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Is Bush Finished?

The talk among many in the punditocracy of late has been that Bush is, in some way, "finished". What people mean by this is usually unclear, but the general gist is that Bush has lost the capacity to persuade Congress and the public, and that this ability is not coming back.

That is an interesting idea. Minimally, its value is that it touches upon the idea of informal presidential power. Bush still has all the same formal powers that the Constitution grants to him, but he has lost some kind of power that exists "between the lines". There is, however, a lack of theoretical clarity in this discussion -- for the key (often unaddressed) question is the following: has he lost these powers in a way that they cannot be reacquired?

On the one hand, Bush might simply be in a bit of a slump. Presidents find themselves in slumps all the time. The public is increasingly in disagreement with Bush, and Congress has responded to this disagreement by disagreeing in turn. But, if it is just a slump, Bush can turn it around. On the other hand, Bush might be "finished" in that his reputation is no longer such that he can lead the nation or the Congress the way he used to -- he has lost something he cannot reacquire. Presidents have experienced both types of power nadirs.

Perhaps recounting an anecdote will help amplify the question. Harvard's Richard Neustadt, one of the first to address the issue, tells the following story in his seminal Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents:

Early in 1958 a technician from the Bureau of the Budget testified before a subcommittee of the House on the provisions of a pending bill within his field of expertise. As he concluded, he remarked for emphasis what he recommended was essential to "the program of the President." Whereupon everybody laughed. The hilarity was general and leaped party lines; to a man, committee members found the reference very funny. This incident occurred only fifteen months after Eisenhower's smashing re-election victory. Yet it is perfectly indicative, so far as can be judged from the outside, of an impression pervading all corners of the Capitol (and most places downtown), as a result of what seemed to happen at the White House in the months between.
In other words, Eisenhower was not taken seriously. Why? He let develop a reputation of being out of control. Thus, members of Congress found it funny for an administration man to imply that the President wanted something specific, as if Ike had an opinion on the matter.

Neustadt goes on to assert that President Eisenhower was not viewed as being in control of the White House agenda because he allowed the public and the Capitol to develop that impression. He was not mindful of his reputation. And, as Neustadt argues, reputation is almost everything in the modern presidency. The presidency is so powerful because the President has the ability to persuade people in the Washington community to do what they would not otherwise do, and (closely related) has the ability to convince the American public to think in ways they would not otherwise think. He can persuade -- and persuasion is first and foremost about reputation.

So when we say that Bush is down, we really mean that Bush's reputation today is such that he is not really convincing many in either Congress or America. When we ask if Bush is finished, we are asking whether he can rehabilitate his reputation. So, is Bush finished? Ultimately, it depends upon Bush. As Neustadt argues, "A President can change his reputation. This is the essence of his opportunity."

I personally think that Bush's standing will improve over the next few months -- providing that he keeps moving in the direction that he has been in the last few weeks. Since roughly Thanksgiving (maybe a bit earlier), we have seen Bush actively working to counteract the negative aspects of his reputation. He has been working against the impression that developed this year that he is out-of-touch and stubbornly insistent on old policies, even at the expense of his congressional allies or the public good.

Bush and his advisors are thus following Neustadt. How does a president change his reputation? The scholar answers:

His general reputation will be shaped by signs of pattern in the things he says and does. These are the words and actions he has chosen, day by day. His choices are the means by which he does what he can do to build his reputation as he wants it. Decisions are his building blocks. He has no others in his hands.
The President has the power to make and remake his own destiny. Bush seems to be doing just that, and doing it correctly by focusing on the weak spots. His reputation, similarly, suffered by his own hand. He did not protect it -- and so his opponents were able to recharacterize him; indeed, he aided them in that regard. Why did Bush's reputation go from being steady in times of trouble to being stubborn and unyielding? George W. Bush let it happen.

So is Bush out? You will have to ask Dubya. There is no logic that the calendar dictates -- Bush will not necessarily be finished at a certain date (even Ike made a comeback in 1959). If Bush makes his choices carefully and prudently, he will reemerge. Above all, he must be mindful of his reputation, recognizing that the entire set of his informal powers -- that which separates the modern president from a mere clerk who executes the laws enacted by Congress -- are dependent upon it.

The bottom line is not just that Bush should not be underestimated because he can always come back. It is also that the modern presidency should not be underestimated -- it almost always offers an opportunity to the man who occupies it to come back.