Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

An Early Assessment by Leading Presidential Scholars of George W. Bush's Presidency
Part Two


Friday, Nov. 21, 2003

This is Part Two of a two-part series on Presidential scholars' preliminary views of the current Bush Presidency. -- Ed.

In late April of this year, presidential experts gathered at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to assess President's Bush's first two years in office. There, they presented their papers on this subject which they later revised and updated to be collected in book form.

The book that resulted is the invaluable volume The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment. It is one of the first scholarly examinations of the Bush presidency that is based on sufficient information to be a meaningful assessment.

In addition to political scientists who study the president, the conference invited a broad cross-section of journalists who cover the White House. While not included in the book, the thoughts and comments of these seasoned Washington correspondents, which included former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry, during their roundtable discussion, were highly informative.

Panel of Washington Correspondents

The journalists included Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Carl Cannon of the National Journal, Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal, and Todd Purdum of The New York Times. I've summarized, as follows, a few of the salient points that emerged during their discussion:

Dan Balz interviewed Bush with Bob Woodward following 9/11 The interview resulted in material which was reported in The Washington Post, and then in Woodward's Bush at War. Balz endorses the Daalder and Linday finding (discussed in Part One) that Bush did not really change his foreign policy because of 9/11; rather, others merely began noticing his policy subsequent to 9/11.

Balz says Bush is difficult to interview (and he has been doing it since 1994) because Bush usually doesn't want to say anything. Bush thinks the press is trying "to trick" him, and that they are always testing him. Balz also agrees with Hugh Heclo (see Part One for more on Heclo's view) that Karl Rove is not Bush's "brain," as has widely been rumored.

Carl Cannon, while acknowledging Bush's malaprops (and he has his own collection of favorites), finds that there is a "kind of simple eloquence … when Bush speaks … [so] we are starting to take him seriously." Others, in contrast, find an unscripted Bush painful to listen to.

Jeanne Cummings, who has traveled with Bush abroad (as she did with Clinton) finds that when home, "he doesn't socialize a lot," and when abroad, "he's very lofty." He has no interaction with everyday people (as so many presidents have). Instead, he visits kings, queens, prime ministers, and ambassadors. Others have noted that Bush's visits with common people are staged. Bush's state visit to London certainly confirms Ms. Cummings's observations.

Todd Purdum, who reports for America's newspaper of record, finds it very difficult to get calls returned from the Bush White House. "And I do find," Purdum comments, "that the Bush administration is quite willing at a brass tacks level to sort of threaten reporters with lack of access, with reprisals in a very overt way, that I can hardly ever remember happening in the Clinton administration."

Purdum provides the best explanation I have heard as to why Bush has been given a pass by the American media: "[T]he plain truth of it is the press takes its lead from the public." He adds, "[T]he reality is when a president is popular and riding high and the President's storyline is fundamentally one of success, it's very difficult to create a counter-narrative to that storyline. … [But] that could change, and if it changes, it will change with a vengeance, because that's how the cycle works."

Mike McCurry concludes that the press simply likes Bush better than Clinton. They expected little from Bush, and he has produced more than was anticipated. They expected much from Clinton, and he disappointed. So they were on Clinton's case, but have given Bush much more leeway.

Bush's Legislative Strategy

During the Bush Administration, the House was initially, and has remained safely, in Republican control. However, the Senate was initially divided equally between the Democrats and Republicans, with the vote of Vice President Cheney giving nominal control to Republicans. Then, when Senator James Jeffords left the Republican ranks, the Democrats regained control of the Senate. After the 2002 mid-term elections, however, the balance shifted, and Republicans gained full control of both the House and the Senate, which they continue to enjoy today.

In the essay collection, two American Enterprise Institute scholars, John Fortier and Norman Ornstein, address Bush's strategy with the divided Congress. They note that his strategy has shifted depending on which party controlled the Senate. But at the same time, they note an overall Bush approach which has been consistent. To get what he wants, he typically goes first to the compliant, Republican House. After that, he gets the best he can from the Senate. Much Bush legislation has been worked out behind closed doors during the House and Senate conference. It is difficult to recall a time of so much secret lawmaking.

I wish Fortier and Ornstein had discussed at greater length the surprising amount of lawmaking being conducted behind closed doors in this Administration. Provisions are slipped into legislation despite the fact that they have not been through committees and hearings -- and, indeed, most members are not even aware of the provisions. Nevertheless, by agreement of a handful of House and Senate members, such provisions become law.

Finally, needless to say, no legislative strategy was really needed after 9/11, when the President, in effect, had a mandate from Congress to address terrorism -- as he saw fit. And this was a situation Bush used to his full advantage, to press measures that had been on his agenda long before 9/11, and would not likely have otherwise become law.

Despite A Tied Election, Bush Has Been Able to Use His Position to Govern

In another essay in the collection, Charles O. Jones, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, analyzes how Bush dealt with an election that was a tie. Jones explains that Bush's strategy was to use the only thing he had going for him -- the simple fact that he, rather than Al Gore, got the job. Jones argues, in other words, that Bush used his "position" as president, both before and after 9/11, to govern -- and was effective in doing so.

