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An Early Assessment By Leading Presidential Scholars
of George W. Bush's Presidency: Part One


Friday, Nov. 07, 2003

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

How is Dubya doing as president? Obviously, that's not an unimportant question as the countdown toward Election Day (November 2, 2004) has started.

Most people judge presidents by their own partisan predisposition, assessing presidents along party lines, and then rationalizing their conclusion afterward. Respected presidential scholars, however, typically try to understand the facts before they make their judgment. While they doubtless have partisan feelings, they recognize their bias, and seek to deal with it in making their judgments (somewhat in the way good judges do).

Earlier this year, a conference organized by Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School to review the first two and half years of the Bush presidency aimed to make just this kind of impartial assessment. The papers presented and panel discussions, later posted online, speak for themselves.

This work has been further updated and revised as a book: The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment. This book doubtless will be studied closely by the Democrats who want to send Bush back to Texas in January 2005. And it will be read by Republicans, including Bush's aides, advisors, supporters, not merely to get a sense of how history may treat this presidency, but also to garner insights for a second term.

If you don't like Bush, this material won't change your mind, but it will correct some of your thinking. If you're a Bush supporter, you will be disappointed to learn that in the eyes of professionals, and for good reasons, this president is making some potentially dangerous mistakes.

These two dozen presidential experts have placed the Bush II presidency in a nutshell, with its strengths and weaknesses laid bare. Absent another terror attack in the United States, this assessment will likely still be reasonably accurate at the time of the next Presidential election. In this two-part series of columns, I will discuss the conference and the book.

The Leadership Style of George W. Bush

Fred I. Greenstein, who heads Princeton's leadership studies program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, organized the conference and is the book's editor. Greenstein has pioneered and refined the use of political psychology in analyzing presidential leadership and decision making. He applies his well-honed criteria to Bush. (He introduced the criteria in his earlier work The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton.)

Greenstein applies six "job requirements" essential for all modern presidents: the personal qualities of "emotional intelligence" and "cognitive style," along with the leadership qualities of "public communication," "organizational capacity," "political skills," and "policy vision."

Greenstein gives Bush high grades on emotional intelligence, given the fact that Bush could be (based on his years of alcohol abuse) "an emotional tinderbox." Yet as Texas governor, presidential candidate and now as president, Greenstein finds him in good control of his emotions.

Bush, however, does not score particularly well for his "cognitive style." While he does not find Bush lacking in intelligence, Greenstein also does not find him particularly "well equipped to reason clearly about the complex tradeoffs presidents typically have to make."

Our first MBA president gets high marks for his organizational abilities, but Greenstein says his lack of tolerance for staff disputes during meetings results in "Bush's deliberative processing" leaving "something to be desired." Bush's "congenitally gregarious" nature, Greenstein believes, puts him in a league of political masters like Lyndon Johnson. Nevertheless, Greenstein suggests Bush has not lived up to his potential as president because "there has been a hard edge to his administration's partisanship in Washington that was not evident in Texas."

When comparing Bush with his father, Greenstein finds that Dubya does have the "vision thing" -- not because he is interested in policy matters, rather because the younger Bush knows "that if a leader does not set his own goals, others will set them for him." In fact, Greenstein concludes, that while his father didn't have vision and lost, "the junior Bush may prove to suffer because of his policy vision."

The Political Ethos of George W. Bush

In a fascinating presentation, Hugh Heclo, an accomplished political scientist now teaching at George Mason University, searches for "the distinguishing character of and guiding beliefs behind George W. Bush's approach to politics." In doing so, Heclo dispels the myth that Karl Rove is Bush's political brain -- the "utterly indispensable 'boy genius' who made a hapless George Bush into a political winner."

With "two generations of businessmen-politicians in his life from birth," Heclo says (referring to Bush's grandfather U.S. Senator Prescott Bush and his father), Dubya grew up in a family with an ethos for public service. Dubya apprenticed, and received a remarkable education in real world national politics, by working on his father's unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate (1964 and 1970), his successful run for House of Representative (1969), and his runs for the presidency or as vice president (1980, 1984 and 1988, and 1992). In addition, Dubya worked as a political consultant on several U.S. Senate campaigns in Florida and Alabama. In sum, Dubya is no rookie; rather, he is an experienced professional.

However, although Bush is an accomplished campaigner, and has made campaigning a permanent condition of his presidency, campaigning is not synonymous with governing. "While campaigning seeks to defeat enemies to win an unshared prize," Helco writes, "governing demands collaboration to bring others along on various paths of action. Campaigning is about selling a product. Governing is about judging how to use the terrible powers of the modern states."

Professor Helco does not find Bush very good at governing.

Bush's White House In Comparative Perspective

Another contributor is political scientist and Virginia Polytechnic Institute professor Karen Hult. Hult contends that, with the exception of a few minor changes, the Bush White House's structure and operations are not unlike those of the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton White Houses. Her expertise includes study of all these prior White House operations.

Professor Hult served as an advisor to the White House 2001 Project, which sought to assist incoming White House staff in governing. The White House has no institutional memory, since each president takes his files and staff with him when he departs. The Pew Charitable Trusts, a foundation known for its nonpartisan work, has sought to address this void by developing comparative White House studies, which can benefit all incoming presidents and their staffs.

