Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush

By Donald R. Kelley; Todd G. Shields | Go to book overview

difficult to shift course quickly; the ship of state is a sluggish and slowly responsive vessel, even if there is an iceberg looming ahead.

Some of the continuity can be explained by the institutional features of contemporary US politics. Beyond the truisms of the separation of powers and checks and balances are the current realities of political life—the “system” as opposed to the government. The permanent government, and the bureaucracy through which it lives, is, well, permanent, or at least glacial or tectonic in its pace of change. And the “iron triangles” that link industry with government agencies and legislative committees are now closer to tempered steel. The truth is that no president can change things very much, as least in the short run. Even catastrophic events like 9/11 and the most extensive economic downturn since 1929 have caused only superficial change at best.

Adding to this continuity is the almost absolutely partisan nature of US political life, especially in terms of deadlock within the legislative branch when the House and Senate are in the hands of different parties and/or when the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue find it impossible to compromise. To be sure, sometimes a narrow but well-disciplined majority can carry the day: Bush’s disciplined use of such a narrow majority ensured the passage of his most important domestic policy priorities in his first term. But in the broader context, such partisanship is just as likely to result in gridlock for the system as a whole. Historically the nation’s most innovative moments have come either when there was a widespread consensus between the major parties or when significant numbers of the members of the minority party felt it both wise and safe to vote with their opponents. Absent such flexibility, partisanship works against effective legislative action.

Bush and Obama have one more thing in common: both have been highly polarizing figures and, in many ways, weak presidents. Neither wanted it that way. Bush had hoped to go into history as one of the best “managers” who led the nation: the Harvard MBA had to count for something. Obama, on the other hand, wanted to bring the nation back together after the divisive Bush era, uniting it around a vaguely articulated sense of “hope” and “change” and perhaps animating a new generation that might restore the now-vacant center of the political spectrum. Neither strategy worked, at least as intended. Perhaps that says more about the modern presidency than about these two presidents. If Richard Neustadt were right in saying the true power of leadership in the United States lay in any president’s ability to persuade, perhaps future presidents will find it hard to make effective use of the office when all those who take part in the game—parties, movements (e.g., the Tea Party and all others like it), the legislators, the lobbies, and the growing number of cyber participants—come to the table each morning already fully persuaded.

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