The Bush Presidency at Midterm: An Assessment

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The Bush Presidency at Midterm: An Assessment

June 2, 2003 30 min read

Authors: Michael Barone, Fred Barnes, James Pfiffner and Carl Cannon

This panel is part of a series of events held by The Heritage Foundation, both before and after the 2000 presidential election, as part of its Mandate for Leadership Project. The earlier events, a synopsis of which was published in 2000 as The Keys to a Successful Presidency, were intended to help a new President make the transition into a new administration, putting people into place and establishing the mechanisms by which those appointees could carry out the President's policies.

This event on the midterm of the Bush Presidency is a continuation of that discussion. It was hosted by Alvin Felzenberg, former Visiting Fellow and director of the Mandate for Leadership 2000 Project at The Heritage Foundation.

MICHAEL BARONE: The presidency is a very personal office. The new President comes into an empty building, armed only with some advice from The Heritage Foundation. In this case, the President came into an empty building where the keyboards had the W's taken off in many cases by the previous Administration. Just as an organization always reflects its leader, the presidency does most of all.

I'd like to think of George W. Bush and contrast him with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, using the analogy of the wave theory and the quantum theory of light. Clinton was this wave theory President, in constant motion, moving around, triangulating back and forth, always talking, and at the same time not necessarily changing the field of action around him.

After the failure of the health care policy in the first half of the first Clinton term, we moved on. In many ways, Bill Clinton was a reactive President. Some of the biggest achievements of his Administration were responses to the Republican Congress--welfare reform, the achievement of a balanced budget. You even had Clinton considering, near the end of his Administration, changes in Medicare and Social Security that might have gone in the direction of allowing investment in the markets and more choices to people, although in both cases he decided not to go ahead with those policies.

Similarly, Clinton, in this wave theory analogy, was mostly a reactive President on foreign policy. He attempted in many ways to mollify the forces of what George W. Bush would call "evil" in negotiations. He had varying degrees of success in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, in Northern Ireland and in Iraq. But he did not change in great ways the world around him.

Bush, it seems to me, in contrast, is more like the quantum theory of light. For long periods of time, he does not seem to be speaking or, so far as the public can tell, doing something on an issue. Then, suddenly, you have a pulse of energy. He comes forward at a particular time in a particular setting where he's likely to get the most attention, and he comes forward with new ways of framing issues, new ways of explaining where we are in history, what his policies are, and why they are likely to be successful, or why he thinks they should be successful.

We've seen this in foreign policy on any number of occasions. We saw it in the speeches that he gave to Congress on September 20, 2001; his first State of the Union address, January of last year; his speeches on the Middle East on June 1 and 24; the September 12 speech to the United Nations; and, again, in his January 28 State of the Union address.

In each case, Bush reframed the issues of foreign policy. As I say, I used to be a political consultant and pollster. One of our sayings in that business was "He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome." I think that Bush has been a leader who understands that framing the issue is very important while showing constant motion or constant comment on an issue is not important.

We've seen this in his campaign. Again, as President, he has emphasized on the domestic side relatively few issues, but he has had considerable success on them. His decision to go early and hard for a major tax cut certainly seems to have been a successful one. He struck while there still was a Republican Senate. I don't think that tax cut would have been passed if there had been a Democratic Senate. So he moved very rapidly on that.

He has been willing, on issues like education, to accept substantial modifications. In a couple of domestic issues, others have framed the issue, and Bush has been willing to acquiesce on things that evidently are of second priority to him. The two major examples of that in the last Congress were campaign finance regulation and the farm bill. Neither of those was anything like what Bush wanted, but he was willing to accept them instead of making political fights that he thought were just not advantageous to him.

He's continuing to talk, as he did during the campaign, of changing Medicare in the direction of allowing recipients to get more choices, and Social Security in terms of individual investment accounts. Social Security obviously will wait on a second Bush term, if there is one. Medicare is something that he is proposing now. At the moment, the legislative prospects do not look particularly good; but I think that those of us who have underestimated him before need to take into account that he may come forward at some point with that pulse of energy, using the Republicans in the House and the support he generally gets there, and moving that issue forward again.

