Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush

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

CHAPTER 2
Between Expectations and Realities
The Presidential Contribution

Bert A. Rockman

The leitmotif of presidential challengers is change. Incumbents, of course, too have to say that they are producing change and that theirs is a work in progress that can only be derailed by those who, in their view, wish to go back to old ways. Even contenders of the incumbent party need to demonstrate product differentiation from their predecessors. George Bush the elder needed to connect to the legacy of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, while also charting his own course, which was to be “kinder [and] gentler.”


Unrealistic Expectations

Despite all of this rhetorical emphasis on change, the reality is that presidents are limited in what they can achieve in the way of big changes. The system in which they operate is normally stacked against change and is the product of James Madison’s institutional architecture and the Madisonian theory of countervailing power to deter the potential accumulation of power by any one faction. These institutional impediments to power and the political philosophy underlying them are powerfully reinforced by the current norms under which the US political system operates. These have worked to favor stalemate even more decisively. The norms by which the Senate now operates have far outpaced the view that it should be “the saucer that cools the passions of popular impulse.”

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