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Judging Bush by Robert Maranto

There is no shortage of opinions on the legacy that George W. Bush will leave as 43rd President of the United States. Recognizing that Bush the Younger has been variously described as dimwitted, opportunistic, innovative, and bold, it would be presumptuous to draw any hard and fast conclusions about how history will view him. Nevertheless, it is well within academia's ability to begin to make preliminary judgments by weighing the evidence we do have and testing assumptions.
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the initially successful military campaign in Afghanistan, Bush and his administration enjoyed nearly unprecedented popularity. But after failures in Iraq and in the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush's approval ratings plummeted. Guided by a new framework, Judging Bush boldly takes steps to evaluate the highs and lows of the Bush legacy according to four types of competence: strategic, political, tactical, and moral. It offers a first look at the man, his domestic and foreign policies, and the executive office's relationship to the legislative and judicial branches from a distinguished and ideologically diverse set of award-winning political scientists and White House veterans. Topics include Bush's decision-making style, the management of the executive branch, the role and influence of Dick Cheney, elections and party realignment, the Bush economy, Hurricane Katrina, No Child Left Behind, and competing treatments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Contributors include Lara M. Brown, David B. Cohen, Jeffrey E. Cohen, Laura Conley, Jack Covarrubias, John J. DiIulio, Jr., William A. Galston, Frederick M. Hess, Karen M. Hult, Lori A. Johnson, Robert G. Kaufman, Anne M. Khademian, Lawrence J. Korb, Patrick McGuinn, Michael Moreland, Costas Panagopoulos, James P. Pfiffner, Richard E. Redding, Neil Reedy, Andrew Rudalevige, Charles E. Walcott, and Shirley Anne Warshaw.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804760898
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 09/02/2009
Series: Studies in the Modern Presidency
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Tom Lansford is Academic Dean of the Gulf Coast campus and Associate Professor of Political Science, International Development & Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi. Jeremy Johnson is a doctoral candidate in political science at Brown University.

Read an Excerpt


Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6089-8

Chapter One


EVALUATING PRESIDENTS is a notoriously hazardous and often sloppy enterprise. Establishing objective criteria to judge presidents removed from partisan preferences is an elusive goal for scholars, journalists, and the public. Yet such chief executives as Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington consistently rank at the top of surveys by scholars, with Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan at the bottom. Perhaps the most common characteristic of high-ranking presidents is the energy of the executive in times of crisis: they did not fear testing the boundaries of presidential powers. Conversely, less-regarded presidents failed to offer energetic leadership or bold policy proposals.

Perhaps taking this lesson to heart, George W. Bush, the nation's forty-third chief executive, determined to leave his mark on the nation and the presidency. Elected without a popular mandate in 2000, he still chose to govern assertively. Bush's presidency certainly did not lack crises to test his mettle. He faced in the early days the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and ended his administration trying to quell one of the gravest economicand financial crises since the great depression. In the middle of his presidency, he had to both manage the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and account for his administration's response to hurricane Katrina. It might be said that Bush was besieged with opportunities.

The presidency, in the words of Stephen Skowronek, works best as a "battering ram," demolishing old, enervated systems (1997, 27-28). It does not function as effectively in building new structures to replace the discarded models. A president needs to sense when the time is ripe for assertive leadership. Typically, greatness has been thrust on presidents because of the political times: a president cannot make himself "great" by virtue of willing it through activity. This is a dilemma that Bush, like all his presidential counterparts, has had to negotiate. How adroitly and competently did Bush and his entourage govern during his eight years in office? Did he take advantage of the opportunity for powerful leadership? Did he imagine opportunities that were not really there? Or did he have the opportunity but fail to respond effectively?

Bush aggressively pushed policy-from cutting taxes to education Reform-since the opening days of his administration. Moreover, after terrorism moved to the forefront of the political agenda, he promoted a robust, indeed explosive, foreign agenda. Bush self-consciously modeled himself as an active president who "hit the ground running" (Pfiffner 1996; Kettl 2003), yet currently both the contemporary scholarly community and the public judge Bush a failure (McElvaine 2008). A smaller cohort of scholars staunchly defends Bush.

