Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush

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

The tempering effect that the framers had in mind for the Senate has frozen, not merely cooled, initiative as each senator’s powers to stop things from happening, including executive appointments, has far outpaced the capacity of that body to function as a legislative chamber able to do much other than to say no or, as is often the case, simply say nothing at all. In the Senate, minorities rule and even liberum veto prevails. A president with an ambitious agenda clearly faces long odds—and perhaps should. Whether presidents should or should not have the power to govern is a normative question influenced deeply, if not wholly, by the coincidence or lack thereof of an observer’s preferences and those of the sitting president.

Although stalemate often prevails, the contemporary political climate in the United States is conducive to rhetoric and partisan combat that is extreme. The party activists and political elites are further to the right and left—especially the right—than was the case several decades ago. In a system where getting half a loaf is a remarkable accomplishment, everyone is going for it all. The result is often no result. In this new era, whatever compromise arises comes from within the parties rather than between the parties. In order to avoid the extraordinary majority requirement that is now the “new normal” in the Senate, procedures often have to follow unusual pathways. The two signature initiatives of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (Bush’s tax cuts and Obama’s health care plan) each went through the reconciliation route meant to be used exclusively for budget-related legislation so as to avoid the normal super-majority requirement (known as cloture) to end debate in the Senate.

Presidents are not powerless, of course. Even Jimmy Carter, of whose presidency conventional wisdom is unkind, managed to accomplish some rather large goals. These included the Panama Canal Treaty, arresting the growth of discretionary spending, a major reform of the federal civil service, energy conservation through support for home insulation, and new energy policies designed to diversify America’s energy mix. But Carter’s policies cut across his own party coalition by region, especially on energy. In the end, Carter was undone by the stagflation that was pervasive across much of the industrialized world. Carter turned out to be more than he is given credit for but considerably less than he aspired to be. This is not so unusual. It is, in fact, commonplace.

Despite post-presidential efforts on the part of Republicans to place Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of immortals, his presidency and accomplishments were mostly crowded into one very effective year—his first. After that, with the Democrats recovering from their 1980 election debacle, Reagan had to struggle for whatever else he could get. Nostalgia and mythology combine to make certain presidents appear to be more than they were (Reagan and FDR, for example), and others appear to be less than they actually were (Carter and the elder Bush, for example).

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