“Every man who takes office in Washington either grows or swells, and when I give a man an office, I watch him carefully to see whether he is growing or swelling.”
—President Woodrow Wilson
“ … he does have a strong belief in providence, and in the necessity of gathering information, making good choices, doing your best, and trusting the result to God. That is a very strong personal belief on his part.”
—Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson
When George W. Bush moved into the White House on January 20, 2001, he faced a situation no business executive has ever encountered. More than half of the people involved in choosing him had voted for someone else. Half of the people on his board of directors—the Congress—were determined to see him fail. Sly observers wrote off his chances for success before he took the oath of office, and many were looking past him to his successor. The first rule for leadership is to lead. But that’s a difficult task when the deck is so badly stacked against you.
It wasn’t the first time Bush had faced such long odds. He walked into the Texas governor’s office with less power than almost every other governor in the nation, yet he parlayed his weak hand into presidential qualifications. When Bush championed his Texas record in the run for the White House, he even won surprising support from some of the state’s legislative Democrats.
The Oval Office job, of course, is much harder. It’s eaten up some governors, like Jimmy Carter, who never quite made the jump from state house to White House. Other governors have used their state politics background to fashion more successful presidencies—Ronald Reagan from the right, Bill Clinton from the left (until scandal knocked him off the tracks). The job is toughest when the problems are great and, as was the case for Bush, the leader faces virtually an antimandate for a claim to presidential power.
In the end, George W. Bush made the leap to the White House as successfully as any president in modern times, despite the odds. He capitalized on the base of power the job itself gave him. He used his style to build popular support as well as policy victories. At the core, he proved himself master of the “bully pulpit,” President Theodore Roosevelt’s term for the use of the White House platform to press an aggressive policy agenda. He not only borrowed part of Roosevelt’s style, he also lived by one of Roosevelt’s mottos: “Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”