Scholarly disagreement is matched by an unprecedented lack of public consensus. Diverging partisan assessments were apparent during Bush's contentious 2004 reelection campaign, when political scientist Gary Jacob son found that 90.5 percent of Republicans but only 15.2 percent of Democrats approved of Bush's handling of the job (Brownstein 2007, 16). Bush's popularity decreased further during his second term. Only a third of respondents approved of his performance in the three years after hurricane Katrina, with the decline coming mainly from political independents. Republicans still had a favorable view of the president, usually in the 70 percent range (Connelly 2007). This "hyperpartisanship" makes it all the more difficult to dispassionately rank George W. Bush, a theme developed by Jeffrey E. Cohen and Costas Panagopoulos in this volume.

In this chapter, we attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff by reviewing how the scholarly literature has grappled with the proper criteria for judging presidents. The question of how to rank and evaluate presidents is not new. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. pioneered the presidential ranking genre in the November 1, 1948, issue of Life magazine. He assembled a team of fifty-five authorities on American history to categorize presidents into groupings of great, near great, average, below average, and failures. subsequent scholars, journalists, and writers have made a virtual cottage industry of emulating Schlesinger's methods (Murray and Blessing 1994, 16-17, 81; Schlesinger Jr. 1997; Ridings and McIver 1997, xi; C-SPAN 1999; Federalist Society-Wall Street Journal 2005).

Moving beyond somewhat arbitrary rankings, the political science literature on the presidency has attempted more-systematic assessments of presidents, a half dozen of which we will discuss. We categorize the literature evaluating presidents as centered on (1) foreign policy, (2) domestic policy, (3) political skills, (4) presidential opportunity level, (5) presidential character, and (6) political organization. We frame these criteria around the content of crises. Following our treatment of these, we will propose our own four criteria to judge the George W. Bush administration, an eight-year period certainly not short of defining moments.


It is common for a president to endure a tumultuous relationship with Congress regarding domestic policy. Historically, this squabbling largely disappears when the arena shifts to foreign affairs; hence the cliché that "party politics stops at the water's edge." As long ago as the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that "it is chiefly in its foreign relations that the executive power of a nation finds occasion to exert its skill and its strength" (Tocqueville [1956] 2001, 80). This dynamic was captured by Aaron Wildavsky's "two presidencies," one limited in domestic power and the other granted vast latitude in foreign policy, power further accentuated in times of crisis (Wildavsky 1969). Both Congress and the courts traditionally give the president wide discretion in foreign policy matters. Congress has sanctioned every significant military action undertaken by a president throughout history, usually by large bipartisan majorities. The president has the de facto prerogative to launch the nation into war-a legacy modern presidents have inherited from Harry Truman (Berger 1974). These developments over the course of American history are aptly encapsulated by the adage "deployment is destiny" (Reedy 2008).

Conduct of war also falls under the rubric of the president's discretion, in part due to the "rally around the flag" effect, which increases presidential popularity in wartime (Mueller 1973). Between the Cold War and the twenty-first-century War on Terror, the post-World War II era has seen nearly continual international crises. An enhanced foreign policy presidency has quite possibly increased presidential interest and influence in domestic activity. During Dwight Eisenhower's administration, the capital to build the nation's network of highways and to increase funding for education came in the name of national defense. Presidential interest in civil rights stemmed at least in part from concern about America's reputation overseas rather than concerns over domestic equity. Likewise, presidents since Nixon have emphasized the importance of energy independence. Global contingencies give the president a greater hand in determining domestic policy.

However, global entanglements are a two-sided coin. Popularity from military success is often fleeting (Mueller 1973), as George H.W. Bush found to his chagrin after the quick prosecution of the Gulf War in 1991, and as his son learned after a quick victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps even more daunting for a president is being commander in chief during a prolonged, unpopular war. Continued American fatalities without measurable progress can overshadow domestic successes. The Vietnam conflict doomed Lyndon Johnson's prospects of fully funding and implementing his "Great Society" and "War on Poverty." Similarly, George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War cost him clout on Capitol hill and in the opinion polls, which contributed to his failure to transform Social Security and to pass immigration reform. After Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, Bush became an early lame duck unable to pass significant legislation. This was a radical departure from his first-term stature, when he was at the nexus of major reforms in taxation, education policy, and Medicare, all the while galvanizing the nation for wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Clearly, the signature initiative of the Bush administration is the war in Iraq; indeed, if that war had been more successfully prosecuted (or avoided altogether), President Bush would have ended his term with much higher public standing, and likely would earn a positive judgment from history. To varying degrees, this is a theme of the first, fourth, and fifth parts of this volume.


