“COMPARE AND CONTRAST THE REAGAN AND BUSH PRESIDENCIES”INTRODUCTION
It is widely accepted that George Bush Snr. was forced to play out his presidency in the mighty shadow of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s charm and personality was one of his greatest strengths and, even now, is widely revered for his time as President. Bush was reportedly always conscious of people’s expectations of him in view of his predecessor and this burden seemed to weigh heavily. Reagan’s achievements in Washington were considerable if not in number than in impact. His political and strategic skills were impressive and Bush cannot be said to have equalled his achievements certainly at home, and this is borne out by Bush’s failure to win re-election.
Nevertheless Bush made some staggeringly important contributions to the international arena and is deeply respected for his part in world events where there is every reason to suspect that Reagan would not have been.
The huge differences between the two are even more interesting given that Bush was a dutiful Vice President to Reagan for eight years and sought on gaining office only to take over where he left off. Bush did not set out to ring the changes between Reagan and himself; quite the opposite. He purported to be the archetypal guardian president; consolidating Reagan’s good work and continuing to steer America on the same path. So why then did they turn out to be such almost polar opposites?
This essay explores the realms of domestic politics, vision and leadership and international issues with the focus on drawing comparison between the two men and their styles of leadership and analysing in each instance who may have been the more effective president. I will conclude that, regardless of actual achievements real success in presidential terms depends on successful handling of the media, an area Reagan understood and Bush never would.
IMAGE, PERSONALITY, AND MEDIA RELATIONS
It is almost universally agreed that Ronald Reagan’s greatest strength, certainly early in his first term and arguably until he left office was his ability to communicate with the American people. He won the presidency not only on his package of radical reforms at a time when the current policy orthodoxies had failed the Americans (along with most of the rest of the western world), but on his winsome personality, his awesome eloquence and his considerable charisma. A direct comparison with Margaret Thatcher can be drawn as regards the radical package of reforms, however Reagan enjoyed much higher levels of personal popularity than ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’ back in Britain.
By direct comparison, George Bush, despite having been elected on a higher majority of the popular vote than Reagan , was more of an ‘establishment politician’. It has been said that Bush “knew probably more Americans than any other human being has ever known” , and it is well documented that he (perhaps navely) expected these relations to carry over into the decision-making arena. He was reluctant to go over the heads of his friends and colleagues by using the bully pulpit; and was painfully conscious of his shortcomings as a mass communicator. On the other hand, he knew well that his strength lay in well-informed discussion on a smaller-scale, and for this reason chose the press conference as his most frequent point of contact.
Where the Reagan White House was determined to ‘stage-manage’ all media coverage (even going as far as to set a ‘line of the day’, and allegedly making up quotes where the president has nothing to say ), Bush was determined that he was to be more open and accessible to the press. To this end he left it to the press to decide what area of policy to focus on, and held some 280 press conferences in four years, as against Reagan’s 47 in eight .
This difference in style was not purely to do with Bush’s lack of speaking ability, although he was conscious that he was unable to be another Reagan. Rather it was indicative of the inherent difference in style of the two presidents. Where Reagan was a conviction politician bringing in reform and new ideas, Bush was the guardian president, putting emphasis on conciliation and consolidation. Reagan’s White House put the utmost priority on making the evening news, but Bush’s less confrontational style of leadership was ultimately less newsworthy and he went out of his way to prove himself unimpressed by gimmickry, believing he could gain favourable coverage by treating the media with respect and allowing them autonomy.
DOMESTIC POLICY RECORD
Short Term Aims
Reagan’s biggest achievement was the fiscal 1982 budget, first submitted to Congress on the 10th March 1981. Its passage, albeit in amended form, was secured through some intelligent political manoeuvring. The President continually used the Bully Pulpit to appeal to the public. His first year strategies were short term in nature; his social policies took a back seat to economic considerations. By being careful not to spread himself too thin, he maximised his chances of success on those areas where he concentrated his efforts.
It can be argued that this increasing emphasis on the short term depended not only on his sagacity in reading the limited possibilities of his role (facing a hostile democrat majority and an increasingly media-savvy public), but mainly on in an increasing trend in the political sphere as a result of ‘political impatience’. The nature of the political system does not reward long-term strategic thinking; short, sharp action is more likely to be passed by congress than fundamental long-term change, and policies with immediate and tangible results are more likely to impress the voting public and bring the ultimate reward; re-election.