Bush strikes me, from what I have been able to see by my reporting and through the reporting of others, as a President who is remarkably orderly and crisp: a President of a sort that we haven't seen. There are differences of opinion within his Administration, on foreign policy issues particularly; but there does not seem to be in his White House or in his Administration the sort of suspicious, angry atmosphere that one had observed, at least through other sources, in the Reagan Administration, for example, which had a President who in many respects resembles Bush but who was willing to tolerate an awful lot of open fighting within his Administration.

George W. Bush obviously dislikes that sort of procedure, and he has made his dislikes known. So most people in his Administration, rather than engage in public scuffling through anonymous-source New York Times stories, would rather commit another sin, in Bush's eyes, which is to bring in a cell phone with it turned on. I'm told that if a cell phone goes off in a room that he's in, he doesn't care for that at all.

Bush is a President who plans ahead. Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, prepares events, themes, ideas, months ahead of time. They alter these things on occasion to adapt to circumstances, but this is a very orderly Administration.

Again, it's very much different from the Bill Clinton Administration, in which the atmosphere was often late night in the dorm. Bush is on time, orderly, punctual, and presents things, as I say, in this sort of quantum theory. He's willing to wait it out--as he did last August, for example, when we had what I call the Howell Raines offensive against military action in Iraq, the New York Times series of articles, misleading and inaccurate in many cases, and he then came back with the September 12 speech to the United Nations.

In conclusion, it's fascinating to me to contrast these last two Presidents, both of them born in 1946, the leadoff year, as it's generally dated, of the baby boom generation. I think Bill Clinton thought that he was the best person of his generation to be President--if not the best person of all time. He was exceedingly articulate, knowledgeable about public policy, and was much admired by people in the chattering class, who always admire people who are good at chattering. But he did not really reshape the country or the world in the way that one might have expected a Democratic President to do.

George W. Bush, I think, does not think that he is the best person in his generation to be President. I think that he believes that God put it in his way to be President and that he has a responsibility to do as good a job as he can do. Yet, despite this relative modesty, he has in fact changed the political landscape, the foreign policy landscape considerably more than his predecessor.

FRED BARNES: How many in this room have heard of Fred Greenstein? He's a Princeton professor who has written about the presidency a lot. He's written a very famous book about the Eisenhower presidency called The Hidden Hand Presidency, one of the greatest books of political science I've ever read.

As far as I know--and I've talked to him several times--he's a liberal Democrat. But he has come up, nonetheless, with six tremendous measures of a President in office: personal traits and skills and abilities that a President has or doesn't have, nonideological, nonpartisan measures, which he's written about in a more recent book and has used to judge the modern presidency since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Oddly enough, when he used these six measures which I'm going to use in a minute to judge George W. Bush, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came out less well than you would have thought, and two Presidents came out a lot better than you would have thought: Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.

In any case, here are the six measures that he uses: effective communicator, political skill, organizational ability, cognitive skill, vision, and emotional intelligence. Let me just go through these very quickly, and we'll judge Bush. I'll give him a grade on these, which some of you will agree with and some won't.

Effective communicator
I went several years ago to John McLaughlin's bachelor party. Mort Zuckerman gave a toast: "John, your words will be remembered long after Shakespeare's are forgotten. But not until then." George Bush's words are going to be remembered before that.

Mike mentioned some of his speeches. As a communicator, there are really two George Bushes. There's the one who gives the set speech with the teleprompters, and there's the George Bush who you see off-the-cuff as you saw him last Saturday with Jose Maria Aznar of Spain down in Texas. The worst possible time for Bush is when he and Tony Blair come out after a meeting, because Blair is super-articulate and Bush, off-the-cuff, is not particularly articulate.

But then there's the Bush who gives the set speech. People overseas--I've heard from several of them--will tell you that the speech they think was the greatest speech was the September 14, 2001, speech at the Washington Cathedral. Today, here in the United States, I think we remember better: It's the day when Bush went up to New York and used the bullhorn. But in any case, it was a great speech.

Then, of course, there was September 20, 2001, his speech to Congress. The speech to the U.N. was a terrific speech. I agree with Mike. The first State of the Union address, the "axis of evil" speech in 2002, then the U.N. speech, followed by the Cincinnati speech, which was not carried on national television, which was a great speech. I guess that about covers it.

