given that most Americans want a "free lunch" and the MSM wants a communist workers paridise. The fact that Bill Clinton was president for eight years shows the limits a current president must operate under. A president must offer promises of a free lunch and must wag the "talking heads."

posted by: huggy on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

Great post Dan. I must say I was stunned at the contrast between the number of times Bush vetoed legislation (zero) and the Gipper.

Reagan was a greater man in every way and unlike Bush, at least tried to roll back the State, albeit with limited success.

posted by: Johnathan on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

I don't think you can compare the Bush (43) record readily to any recent President with the possible exception of Clinton in 1993 and 1994 before the Democrats lost control of the Congress. No President since Carter has governed with a consistent majority of the Congress controlled by his own party. Jimmy Carter was a weak President.

I think the most direct comparison would be between Bush and LBJ or Bush and Kennedy, and I doubt either of them had to veto many bills.

posted by: Don Stadler on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

One more comment: The 'number of vetos' measure of Presidential strength is absurd face on the face of it. Gerald Ford 'stronger' than FDR? I don't agree.

What happens to politicians who seriously cross a President? Another possible measure of strength.

I can think of two, perhaps 3 who have really screwed Bush. Jim Jeffords, Tom Daschle, and perhaps Sweet Al Gore. The latter two are precisely nowhere, and Jeffords is on anyone's list of the least 5 influential Senators being 'neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat!'.

posted by: Don Stadler on 08.16.05 at 12:19 PM [permalink]

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