Those Budget Reforms
Having thrown his weight behind the Gramm-Latta compromise, which closely resembled his original budget proposal, Reagan managed to get it through congress earning considerable respect from the press in the process . However on discovering that Democrat subcommittees were using their discretionary spending powers to negate the effects of the bill. The best response to this problem was unclear; to challenge Congress (and win) with an amendment to Gramm-Latta to be put to a single for or against vote would show tremendous strength in leadership and legitimacy; to lose would be a huge blow to the administration. Reagan’s advisors made it clear that to win would be difficult; there was less than a week to prepare. Reagan went into action quickly and decisively, trading on favours, compromising with individual Congressmen, and persuading. House Democrats voted in favour of Gramm-Latta II by 217 to 210. The New York Times put that Reagan had
“proved that the presidency remains a pre-eminent force, provided only
that its occupant knows how to combine an election victory with a sense
of executive priority and bargaining skill”
In complete contrast, Bush has very little to his credit by way of domestic policy initiatives. On being asked what he considered his most important achievements he referred to education, childcare, the environment and his appointments. There is little to suggest that he actually had much significant influence in these areas; he may well have had a genuine interest in some of them, education can hardly be seen to have benefited to any great extent from a man who, on coming into office declared he wanted to be known as the education president. Those measures which did pass under his term were likely to have gone through without him .
Nevertheless, Bush made good and strategic use of his right to veto, using it successfully to veto more legislation than any other president since Ford . This is not necessarily the passive manoeuvre it may seem, as a president can make, or threaten, use of the veto to pass compromises acceptable to the White House in place of the vetoed bill.
Where he can justly claim credit is his appointments to the judiciary; his influence through appointments covers areas close to his heart (abortion, affirmative action, religious freedom and legal rights) and he can lay claim to 185 federal district and circuit court judges, and two Supreme Court justices .
Bush is widely criticised for his conciliatory relationship with Congress; in sharp contrast to Reagan’s ‘hands-on’ methods of vote-trading and favour-exchanging, he attempted to rely on personal relationships cultivated over the years, little realising that they would count for almost nothing on Capitol Hill.
Bush and Reagan’s Legacy
The short-termism of Reagan’s presidency severely hindered Bush in his first and only term as president. During his eight years as President, Reagan failed to once submit a balanced budget proposal to Congress and the deficit inherited by Bush was $152 billion and rising; the Reagan administration for all its talk of cutting spending had raised it by 25% in real terms whilst tax changes were tax neutral, leaving Bush very little room for manoeuvre. To a certain extent we could argue that Bush suffered unfairly at the hands of Reagan in not being able to fund the programs in which he professed an interest, particularly education. Responsibility must surely rest with him, however, for the political damage sustained by his inevitable reneging on the “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge of his election campaign.
Overall, it is generally agreed that the Bush legacy is not strong in the domestic policy arena, whilst Reagan to this day enjoys a reputation as a brave and strong innovator with a good record of achievement. Whilst the polarisation of their respective achievements is perhaps exaggerated, it seems clear that Reagan enjoyed the majority of his success in the legislative, domestic sphere, whilst Bush’s glory lies elsewhere.
VISION AND LEADERSHIP
One of the most common criticisms of Bush is one that can never be laid at the door of Ronald Reagan; that of a clack of clear vision or coherent policy objectives. To this is attributed his lack of decisive domestic action on the strength of his popularity. George Bush himself admitted he had no “vision thing” and this could well be considered one of his greatest failings. Voters expected leadership and some idea of direction from their chief executive; Bush gave them neither. It is interesting to ask whether this discontent was sharpened following the strongly visionary style of Reagan.
Reagan caught the nation’s attention with his colourful rhetoric, his doom-laden predictions for a future which could face economic ruin, but which under his grand plan, would be rose-tinted. His clarity of manner and ability to present complicated issues meant the public could feel reassured that their President understood where he was leading the country. Whether this is true or whether the reverse was, in fact, the case, is open for debate. He can certainly take much of the credit for restoring public faith in the beleaguered office of the Presidency after Vietnam and Watergate.
Whilst Reagan undoubtedly owed his reputation and presidential popularity to his performance in domestic politics, it is in the foreign policy arena that Bush shone.
Rose contends that the Guardian president, such as Bush, prefers to attend to international matters as it is here he can be imbued with a significance and respect uncommon in the day-to-day political fray . Bush considered it his primary concern, keeping in frequent touch with world leaders, in complete contrast to Reagan who paid world affairs little or no attention, other than to curtly denounce the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ or to embroil himself in arms scandals.
The Iran Contra affair which erupted under Reagan involving the sale of arms to Iraq is widely held to be an example of Reagan’s detachment from decision making and knowledge of the activities of his staff. Delegation is one matter; such damaging inattention to detail cost him dearly in terms of public confidence and respect.
Reagan’s success in handling the Cold War is disputed. The Star Wars Defence Initiative and continuation of a generally aggressive stance has been criticised as unnecessary in light of the deteriorating Soviet economic situation and the election of Gorbachev who clearly intended market reforms. Although no damage was caused, it has been put that this inflammatory stance coupled with his crass comments about the Soviets being evil could well have drawn out the stand-off or strained the newly-improving relations unnecessarily. Alternatively, and somewhat over-generously in my opinion, Wildavsky argues that “outspoken moral rejection of the Soviet system and a confident affirmation of democratic capitalism by an American President may have helped the Soviets face up to their inability to justify their dictatorial communism”It may at least be true that Reagan’ s stance and his upping of the ante in terms of defence spending helped Gorbachev and his party convince the people that reform was what was needed, and both he and Gorbachev managed to persuade their government to begin disarmament.