Four, five, maybe half a dozen great speeches, all set speeches: In those, Bush is an incredibly effective communicator. Think of the U.N. speech, how that changed what the U.N. was going to do, which was basically nothing, about Saddam Hussein. Terrific speech.

Taking it all together, I give Bush a B as an effective communicator.

Political skill
Bush gave a speech just before September 11 in which he told the group he was going to tell them what his political philosophy is. He said it consisted simply of this: that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and he was going to concentrate on those people. It was a joke. I know some people didn't take it that way.

Bush, despite a very soft economy and a horrible terrorist attack on September 11 and so on, has been able to keep up his poll numbers extraordinarily well, in the high 50s, low 60s, and actually change himself into more of an event-making than an eventful President than anyone would have expected. In other words, he's someone who makes events happen rather than a President who is just around when events happen and is not the person causing them--a distinction made, I think, years ago by Sydney Hook. Bush is at least an aspiring event-making President.

On political skill, I give him an A-minus. We've seen his political skill at the U.N. in his speech there. The U.N., as I said before, was going to do nothing--nothing--about Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They dropped the issue. Now it's the biggest issue in the world, and that's because one person changed it: George Bush. But some of his allies haven't been as helpful.

Organizational ability
As it turns out, it helps to have an MBA. The presidency is basically not a managerial job, but you'd rather have it run on a fairly regular basis than to be total chaos, as the Clinton White House largely was. I don't know whether they teach this at the Harvard Business School, but it helps to go to sleep early at night and not be staying up nights on the phone, or whatever.

In any case, on organizational ability, I give Bush an A.

Cognitive skill
The way Fred Greenstein describes it, this is how you take in and use information. We can think of some Presidents who were very good at this. Bill Clinton, for instance, was very good. He just knew all kinds of stuff and read all kinds of things.

George W. Bush is not a man of great cognitive skill. I don't think he's a great reader. We know he read Bias by Bernard Goldberg, about liberal bias in the press. He read April 1865, a book about the end of the Civil War. What else? I don't think he's read The Right Man by David Frum yet, which is actually a very good book. I think he'll like it if he reads it.

But that doesn't seem to be his strength, taking in a mass of information and being able to regurgitate it the way Bill Clinton was able to. Jimmy Carter was very good at that.

I give Bush a C on cognitive skill.

Is there anybody in this room who thinks George W. Bush is a visionary President? I actually do, but he didn't start that way. He really started out as an "in box" President, like his father. You're in the Oval Office, sitting at the desk, and things and issues pop into your in box, and you deal with them: The economy's not doing too well, let's have a tax cut, and so on.

Now that's changed. September 11 had something to do with it, and certainly thinking about Saddam Hussein and Iraq and the non-democratic world has a lot to do with it. When you read Bush's speeches on foreign policy now, there is a growing vision of a world that has become democratic, even in areas where it's never been democratic before, such as the Middle East, the Arab world in particular.

Bush is developing a vision. I still give him a C. He's not Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt or Presidents who really were visionary in the way they viewed the country.

The New Republic, before I got there, once had a cover that I thought was the perfect Reagan vision. It was a cover that was done to mock Reagan, actually. It was a village on a hill, and everything was serene, and the economy was working. I loved it. I'm sure Reagan did, too, but it wasn't meant to compliment him. But that was his vision.

So I give George W. Bush a C on vision.

Emotional intelligence
The way this is described by Fred Greenstein, it's the ability not to be distracted, to be disciplined, to stay focused. That is one of George W. Bush's great strengths: to stay focused, to be disciplined.

Reporters in Texas complained so much when he ran for governor the first time in 1994, because he would only talk about the four or five issues that he was emphasizing, no matter what they asked. That's what he'd give back to you.

Incredible discipline
We can think of some Presidents who were easily distracted by one thing or another: certainly Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was distracted by visions of enemies, and a certain paranoia, and so on.

Bush is very strong on emotional intelligence, and I give him an A on that.

So it comes out to not a bad average: two As, an A-minus, a B, and two Cs. I don't know whether that's honorable or not, but it's getting fairly close to that.

Whether Bush's presidency is seen as successful or not will depend on two things that we don't know the outcome of yet: the economy and the war with Iraq. If they both go well--I suspect they will, but I certainly don't know for sure that that's going to happen--then we may have a reelection in 2004 that's like the 1984 election of Ronald Reagan.

If not, if they don't go well, we could have something more like the 2000 election or--certainly the Democrats hope, and they seem to be angling for this if you noticed all the speeches they gave at the Democratic National Committee meeting over the weekend--another 1992. That may happen, but I doubt it.

CARL CANNON: Let me start talking about Bush in this way: I will submit to you, for the sake of argument, that he was unprepared for the country that he ended up having to run and the world that he ended up having to lead.

Many years ago, during World War II, Harry Truman was up here on the Hill, on the Senate side. He was visiting some old friends. He had nothing else to do. Roosevelt didn't give him anything to do. In fact, I have read some letters that Roosevelt sent to Truman, how to contact him when he was at Yalta. They're basically, "Don't contact me, but keep it short if you do."

Truman then was tracked down--he was visiting a friend; he'd been in the Senate--by the White House operators, who said, "You have to come back to the White House." He had an inkling of what it meant, uttered some oath that we don't use any more, like "Jumpin' Jehosophat," and went back to the White House, where Eleanor took him upstairs and told him that the President had died.

Truman had been an effective if only mildly well-known Senator, but he was now Vice President. He knew nothing about what Roosevelt had promised Stalin; he was barely conversant with the atom bomb; and suddenly he is the commander in chief of the most powerful armed military force the world has ever known. We hear that phrase today. It was really true then, too.

Truman rose to the occasion. That's a cliché. But, as my father likes to say, sometimes the conventional wisdom is right; that's how it got to be the conventional wisdom. Just as Babe Ruth really could hit, Truman really did rise to the occasion as the commander in chief when the war ended.

Let's compare, now, Bush in 2000. I covered that campaign. Fred did, too. Michael wrote about it. George W. Bush ran for President of the United States on two issues and a theme. The issues were, he wanted to lower taxes. It looked like surpluses coming. Bush's view on that was straightforward: It's the people's money. If it stays in Washington, Washington will spend it. He wanted to get in place some mechanisms to repatriate that money back to the taxpayers before Congress even got their hands on it.

The second thing Bush talked about was education. "In Washington?" the punditry said, "A Republican talking about education?" But that's a bit of a parochial thing. Republican governors have talked about education just as much as Democratic governors because it's usually among the top issues in their state.

Bush was conversant on this issue. In fact, I've said to audiences--if they're liberal, they laugh at this; if they're not, they arch their eyebrows--that there were two issues that Bush showed he was more conversant on in a wonkish way than Al Gore during that campaign. One was kindergarten through 12th grade education, and the other was baseball. On the others, he didn't really try to compete on the level that Michael and Fred talked about with respect to Clinton.

The third thing that Bush mentioned in every speech I heard him give was that he wanted to change the level of discourse in Washington. He wanted to improve it. He would talk about this in various ways. To very archconservative audiences, to Republican donors, he would imply that he meant by this that the behavior that took place in the Oval Office would be of a higher level. I think you know what I mean. To broader audiences, he would talk about making Washington work again so that people talk to each other and invective and personal criticism are taken out of the discourse.

Those are the three things that Bush talked about. He did not talk about foreign policy. When asked during one of the debates whether he thought the United States had national security concerns in Africa, Bush looked surprised by the question. "No," was his answer. He didn't even understand quite why it would be asked.

That's President Bush. From his standpoint, things were okay. The tax cut, he'd passed. He had a big education bill that we're still fighting about the funding over. But at the ceremony, Ted Kennedy and George Miller, good solid liberals on the Senate and the House side, were there. The Republicans got behind it.

What Bush wanted to do was have federal standards of education. Clinton had pushed this. It's a good idea in theory, but once you get the educators involved, they ask legitimate questions like why is Washington telling us exactly what to do? Especially, why is a Republican micromanaging the school district in, say, Des Moines? Those are legitimate questions.

That bill was in committee.