How exactly did Bush use his position as President to its full advantage? According to Jones, Bush sought to control the agenda, to be first in offering solutions to a problem, to press his advantages, to remember not to start where he wanted to end (but rather to take a more extreme position and then compromise), to win where and when he could, to be alert to cross-party support, compromise if necessary, but to take a good deal when it was there, to remember agreements are victories, and to never forget that the "Constitution provides for just one commander in chief."

Jones feels Bush has succeeded largely because he has relied on his position as commander in chief. But as to whether this reliance is sustainable (and will get him reelected), Jones is not sure. And Jones cautions Bush and his staff to remember that those who "believe that the president is the presidency, the presidency is the government, and ours is a presidential system … will be proven to be wrong."

Bush's Standing With The Electorate, and In Public Opinion Polls

President Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, enjoyed astounding public popularity. Indeed, Gary Jacobson reported to the conference that Bush had "the longest stretch of approval ratings above 60 percent of any president in forty years."

Jacobson is a professor at University of California, San Diego, who specializes in elections. In his essay, he addresses the question of whether 9/11, and Bush's handling of it, "have had any lasting effect on partisan attitudes, the partisan balance, or the degree of polarization of the electorate."

His answer is no. Jacobson takes into account Bush's improved image of competence, and his two military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he nevertheless concludes that Bush has "left the electorate, like the Congress, as divided and polarized as when he entered the White House." And Jacobson's conclusions have continued to be borne out by the numbers in subsequent polls, to this day.

In a separate essay in the collection, Richard Brody, an emeritus professor in political science from Stanford University, provides an explanation of the patterns of Bush's public support -- with highly graphic and revealing charts. Of note in this study is Brody's point that unlike many presidents, "Bush is quite explicit about what he expects from his policy initiatives." For example, Bush claims that his tax cuts will create jobs, and that removing Saddam will usher in democracy in the Middle East.

Brody says by making claims such as these, Bush has provided a mark against which opinion leaders and the public can judge him. Indeed, it is certain that will occur in spades during the forthcoming election.

A View From Within The Bush White House

To date, there has been only one book providing any sort of extended peek inside the Bush White House from a staff member. That was the work by the conservative journalist David Frum, who served for about a year as a junior speechwriter.

I understand that former senior Bush aide Karen Hughes, and former press secretary Ari Fleischer, have signed contracts to write books. But even when those books are published, it is anticipated they, too, will talk about all that went right, and heap praise, as did Frum, on their president.

John DiIulio, Jr., however, has offered another perspective. DiIulio is a criminologist and political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a centrist Democrat, with broad knowledge of the Presidency. He was asked by the Bush 2000 campaign to assist them with their faith-based initiative programs, and then was recruited for a senior position at the White House, as an assistant to the president, and as director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio remains a supporter of the president. But he has also spoken critically of the Bush White House since his departure.

DiIulio had agreed to only a six-month assignment at the White House, but in the end, he spent eight months there, departing on August 20, 2001. After departing he told Esquire magazine, "What you got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." But DiIulio quickly apologized, and told the conference he was back in good graces at the Bush White House.

That was apparent, since his remarks about Bush & Company were generally laudatory (and thus, unlike his prior, controversial comments, did not make news). But DiIulio did provide a number of insights.

One of them was this: DiIulio says he had always been skeptical of political scientists who analyze the presidency through the character of the president. Yet he left the Bush White House a convert to this theory, believing presidential character is largely determinative of a presidency.

After DiIulio's flap over the "Mayberry Machiavellis" comment, and other criticism, I spoke with an insider who was particularly peeved at DiIulio. He was upset at DiIulio's harsh comments in part because Bush had gone out of his way to charm the professor, even visiting "Big John" in his office in the Executive Office Building on his birthday (an event that DiIulio reports in his paper for the conference).

But when DiIulio later apologized, insiders accepted his apology as sincere, for he is a well-meaning man who was venting his frustration.

As DiIulio reported to the conference, he is "very much a true believer in the president's moral character and generous heart." In light of this belief, he says he does not know why the Bush administration has "made few major social policy efforts on behalf of the needy and neglected."

Like others, DiIulio can only speculate. But his insights to the Bush White House are informative, particularly those earlier remarks that he apologized for -- but did not retract.

The Conclusions This Early Assessment Suggests

For me, the most striking feature of the Bush presidency is its disquieting secrecy. If anything is apparent in the work of this conference, it is how little information its participants possessed about the true inner workings of the Bush White House. Even Professor DiIulio, a putative insider, was compartmentalized in his work on domestic policy. Moreover, he was not there long enough to observe the White House from the inside after the 9/11 attacks, which redefined the Bush Presidency.

To study the work of this conference, however, leaves two clear impressions: On one hand, Bush is going to effectively use his incumbency to get himself reelected, and he is going to be very hard to beat. But on the other hand, it is also clear from this assessment that he will be vulnerable to an effective challenger -- or to a public that meters whether he has truly made good on the concrete promises of his term.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard