Best-laid plans: the Bush agenda

What happened to the Bush agenda? Political scientists offer an alternate take on presidential power.

AS 2005 BEGAN, President Bush laid out a strikingly ambitious political agenda. In his inaugural address he said America's foreign policy is to promote democracy and freedom ''in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." At home he envisioned a new kind of ''ownership society," starting with major changes to the Social Security system. He called for a top-to-bottom rewrite of federal tax laws. None of this would be easy, he conceded. But as he told reporters after the election in November 2004, ''I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."

And yet, a year into Bush's second term, even some conservatives in Washington are wondering if the president's capital has been used up. Support for the US military presence in Iraq has fallen precipitously. Social Security reform never made it to square one in Congress. The administration quietly let it be known last month that it would postpone its push for tax reform at least until 2007. And few believe Bush can make good on his election-year promise to cut the federal budget deficit in half by 2009.

So what happened to the Bush agenda? For those who dream of succeeding Bush in the White House, including Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, there is hardly a more important question. What lessons can be learned from Bush's bold approach?

For several decades, political scientists have looked at the power a president has to shape events. The Bush years have confirmed that in foreign policy and national security the president wields immense, almost unchecked, powers. But some scholars believe that in domestic affairs the opposite is true: The president is checked by so many powerful interests and institutions that his only hope of succeeding is to swim with the political currents of the day, not against them.

''I think the first step of wisdom is to understand what you can't do," said George C. Edwards III, professor of political science at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Edwards detects a fatal hubris in some of the Bush administration's strategies. '''I will reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change.' That's not what happens" in most presidencies, he said.

As political scientists are fond of pointing out, the list of problems that are worthy of attention is almost limitless. But the number on which a president can focus national attention is small-and the number for which solutions can be found is smaller still. Scholars who study political leadership ask a deceptively simple question: Why do some proposals move ahead while others languish? Or, as John Kingdon put it in his influential 1984 work ''Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies," how does the political system decide when an idea's time has come?

In choosing to spend his political capital on war and nation-building in Iraq while proposing sweeping changes in Social Security at home, Bush made fateful decisions. They provide a wealth of compelling new material for scholars who study agenda-setting and presidential leadership-and for the political leaders who are attempting to plot a course to the White House in 2008.

. . .

After the disputed election of 2000-and perhaps in reaction to it-Bush and his key political advisers were especially determined to use presidential power to control the political agenda in Washington. In his first term, Bush succeeded in directing attention to tax cuts, national education standards, and a new prescription drug benefit.

''Bush has done a good job, I think, in setting priorities and focusing on a relatively clear agenda" without making his list of items too long, said Edwards, also editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. Kingdon, now a University of Michigan professor emeritus who keeps a close eye on politics from his home near Washington, DC, also gives Bush credit here. ''It isn't as though he didn't set the agenda-he did," Kingdon said. ''Everyone was dealing with Social Security for the time that he was concentrating on it."

But Edwards argues that the power of the presidential ''bully pulpit" is greatly exaggerated, often in a president's own mind. Social Security reform is a perfect example, Edwards said. As the president made speeches about his plan throughout the spring of 2005, public support for ''private accounts" actually fell, according to national opinion surveys.

Presidents, in fact, have almost never been able to rally the public in a direction it wasn't already going, Edwards said. On Social Security, ''the president, to begin with, greatly overestimated his political capital, and that's a fundamental error," Edwards said. ''He mistook a victory at the polls for a mandate for change, which is another fundamental error. And finally, he greatly overestimated his ability to move the public."

Kingdon sees the president as a central figure in driving the federal agenda, ''but that doesn't mean he will get the outcome he wants." In Kingdon's book, still frequently taught in college government courses, he argued that for ideas to move ahead in politics three things must happen: A problem must be widely acknowledged; credible policy proposals must be available to address the problem; and political conditions must allow the policy to advance. At such times, a window of opportunity is open, Kingdon wrote, and an item can move from the ''discussion agenda" to the ''decision agenda." But windows can open and close quickly, he noted.

To illustrate the way all three ''streams" need to flow together, Kingdon has examined the efforts by Senator Ted Kennedy and his labor union allies to push for national healthcare during the Carter administration and the Clinton administration's failed attempt in 1993 to expand health coverage. In both cases, the problem was recognized, political conditions may have been favorable (both Carter and Clinton started their terms with Democratic majorities in Congress), but the process broke down at the policy level. Neither administration could produce a plan that united a coalition of those inclined to support some style of healthcare reform.

In Kingdon's model, Bush's Social Security initiative can be seen as a classic example of an idea whose time had not come: The nature of the problem was not widely acknowledged, the privatization proposals were not uniformly favored in the Republican coalition, and the political conditions worked against Bush once a certain number of Republicans in Congress began to believe public opinion was against them.

There is another way, looking back on 2005, to explain Bush's difficulty moving his domestic agenda: When Hurricane Katrina hit, the administration lost the ability to direct attention to tax cuts, Social Security, or the need to rein in federal spending.

''There's always going to be something in any presidential administration that intrudes, that attracts attention away" from ordinary goals, said Thomas Birkland, author of ''After Disaster: Agenda-Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events" (1997). Birkland, a political science professor and director of the Center for Policy Research at the State University of New York in Albany, notes the way the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to an array of proposals that would have had slim prospects otherwise-such as a government takeover of airport screening and the creation of a Homeland Security Department.

But Hurricane Katrina was a ''focusing event" of a different kind-leading to discussions of poverty, race, and class, as well as the need for public investment in flood control. Talk of an ''ownership society" was replaced by talk of massive federal government spending. As Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin put it, ''We need a 21st century New Deal."

. . .

It may be tempting to conclude that without dramatic focusing events almost nothing can get accomplished in Washington-and that in the aftermath of disaster almost anything can happen.

Yet, as Kingdon has written, the political system is too complex to lend itself to simple rules. Major legislation does get enacted in ordinary times. The Reagan administration worked with Congress in 1986 to enact a broad tax reform bill and also managed to extend the solvency of the Social Security system-in those instances accepting more modest solutions than the kind Bush has pressed for.

In both cases, Reagan made deals with Congress without launching campaign-style events to sway public opinion. In fact, Edwards argues in ''On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit" (2003), even Reagan and Clinton, who were known as ''great communicators," rarely moved public opinion. Does that mean presidents would do better to emulate the famous back-room persuasion skills of a president like Lyndon B. Johnson?

According to Edwards, Johnson's success with his domestic agenda wasn't entirely due to the Texan's famous arm-twisting. When Johnson was pushing ''Great Society" programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 and 1966, Edwards said, there were strong liberal Democratic majorities in Congress. ''And his brilliance was recognizing that, managing that very well, exploiting that opportunity, keeping Congress in session until two weeks before the mid-term elections, much to the chagrin of the Democrats." Johnson and the Democrats paid a price, losing 47 House seats in 1966, partly due to hostility to civil rights legislation in the South. But when the window of opportunity was open, Johnson pushed landmark legislation through.

Some conservatives in Washington still hold out hope that if Republicans were able to gain a few more seats in the Senate (the magic number is 60 to prevent filibusters) the president would be able to push through dramatic changes. Of course, to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, you work with the Congress you have.

University of Washington political scientist Bryan Jones believes Bush would have a more successful presidency if he showed the spirit of bipartisanship and compromise he demonstrated as Texas governor. ''He has certainly reversed the common knowledge about how you run a presidency," Jones said. ''I was in Texas in the first couple of years of Bush's governorship, and it looked like compassionate conservatism." But once in Washington, there was no ''move to the center that you normally see in presidencies."

Still, if Bush's second term ends up confirming the conventional wisdom about the need to ''govern from the center," that leaves the next class of candidates guessing about what issues will have a chance to move from the discussion agenda to the decision agenda. Will a window open for healthcare reform? For progress on global warming? With gargantuan budget deficits looming, should leaders be talking about shrinking government or raising taxes (or both)?

Scholars of agenda-setting might well put their advice in meteorological terms: Determine which way the strongest winds are blowing and go with them. But don't think a president can control the storms.

This article was originally published in The Boston Globe.

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