Proponents of foreign policy-centered approaches to judging presidents sometimes suggest that domestic policies are largely irrelevant since they require congressional cooperation. For instance, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were successful in expanding the welfare state because these presidents had overwhelming democratic majorities in Congress.

However, domestic achievements are possible even without large partisan majorities in Congress. For instance, the passage of several modern presidents' plans to reduce taxes occurred despite small or no majorities in Congress. Ronald Reagan managed this feat despite democratic majorities in the house of Representatives. George W. Bush replayed this scenario several times by reducing taxes despite slim majorities in the house, and at times no majority in the Senate. He also revamped Medicare and added a prescription drug benefit on essentially Republican terms, with little Democratic support, by the slimmest of margins in Congress. Bill Clinton was able to pass a tax hike in 1993 for the purposes of deficit reduction, without any Republican support and only modest Democratic majorities in Congress. It seems possible for a president who operates adroitly with Congress to build lasting domestic achievements without recourse to foreign military interventions.

Winning elections frequently turns on domestic policy. In 1992, Bill Clinton rode economic anxiety to the White house by defeating a president who seemed unbeatable just a year before. Most legislation coming from Congress is domestic in nature; the president is forced, whether willing or not, to devote considerable resources to it (Light 1999, 7). As Donald Peppers (1975) argued, presidential decisions on economic matters, from import quotas to floating the dollar, can affect inflation, economic growth, and unemployment. He believed that domestic policy would become the main avenue for a president to leave his mark, despite sharing powers with Congress. If voters care primarily about domestic policy when choosing a president, so too should those who rank chief executives.

For a Republican administration, the Bush presidency has pursued an active domestic agenda. The president forced through a series of controversial tax cuts, promoted and signed into law a major education bill, and presided over a major expansion and reorientation of Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit. Bush aimed for even more revolutionary domestic achievements, hoping to introduce private accounts into Social Security. However, the aptly named third rail of politics proved too formidable for the president to refashion. The third part of the book is devoted to Bush's domestic legacy.


Other scholars stress not only policy but also political skills. We have already seen Pfiffner's advice about "hitting the ground running." Along with Pfiffner, scholars such as John P. Burke (2000) emphasize the role that management and organization play in a successful presidency.

Richard Neustadt's seminal Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents argues that the informal power to persuade is an indispensable talent necessary for a president to succeed. As Harry Truman once lamented, "I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.... That's all the powers of the President amount to" (Neustadt 1990, 10). Neustadt and Truman mainly were referring to persuading political elites. However, many see a president's ability to communicate to a mass audience as a prerequisite for accomplishment. Ronald Reagan's effectiveness is often attributed to his ability as a "Great Communicator." Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats" likewise helped mobilize support for his agenda. In the nineteenth century, presidents rarely made rhetorical appeals to the public. What Jeffrey Tulis (1987) calls the "rhetorical presidency" is essentially a twentieth-century phenomenon. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were two of the first presidents to employ public appearances to mobilize support for preferred policy. Yet scholars such as Tulis, George Edwards (2003), and Samuel Kernell (2007) raise questions as to the degree that "going public" actually helps presidents obtain results. George W. Bush's failed Social Security gambit is the latest in a long line of failed high-profile public campaigns for presidential initiatives stretching back to Woodrow Wilson's stumping for a League of nations.

Other respected presidency literature emphasizes the limitations that presidents, no matter how deft, face in influencing outcomes. Two studies on presidential-congressional relations emphasize this point in different ways. Edwards (1989, 224) explains how presidential skill and leadership work only at the "margins." The president is a "facilitator," not a "director" of change. Even while FDR supposedly performed the executive function most effectively during the first one hundred days of his first term, the durable portions of the new deal were not created. Social security did not pass until 1935 and was the product, according to Edwards, of forces other than presidential leadership. Charles O. Jones (2005) concurs, emphasizing the particular limitations on the presidency as a component of a separated system. He warns of isolating the presidency from the Congress and the bureaucracy. Thus, a rich debate exists over how much choreographed management contributes to an effective presidency.

