After the inauguration, Team Bush faced cross-pressures on what to do first—and how much to try to do. Democrats wanted the president to focus on health care, especially since reform of health maintenance organizations had been one of the major pieces of unfinished business in the previous Congress. John McCain, who had been Bush’s strongest rival for the Republican nomination, pressed for campaign finance reform. Bush and his advisers decided to stick with the principal campaign themes and built an agenda of five strategic issues:
Education reform. Over the last generation, federal officials from both parties have been increasingly interested in education, which has long been the province of state and local governments. Bush campaigned on the need to insist that local schools do a better job.
Tax cuts. When Bush took office, analysts estimated that the surplus would balloon to $5.6 trillion over the next decade. Rather than let Congress fund big increases in spending, Bush followed a course first charted by Ronald Reagan by laying out a plan for a huge tax cut—$1.6 trillion over ten years.
Prescription drug plan for senior citizens. A hot issue in the 2000 campaign, adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare was a top priority for Democrats. Republicans feared that would swell the program’s budget and worsen its long-run financial health. Bush advocated a new program of grants to the states to help subsidize the cost of drugs for seniors.
Pay increases for military personnel. During the campaign, Bush criticized the Clinton administration for allowing America’s military preparedness to suffer. He wanted to review weapons systems, but first wanted Congress to increase military pay.
A greater role for faith-based charities in delivering social services. Although governmental social service programs were struggling, programs run out of churches in Philadelphia and Boston were producing surprising tales of triumph. This captivated Bush. For the “compassionate conservative,” it was the ideal way to seek stronger social services without increasing governmental bureaucracy.
When Team Bush moved into the White House, the president and his advisers had a plan and they were ready to act on it. They knew the programs that would define the administration’s first months. They knew how they were going to pursue them. They developed a playbook, with a theme for each week and, within each week, a theme for each day. They were developing their internal team and were building relationships with key players in the capital.
As columnist Franklin Foer argued, “The Bush administration is following its own kind of Powell Doctrine: Don’t get drawn into situations where you aren’t sure you can win.”
Powell had used the doctrine to shape American strategy in the Gulf War, in Bush 41’s administration. The lessons carried over to 43’s presidency. Team Bush understood better than anyone just how difficult a job they faced in convincing members of Congress—and the American public—that the president was up to the job and deserved to sit in the Oval Office. But they believed that the only way to deal with the difficult situation in which they found themselves was to begin, carefully but firmly, with a strategy that could produce quick wins and strong momentum for other, harder steps to come.