Not only did Bush have an ambitious, if highly focused, policy agenda when he came into office. He also believed deeply that success depended on strengthening the office of the presidency. That was at the core of his management style. While policies come and go, he understood that shifts in the institutional balance of power often have far deeper and lasting impact.
At the beginning of his term, some people saw Bush 43 as a continuation of the presidency of Bush 41. Cartoonists and columnists found the dynastic theme irresistible. Some Republicans quietly hoped that the Bush administration would mark the completion of what they called the Reagan Revolution, launched in 1980, continued in the Bush senior years, and interrupted by the eight Clinton years. Bush’s insistence on disarming Saddam Hussein, who had tried to have Bush 41 killed, fed the former belief. His initial tax cut plan helped confirm the latter.
But seeing Bush, in substance and style, as extensions of previous Republican presidents paints a muddy, shallow portrait of the president. He is very much his own man, with a policy agenda different from his predecessors and with an uncommonly disciplined focus. Terrorist attacks forced him to adapt the agenda to a suddenly different 21st century world. At the same time, he insisted that the attacks would not deflect long-range attention away from his fundamental agenda. He took up his father’s campaign against Iraq, but he did so on more fundamental issues and with a willingness to go it alone if necessary. He has embraced Reagan’s tax cut strategy, while pressing for more spending on and a stronger federal role in education, which fits the “compassionate conservative” label.
If Bush 43 has been his own man on policy, he has been even more his own president in style. He’s been more disciplined in building a team and enforcing discipline, in ways reminiscent of Eisenhower’s staffing. He has tolerated raucous debate among his aides, but then quickly shut dissension down when decisions were to be made, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did. He has been more focused in defining and keeping to his message. Most important, Bush has strategically sought to shift the balance of Pennsylvania Avenue power from Congress back to the White House. He has also tried to use the critical power of the federal budget to get the attention of the federal bureaucracy—to steer policy and control spending.