An Improvement on Reagan?
George Bush on the other hand is widely praised for negotiating the USA and to a great extent, much of the world, safely through a period which could easily have been fraught with turbulence. There is no guarantee that without his steady influence and transactional, conciliatory style of leadership the end of communism would have avoided all these potential hazards .
Bush’s policy in Central America was vastly more successful than Reagan’s and showed him to be a strong military leader as well as a talented diplomat with the successful capture of General Noriega in 1989 from Panama. This demonstration of willingness to use force coupled with the negotiating skills demonstrated in dealings with the USSR and the former East Germany showed his ability to recognise the most appropriate course of action for a given situation and, as Mervin puts it, his foreign policy record is “not easy to fault”.
War in the Gulf
Bush’s handling of the war in the Persian Gulf in 1990 is arguably his finest time. The liberation of Kuwait saw the President’s popularity rise to 89%, the highest ever recorded. George Bush saw the Iraqis as a direct security risk for the USA as opposed to a dispute between independent parties as tended to be the prevailing view elsewhere. He demonstrated considerable diplomatic skill in the “whirlwind of telephone diplomacy” conducted when Iraq invaded Kuwait. His strategy when dealing with the public is less clearly successful; Mark Rozell contends that despite his dislike of big speeches and ‘grandstanding’, Bush spoke eloquently and forcefully as never before during the war . Others consider that he was obstinate in his refusal to keep the public adequately informed of progress on the Gulf and of details regarding the deployment of US troops. He was of the opinion that, having been elected by the good American people, he should not have to degrade himself by having to explain and justify every move, rather they should trust his good judgement and await a favourable result.
It has been put that this attitude was what cost him re-election; he disliked the idea of having to campaign for re-election and thought the American public should merely observe his progress so far and come to the inevitable conclusion. This seems surely a mistake; given his tremendous popularity immediately following the war, it seems inconceivable that he could fail to gain re-election. A further criticism is that, given such a huge popularity status, should Bush not have used this advantage to wield influence over Congress and perhaps secure some more effective policy measures in the domestic sphere. Whilst to a certain extent, as Mervin argues, we should judge Presidents not by some universal standard, but rather by the completion of their stated agenda, we should be careful that we do not overlook the possibility that decisive action is what is required for the good of the country. It is no good saying that Bush never intend to overhaul the system if it appears that this is what was necessary; Presidents must be accountable for identifying the needs of their country, not shrinking from them.
On its most simplistic level, the comparison of Bush and Reagan paints the as exact opposites; where Reagan was confident and happy to know only the bare bones of a theory, Bush was uncomfortable with large addresses but could talk intimately with painstaking detail on any number of policy issues. Where Bush knew almost everyone on Capitol Hill and yet failed to make any significant impression on the American legislature, Reagan was a political outsider who managed to talk and bargain his way into probably the biggest policy reforms since the New Deal. Reagan can be accused of blundering insensitivity no the international scene while Bush gains only admiration for his foreign policy conduct. And, ultimately, Bush was the President whose popularity was highest in recorded history, yet his inability to play the media game like Reagan the actor eventually lead to his inability to even gain a second term.
Whatever Bush’s strengths, a President who fails to ‘play the game’ which, in this day and age means handle the media, cannot possibly be considered successful by his electorate, and the interpretation of his achievements can be defined by his most vocal detractors. Rozell asks if,
“there is no more compelling symbolism of the substantive necessity of
presidential rhetoric and symbolism than the vast disconnect between
what people close to Bush perceive about the man and what much of the
public ultimately believed”
Reagan, on the other hand, is remembered not only for his reforms in policy, but overwhelmingly for the connection he managed to achieve with the American voting public. This not only secures him a place in fond memory but was ultimately what allowed him to achieve that which he did whilst in office; “In the modern era, the presidential image is tantamount to reality” . Where Bush might easily have been the better President given the requisite media talents and a little more political sophistication, in fact Reagan came out of his term of office the more successful of the two.
Kellerman, B., ‘The Political Presidency’, Ch. 11; (1984)
Light, P., ‘The President’s Agenda’ Chs. 10, 11, 12; (1999)
Mervin, D., ‘George Bush and the Guardianship Presidency’, Chs. 2, 9; (1996)
Rose, R., ‘The Post-Modern Presidency’, Ch. 15; (1991)
Rozell, M. J., ‘In Reagan’s Shadow: Bush’s Antirhetorical Presidency’, Presidential Studies Quarterly; (Winter 1998)
Wildavsky, A., ‘The Beleaguered Presidency’, ch. 12; (1994)