As for the third thing Bush talked about--the discourse--I said at a previous Heritage meeting, we'll never know exactly how that was going to turn out. Bush was keeping his end of the bargain. I submit that the Democrats were not talking publicly about Bush the way they did privately, for instance, and that this was a good thing, and that Bush was slowly trying to help Washington work by keeping down the personalized criticism.

Then September 11 happened. I'm going to talk only about two things on Fred Greenstein's and Fred Barnes's list. Those are communication and vision.

You have a President who's got a minimalist agenda, who's a Republican who doesn't look to government for solutions but wants to make government work by being civil. That's not a huge, historic agenda. Bush's qualifications for the office were minimal, but we've had Presidents with less experience. Jimmy Carter was one.

Then the question is, how is he going to respond? Of the two issues that I'm concerned with, communication and vision, the first is vision. In other words, does Bush realize what's happened? Does he understand the enormity of this act, this attack on the United States, and how it will change his presidency?

Yes, he does. He tells his aides the very first day, this is now what we do. This is now the focus of what we do. Bush recognized it and embraced it in one motion. I submit to you that it happened so fast and so effortlessly, we haven't ever contemplated it.

Why did he do this? We may never know. His memoirs won't tell us, if past presidential memoirs are any guide. The only memoirs that historians really like are Grant's, and they stop before he became President. So I don't expect Bush to tell us the deepest reaches of his soul, what happened, and I'm not sure it's important that we know. But it happened. He embraced this. That's the vision that I think is relevant to Americans.

Does he have to have a broader vision? Does he have to keep this up? Liberal columnists are starting to point out that the vision in Afghanistan needs to go beyond just ejecting the Taliban and rebuilding this country--nation-building. These are issues that will be debated. I don't know where Bush will be on that. I don't know six years from now how we'll look back and see.

But on that day, when the country needed the commander in chief to understand what had happened, embrace it, and change all of his priorities, he did so.

The second half of that is communication. It wouldn't be any good, this epiphany, if he couldn't communicate it. Both Michael and Fred spoke about these set speeches, these formal addresses that Bush gave. Fred mentioned briefly the bullhorn thing in New York. I'm going to wrap up by telling you that I think the bullhorn thing is the most important. I'm not minimizing the formal speeches. They mentioned the U.N. speech; Fred mentioned the Cincinnati speech.

Both of you mentioned the speech in the National Cathedral. There, you remember, Bush walks in. He gives a martial speech in a church, which you don't see every day, with these echoes of Lincoln in it. He begins, "We are in the middle hour of our grief." And you realize he's going to give a real address, and he does.

He's done that several times. In fact, I would add that, if you go back and look them all up, the inaugural address that Bush gave was the best inaugural address in 40 years, and maybe the best of the century. That's not my judgment. That's the judgment of Hendrick Hertzberg, who writes for The New Yorker, who is a liberal, who helped write Jimmy Carter's inaugural address. So when he says it, it carries some weight.

In fact, his speech accepting the nomination at the convention in 2000, the speech that he gives in Austin in the statehouse when the count is finally over and Al Gore has conceded--all these speeches, if you look at them, are very tightly written; they're beautifully written. They've got a point; they've got a beginning and a middle and an end; and they're really stunning addresses.

But they're written for him. In modern America, everybody knows that, not just the people in this room. Rank-and-file voters know this. The President now has speechwriters. The problem for Bush after September 11 was that he had to really be him. Suddenly, I suspect, people were watching.

In July 2001, a couple of months before the attacks, Bush went to the Jefferson Memorial. He just showed up there. Do you all know what the White House pool is? It's the press that follows him around everywhere. It's a body watch, really, although we were very careful never to call it that. He's with the pool, and they say, "What does the Fourth mean to you, Mr. President?"

"Well, I can't tell you what it's like to be the President of France, for instance." He just talks like this sometimes. It comes back to some of the stuff in the campaign. You know: "I want to make the pie higher," "a lot of our imports come from overseas," these Bush-isms.

They're funny. Anybody who speaks extemporaneously, anybody who speaks a lot, does them. I'm collecting a file now of the Democrats running for President. They do it; I do it. I think the American public's pretty forgiving about it.

