Like all presidents, Bush learned important Washington lessons: Success lasts only until the next crisis nudges it out of the way. The American public applauded his handling of the September 11 attacks by sending his approval rating into the stratosphere, but Middle East turmoil and corporate scandals threatened to shatter his agenda. Political success has always been fleeting, but in the lightning-fast news cycles of the 21st century, success can evaporate faster than ever before.
On the other hand, the best way to ensure future success is to build on past success. A president who can define his agenda—and then stick to it—is far more likely to stay successfully on track when events threaten to derail it. Among modern presidents, Bush was notable for the uncommon focus he brought to his initial agenda, for the way he pursued it, and, most of all, for how he hauled the strategy back to his driving themes despite hurricane-force crosswinds.
In his first two years, he had mixed success on his “big five” agenda items. He won surprisingly quick success on his tax cut, with a $1.35 trillion 10-year tax reduction signed into law in June of 2001. Democrats knew he was trying to pick up the Reagan baton and use the tax cut to clamp down on future spending. But Bush put the Democrats into a politically awkward position of accepting his plan or seemingly embracing higher taxes. That helped him win his first, signature victory.
Helping kids is a sure-fire strategy, and, not surprisingly, Bush’s education bill won broad support among Democrats and Republicans alike. It required states to set high standards for educational achievement, with annual tests for children in grades three through eight. States had to prepare annual report cards for each school. Bush’s military pay hike plan likewise won easy approval.
Two other top Bush agenda items, however, ran into serious problems. To help the elderly obtain prescription drugs at lower prices, Bush wanted to issue Medicare discount cards. Drug stores and community pharmacists, however, filed suit to argue that the prescription card plan would treat them unfairly, and a federal judge agreed. Meanwhile, the faith-based charity initiative ran into a fierce buzz saw. Some conservatives worried that the plan would funnel federal money to charities with which they did not agree. Some liberals charged that the plan would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Congress couldn’t agree, and the bill eventually died on Capitol Hill as terrorism swamped the agenda.
When crises occurred, the administration proved deft at skipping around them—as was the case with the California energy crisis and turmoil in the Middle East—or tackling it head on—as it did in the war against terrorism. Team Bush showed an uncanny ability to shape its strategy in a way most calculated to help it win.