Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush

Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush

by Donald R. Kelley

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Some of today’s most prominent experts on the American presidency offer their perspectives, commentary, and analyses in this volume of studies, commissioned by the Fulbright Institute of International Relations and the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Culture, both at the University of Arkansas.

With a shared focus on Bush’s decision-making


Some of today’s most prominent experts on the American presidency offer their perspectives, commentary, and analyses in this volume of studies, commissioned by the Fulbright Institute of International Relations and the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Culture, both at the University of Arkansas.

With a shared focus on Bush’s decision-making style, the impact of increasing partisanship, economic issues—especially after the 2008 financial meltdown—and, of course, the cumulative impact of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the contributors link their observations and conclusions to broader political and policy-related questions. They also take the opportunity to compare the Bush presidency with that of his successor, Barack Obama, through the latter administration’s experience of disappointment in the 2010 congressional elections.

The debate over the Bush legacy will not soon end, and this volume does not presume to offer the definitive, final commentary. It does, however, bridge the gap between dispassionate academic commentary written essentially for scholars and the sort of informed and unbiased analysis written for a larger public audience, contributing to the public understanding of our recent national experience. Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush contributes significantly to the beginnings of careful, systematic consideration of the George W. Bush presidency.

Editorial Reviews

Ryan J. Barilleaux

“The literature on the Bush presidency is large, but most of it is polemical or journalistic in nature. This book makes a solid contribution to the emerging scholarly literature on the presidency of George W. Bush.”—Ryan J. Barilleaux, Paul Rejai Professor of Political Science, Miami University in Ohio
Lori Cox Han

“The scholarship is top notch, and [this book is] a defining contemporary assessment by political scientists about the Bush presidency. It is interesting, engaging, and [is] an excellent choice as a supplemental text in a presidency course.”—Lori Cox Han, Professor of Political Science, Chapman University
Choice Magazine - A. L. Warber

“Taking the Measure: The Presidency of George W. Bush provides one of the first attempts by major scholars to assess the George W. Bush Presidency. This book probes and assess Bush’s leadership abilities and his efforts to expand presidential powers. The book’s main contribution is that it begins a scholarly dialogue on the political successes and failures of the George W. Bush administration and its influence on the state of the US presidency. One of the strengths of this work is that it can reach a broad readership both within and outside the academic community who are seeking a more serious objective treatment of the Bush years in the White House.” —Choice

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
Joseph V. Hughes Jr. and Holly O. Hughes Series on the Presidency and Leadership
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Taking the Measure

The Presidency of George W. Bush

By Donald R. Kelley, Todd G. Shields

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-099-7


Studying the "W"

Either You Loved Him....

Donald R. Kelley

There wasn't much ambiguity about the way people reacted to George W. Bush, the forty-third president of the United States. Either you loved him or you hated him, at least at first. The sharp dichotomy touched on everything he did: decisions on foreign and domestic policies; the choice of a vice president; his efforts that seemed to unite the country while actually dividing it; his handling of Katrina; his Texas-bred sense of self-assurance and swagger; and his troubled relationship with the English language. Even his most important moment as chief executive—rallying the nation in the first days after September 11—quickly deteriorated in an increasingly bitter and partisan argument over protecting US interests abroad and a new sense of "homeland security," whatever that meant. Whatever else the commentators could disagree about concerning his presidency, almost all could agree that "W" left office as one of the most controversial chief executives in recent history.

To some, "W" was a reasonably talented man, born to privilege into a family with a longstanding history of public service, who found himself in the oval office at an important turning point in US history. And many would add that he rose to the occasion quite nicely. Facing the devastation and uncertainty that followed September 11, he rallied the nation, redefined the world around us, and shaped our military, ideological, and institutional response along lines now defined by the "Homeland Security State." In rising to the occasion, he provoked controversy, which then evoked deep emotional responses and drew a clear line between those who stood with him—and with the nation itself, as he saw it—and those who would not follow. Some did follow quite willingly, seeing in "W" a reincarnation of feisty Harry Truman, who shaped America's initial response to the cold war.