But on September 12, suddenly, when he gives these set speeches, you know it's really the President talking. He gives the speech at the National Cathedral.

Then he goes to New York. He meets with the families for two hours. There's a scene. You're all familiar with it. There's the longest motorcade in the history of motorcades, and he comes out there. He's walking through, and the ironworkers and these firemen are yelling, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Give 'em hell, Mr. President."

It's a very emotional thing. Karl Rove realizes Bush has got to talk to these people. There's no provision for him to speak. There's no microphone. There's the fireman, a retired firefighter named Beckwith who's standing on some rubble. Rove asks him to jump up and down on it to make sure it's safe for the President. Bush, to his credit, looks at Rove sideways and scrambles up anyway.

He's standing there, and he takes the bullhorn. They yell, "I can't hear you, I can't hear you." Bush says, "I can hear you, and soon the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from all of us."

That--I think I'm not alone--is the moment where the Bush at the Jefferson Memorial and the Bush at the inaugural address are one. It really is Bush giving these speeches. I submit to you, all these other things that Fred and Michael talked about, if we didn't have confidence in him as a communicator, we didn't have confidence in him to do anything.

So when Bush does that, he really in that moment becomes a President for all the people, and a person that even people who didn't vote for him--and more than half of the people who voted did not vote for him-- can look to as their commander in chief. I submit that that makes all these other things possible.

JAMES PFIFFNER: I've been watching the Cabinet. I'd like to just say a few things about the Bush Cabinet and how it's changed in the first two years.

Think back before 9/11 to the Bush Cabinet on the national security side, where you've got Condoleezza Rice coming in as National Security Adviser. She has experience in the National Security Council, but she's going to cut her staff by a third, and she's got to deal with three 800-pound gorillas in terms of experience and stature in the national security field: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld.

So here's Condi Rice going to deal with them. Very difficult, very challenging situation. She handled herself well, but she was not dominating things the way Kissinger, Brzezinski, or others of her predecessors had.

Then you've got Don Rumsfeld, who comes in and wants to change the military. He wants to reform it, to change it from fighting old wars to new wars. In doing that, he managed to alienate people on the Hill quite substantially. And from people in the professional military, there was talk about is he going to last as long as Les Aspin, is he going to last till the end of the year, and so forth.

You've got Colin Powell, who lost a few minor skirmishes. This is clearly a sort of man, a bit on the outside in that famous Time cover, "Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?"--which, incidentally, Bob Woodward says was a very effective hit from the White House, who thought Powell was being not quite supportive enough.

That's in the summer of 2001. Then 9/11 comes. Overnight, Bush's polls jump 35 percent, and the Bush presidency is transformed, as well as American politics, and indeed world politics.

Then in the fall, and the war in Afghanistan, Rice really comes into her own. She becomes very much of a neutral broker. Again, not like Kissinger, not like Brzezinski, but much more like her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, dealing with these big egos.

President Bush is impatient in Afghanistan. He wants boots on the ground now. He wants them there yesterday. The military is saying, "Wait, we've got to stage this, we've got to get our rescue teams in place," and so forth. Rice is the one who's got to take that to the President and tell him to slow down.

She's effective at it. He really trusts her and trusts her judgment. Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet are battling a bit. Rumsfeld thinks that the CIA is running the war and that he should be. They start arguing, or at least discussing that in a Cabinet meeting. President Bush says, "Condi, you take care of this." The President doesn't want to deal with that. So she was the one that told Rumsfeld that he should really be taking charge.

Of course, the impatience of the President is understandable, but the United States was waiting for "the tribals"--that is, the Northern Alliance and the tribes in Afghanistan--to do the groundwork for us. We were inserting some U.S. military troops and some CIA people, but we only had, during the war, slightly over 400 U.S. ground people in Afghanistan. The President was getting impatient, and they were considering a worst-case scenario of sending in 50,000 U.S. troops to Americanize the war.

Luckily, that didn't come to pass. The key was the $70 million that we paid the various tribals that did the ground part of the war--of course, with massive U.S. support, bombing, and so forth. So the Afghanistan part of it went relatively well, although a mixed success. The Taliban was gone, al-Qaeda was dispersed, Osama bin Laden escaped, and we started trying to rebuild Afghanistan and then put in quite a few U.S. troops--8,000 to 10,000--after that.