In comparing Bush II with his predecessors, Hult notes the "discipline" and "secrecy" of his White House, but generally Bush runs a very traditional operation. Dubya was familiar from his father's tenure with chief of staff problems (for Dubya had to give the word to his father's chief of staff that it was time to move on). Thus, the Bush II White House has a powerful chief of staff (Andy Card), but not an all-powerful one. Instead, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes (while she was there), and Dick Cheney also have significant access to the president.

Clearly, the most distinctive feature of the Bush II White House is the enormous power of the vice president. While this is a trend that began with vice president Fritz Mondale, Hult finds that Cheney is more powerful than all his predecessors.

To make this point, Hult cites a little known but telling fact: Cheney "chairs the President's Budget Review Board, which rules on appeals of OMB decisions regarding proposed funding for executive branch departments; no other vice president has held this position." In addition, Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, is on the president's staff as well, carrying a title equal to that of Bush's chief of staff, assistant to the president.

Professor Hult's essay is filled with interesting nuggets. I confess I was not aware of Cheney's chairing the budget review board. Like many, I suspect, I find the budgetary process rather dull. Yet I also know that budget decisions define the executive branch. Without money, nothing happens. So I thank Hult for pointing out further evidence of the enormous power of Bush's vice president.

Bush's Budget Problem

Recognizing the importance of budgetary matters, the conference had a particularly lucid expert address the subject: University of Maryland professor, Brooking's Institute visiting fellow, and federal budget expert Allen Schick -- who contributed a must read paper. Schick's effort opens the door on Bush's budgetary tomfoolery (my word, not his).

Mincing no words, Schick explains exactly what Bush is doing with the staggering deficits he has run up with his aggressive military spending and massive tax cuts for upper income taxpayers:

[Bush is] aware of the doomsday projections that if current policy continues, a generation from now Social Security and Medicare will claim all of the federal revenue, leaving very little for the rest of the government. He wants to strip the government of future revenue, not in spite of these dire scenarios but because of them. He sees revenue privation as the only or best way to change the course of budgetary history….

As Schick puts it, "If Bush has his way, during his presidency many programs will be scaled back simply because there will not be enough money to go around, not because he has launched a frontal attack on government."

In other words, to shrink the federal government, Bush and the conservatives dare not try to repeal popular programs, for to repeal them would offend voters (and Congress would not likely have the courage to cut such programs). Instead, they plan to starve the programs to death.

Shrinking the federal government by putting it in hock will never be announced as their policy, but actions say it all. Nor has Bush told Americans the crapshoot (again my word, not Schick) he is taking with massive deficits.

As the professor explains: "Critics see chronic deficits as jeopardizing the future economic well-being of the United States; Bush sees them as irrelevant." No one will know the answer, however, until it may be too late.

"This is an area where taking the wrong turn may seriously damage America's economic health," Schick says. "Prudence dictates that we not pave the way to the future with trillions of dollars of additional debt."

Bush's Foreign Policy Revolution

The team that assessed the Bush foreign policy for the conference, and contributed a piece on this subject to the collection (another must read), was so cogent, and impartial, that I ordered their book on the subject: America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. These authors are Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and James M. Lindsay, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Both have served on the National Security Council.

Daalder and Lindsay trace Bush's foreign policy to its roots. When preparing to run for president, Bush acknowledged, "Nobody needs to tell me what to believe. But I do need somebody to tell me where Kosovo is." He assembled a group of eight GOP experts as tutors. They came to call themselves the "Vulcans" (after the Roman blacksmith god, of fire and metalworking) in working to harden Dubya.

The Head Vulcan was Condoleezza Rice. She was joined by Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, Robert Blackwill, Stephen Hadley, Richard Perle, Dov Zakheim, and Robert Zoellick. While these authors don't mention it, Dick Cheney was instrumental in gathering this group as well.

With the Vulcans as tutors, Bush was in effect, declaring his foreign policy posture -- whether he knew it or not. He was rejecting Republicans who were what the authors call "sovereigntists" -- those suspicious of all foreign entanglements and international institution. Rather, the Vulcans "supported international engagement and free trade."

The Vulcans also subscribed to a worldview often called "hegemonist." (This is a coined word based on hegemony, meaning "to control or influence," but as it is now being used in foreign policy discussions, it is shorthand for the idea that "American primacy in the world is the key to securing America's interest.") In other words, since we have unrivalled powers, we can have it our way, and kick ass when we don't get it.

In this brief series of columns, I cannot begin to address the insights Daalder and Lindsay provide. But their demolition of one myth seems a good place to start: September 11 did not produce Bush's radical foreign policy. Rather, it gave him reason to implement it.

Bush's foreign policy today -- from his "axis of evil" approach to focusing on rogue states as part of his war on terrorism -- emanates directly from his Vulcan tutors' thinking. He hinted where he was headed during the campaign, for those who looked closely.

Daalder and Lindsay trace every action Bush has taken, and why he had taken it, but in the end, they conclude that Bush has got it wrong: "Removing tyrants, while perhaps helpful, is not a guarantee that terrorists will be significantly weakened." To the contrary, as we now see in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we may be creating endless new generations of terrorists, potential and actual.

In my next column, I will discuss the remaining essays from the conference and collection assessing the Bush Presidency, and offer my own views as to how, in light of all this information, that Presidency -- so far -- should be assessed.

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

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