Bush's political skills are still debated. He ran an efficient electioneering team, winning narrowly twice. Arguably, his ability to govern improved over time; for instance, he seemed better able to competently manage the Iraq War in the last two years of his presidency. The great irony is that as Bush's adeptness in governing may have been on the upswing, his popularity took a nosedive, as public opinion seems to have been a lagging indicator in judging Bush's handling of the presidency.


A vibrant political science literature underscores the role that external, or structural, factors play in creating successful presidents. Chief executives are not intrinsically able to govern capably because of their own stratagems: other forces play a decisive role in determining a president's legacy.

For instance, William Lammers and Michael Genovese (2000) follow a modified structural interpretation by categorizing modern presidents according to levels of opportunity to influence events. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan rate as the presidents with the highest opportunity, while Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton had minimal opportunities-a matter apparently lamented by Clinton (Morris 1997, 305-8). External factors, such as crises and national mood, are the main contributing factors influencing whether a president can make major contributions. Presidents have the opportunity to outperform or underperform because of managerial competence or personality-but a low-opportunity president will never have the chance to perform that a high-opportunity president has.

A variant of this conceptual framework is suggested by Stephen Skowronek (1997, 2008). He theorizes that a president's place in political time helps to determine whether history will brand him a "great president." He posits that presidents must act within the constraints of recurring cycles or regimes. The founder of a regime, a "reconstitutive" president, has a strong chance to be remembered favorably. For instance, Franklin Roosevelt broke a string of laissez-faire Republican presidents and created the New Deal regime featuring a robust domestic agenda. Other presidents who formed new regimes include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and probably Ronald Reagan. The "worst" presidents govern at the end of enervated regimes. These "disjunction presidents" cannot address crises, because they are constrained by antiquated governing methodologies. Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and probably Jimmy Carter are the "failures" unlucky enough to govern in unhappy times. Skowronek's structural explanation accords greatness because of political time and minimizes attributes of individual presidential decision making.


Excerpted from JUDGING BUSH Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Preface: A Call for Modesty ROBERT MARANTO....................xix
1. Evaluating Presidents NEIL REEDY AND JEREMY JOHNSON....................3
2. Bush's Brain (No, Not Karl Rove): How Bush's Psyche Shaped His Decision Making ROBERT MARANTO AND RICHARD E. REDDING....................21
3. The Cheneyization of the Bush Administration: Cheney Captures the Transition SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW....................41
4. President Bush as Chief Executive JAMES P. PFIFFNER....................58
5. Reactionary Ideologues and Uneasy Partisans: Bush and Realignment LARA M. BROWN....................77
6. Diminishing Returns: George W. Bush and Congress, 2001-2008 ANDREW RUDALEVIGE....................96
7. Not Always According to Plan: Theory and Practice in the Bush White House KAREN M. HULT, CHARLES E. WALCOTT, AND DAVID B. COHEN....................115
8. A Legal Revolution? The Bush Administration's Effect on the Judiciary and Civil Justice Reform LORI A. JOHNSON AND MICHAEL P. MORELAND....................136
9. George W. Bush's Education Legacy: The Two Faces of No Child Left Behind FREDERICK M. HESS AND PATRICK J. MCGUINN....................157
10. The Politics of Economic Policy in a Polarized Era: The Case of George W. Bush JEFFREY E. COHEN AND COSTAS PANAGOPOULOS....................176
11. Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security ANNE M. KHADEMIAN....................195
12. Is the Bush Doctrine Dead? ROBERT G . KAUFMAN....................215
13. Forging an American Empire LAWRENCE J. KORB AND LAURACONLEY....................234
14. Fighting Two Wars TOM LANSFORD AND JACK COVARRUBIAS....................252
15. Between Journalism and History: Evaluating George W. Bush's Presidency WILLIAM A. GALSTON....................273
Afterword: Why Judging George W. Bush Is Never as Easy as It Seems JOHN J. DIIULIO JR....................294

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