Then there was the shift to the war with Iraq. On September 15, right after 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz makes the argument that we should go after Iraq, that it would be easier than Afghanistan, but the rest of the Cabinet backs off. Cheney said that we'd lose our legitimacy if we did that. The President decided that we were not going to do that but nevertheless decided to start planning for it.

The first major public indication of where we were going came in the State of the Union message with the "axis of evil" talk. Then, in the spring, the Administration started talking about regime change. Then there was the President's speech at West Point, talking about a preemptive war.

During the summer of 2002, there were a lot of leaks coming out of the Pentagon and other places about war plans. I think it was very striking that the professional military were leaking it and were willing to say that they had reservations about going to war with Iraq. Unusual in the United States: Not the leaks, but there seemed to be such a consensus of leaks from a lot of the professional military.

Then Colin Powell, on August 5, goes to dinner with President Bush and makes the argument against going to Iraq. Bush listens to him, but Dick Cheney, in his VFW speech on August 26, makes a strong argument for attacking Iraq and says that inspections are not going to work.

In September, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America is released, a very revolutionary, in a sense, document that argues that the United States ought to be able to make preemptive attacks on countries that may be threatening the United States.

Then, of course, we get congressional approval. Colin Powell is successful in getting the President to go to the United Nations and successful in putting together a coalition in support of Security Council Resolution 1441--I think a success for the President.

So Cabinet decisionmaking in general in the Bush Administration--the President does not like to depend upon structures or process. The Eisenhower Administration, the Nixon Administration, very carefully laid out policy development. That's not George Bush's style. He very much depends on personal relationships. His personal judgments about people are really important, both internationally and within the White House and within the United States: similar to his father, Bush 41.

That's what makes Colin Powell such a key person in this Administration, because often Presidents will make plans to have an argument about policy, to have different people present different phases of parts of the argument, to have a devil's advocate to argue against what the consensus seems to be. President Bush has not done that, but he does have that in the sense of Colin Powell, who does make the alternative case.

Powell was very important in changing the President's mind about going to the U.N. and about putting together the coalition. There is nobody else with any credibility within the Administration that was able to make that case. Whether you agree with Colin Powell or not, the President took his advice; but had it not been for him, that case would not have been made to the President at all.

In an overview of the Bush presidency so far, I think that it has been surprisingly and remarkably successful. The surprise and the remarkability of it is not due to any deficiency of President Bush, but to the contentiousness of American politics and the polarized politics on the Hill, the very close, even split between the two parties on the Hill, and the polarization, which is really much deeper than it was one, two, or three decades ago.

In terms of what President Bush has accomplished in terms of his priorities, first of all, he overcame the 2000 election. He very clearly and very soon was accepted as legitimate. He moved forward with his agenda and accomplished a major piece of that, which was a tax cut, which was an important change in fiscal policy. Bush battled successfully and won that: I'd have to say a major victory for him.

Then, of course, after 9/11, public support goes way up. The President acts presidential, reassuring, and so forth; he did that very successfully. In Afghanistan, again, in a sense, mixed success, but impressive presidential leadership through the actions in Afghanistan.

Now, finally, with the change from Afghanistan, from the war on terrorism, to attacking Iraq, President Bush has been impressively able to overcome the serious reservations of the professional military and a bunch of generals. For instance, Anthony Zinni, Brent Scowcroft, James Webb, Wesley Clark--not Webb, who wasn't a general--but Wesley Clark, Norman Schwarzkopf, a lot of people saying let's think twice about this.

President Bush rejected that. He rejected the advice of a lot of our allies. He did get 1441 through the U.N. He's being successful against very steep odds in taking the United States toward a war in Iraq.

Michael Barone is Senior Writer for U.S. News & World Report; Fred Barnes is Executive Editor of The Weekly Standard; Carl Cannon is a correspondent for the National Journal; and James Pfiffner is a professor of political science at George Mason University.


Michael Barone

Senior Associate Fellow

Fred Barnes

Senior Associate Fellow

James Pfiffner

Policy Analyst

Carl Cannon