Near the end of his second term, the near meltdown of the US economy again permitted him to put his stamp on the future. Now the focus was essentially internal but with significant implications for the global economy. The bailout of Wall Street and what remained of the banking industry fundamentally changed the relationship between Washington and the private sector. It was doubly significant both for what it did and did not do: while it established the government as the lender of last resort, it failed to rescue the economy as a whole. To use the popular image that summed it all up, Wall Street got rescued, and Main Street did not. While, for the most part, the bankers and other significant aid recipients such as the auto industry eventually recovered and even prospered, the average worker or homeowner faced growing problems.

In contrast, to others "W" was in over his head virtually from the moment he took the oath of office. Even if his early initiatives in education and tax reduction were technically well executed, they were wrong headed and narrowly partisan in both form and substance. Worse, his efforts to rally the nation after September 11 missed the mark. At the intellectual level, the new Bush Doctrine lacked nuance and sophistication; like the oft-cited Truman Doctrine, it launched a crusade rather than a proportional response, evoking a frightening new centralized national security state and provocative yardsticks for action such as preemptive responses to "gathering" threats. At the operational level, the invasion of Afghanistan eventually morphed into an embarrassing search for weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections in Iraq. Neither war went well either on the ground in the Middle East or in the political world at home. It seemed that the administration was increasingly being drawn into a quagmire at home and abroad; in many ways, "W" had become his own worst enemy.

The passage of time since "W" left the White House has permitted the dust to settle a bit and brought a new and presumptively very different president to office. With that thought in mind the Fulbright Institute of International Relations and the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society, both at the University of Arkansas, brought together some of the most prominent experts on the US presidency in the spring of 2011 to offer their perspective on the Bush administration and the elements of continuity or change that separate it from his successor, Barack Obama. All who took part in the conference accepted the notion that sufficient time had passed to cool, if not eliminate, the partisan rancor of earlier debates. Indeed, many of the participants—Bert Rockman, Steve Schier, Mark Rozell, Ray Tatalovich, Alex Moens, and Bob Maranto—already had written extensively on the Bush years and welcomed the opportunity to reassess their findings and compare his presidency with the early experiences of the Obama administration, which had just experienced the disappointment of the 2010 congressional elections shortly before the conference. That said, our contributors also wisely eschewed any effort to offer a "final assessment" of "W" and his years in office. Whether he will be rescued from present conventional wisdom and rehabilitated as was Harry S. Truman or consigned permanently to the ranks of Herbert Hoover or Milliard Fillmore is a judgment to be offered someday by the graduate students we are now training.

Conference participants also worked within a set of guidelines and themes that sought to integrate comments into a coherent framework. Particular attention was focused on issues of personality and previous political experience; the nature of the 2004 and 2008 victories; the increasing partisanship of US politics in general and the polarizing impact of Bush's style of leadership; situational factors such as 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2008 economic crisis; the president's decision-making style and the role of key advisers; the impact of the "permanent government" that constrains all players; and the president's efforts to reconfigure the federal establishment through the creation of new agencies such as Homeland Security, the use of a narrow congressional majority, and the enhancement of presidential powers such as executive privilege and the appointment of policy "czars." To be sure, no single contributor addressed each of these issues in equal measure. But care was taken to look for the similarities that cut across different policy areas. Some approached their task by taking a broad view of the presidency in the context of recent history; others focused on specific policy areas such as foreign policy, immigration, the economy, or events such as the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Almost all found Bush to be a more complex and nuanced figure than the simplistic characterization offered up by conventional wisdom. And all offered both criticism and praise, although certainly not in equal measure.

To the extent possible, conference participants also were tasked with offering at least preliminary comparisons with the Obama administration. Despite the obvious differences between the two men themselves and the nature of their constituencies, the level of continuity is remarkably high, especially on the content of policy as opposed to the style of presidential leadership. Much of this may be explained by the nature of the problem each faced: terrorism remained a constant for both administrations, as did seemingly intractable economic problems. From another perspective, the sheer momentum of some programs—commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example—makes it 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.


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." 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).


Excerpted from Taking the Measure by Donald R. Kelley, Todd G. Shields. Copyright © 2013 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Meet the Author

DONALD R. KELLEY is former director of the Fulbright Institute of International Relations and Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas. TODD G. SHIELDS is director of the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society, dean of the Graduate School, and former associate dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.

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