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º George W. Bush
º Sources of Presidential Power
º Presidential Succession
º Works Cited
The office of the presidency is often misunderstood to be a direct product of the Constitution's Article II. In fact, that Article and the accompanying later constitutional amendments do not actually tell us much at all about the way this office has operated in modern times. I define "modern times" here to denote the powerful modern presidency dated from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was first elected in 1933 and became overseer and benefactor of a vast increase in the powers and prerogatives of the office. By contrast, public approval ratings tell us quite a bit about a modern president's fortunes. The purpose here is to demonstrate these facts via recent former President George W. Bush (1/20/2001 to 1/20/2009).
George W. Bush as a lame duck Top; Next Down
George W. Bush was a lame duck president in calendar year 2008. That means the 43rd American president in his eighth and final year of office was in a seriously weakened power position. There are two reasons why. The first is the fixed election calendar that mandated 2008 as his eighth and final year in office. Power thus passed from him to his successor, especially after the 4 November 2008 election of Barack Obama. Bush then confronted a 10-week presidential transition to inauguration of Obama on 20 January 2009.
There is a second reason why Bush was particularly weak. That is his lowly presidential approval rating. Approval is a standard poll-based judgment of presidential job performance. The Bush approval rating, so lofty for so long after the 9-11 terrorist attack, fell to the mid-30s approval by late 2007 and a historic low point of mid-20s late in 2008 (Bush Job Ratings - PollingReport.com; Ruggles, Historical Bush Approval Ratings; Roper Center, Job Performance Ratings for President George W. Bush; Bush administration approval ratings - SourceWatch).
This is not a brief or temporary condition. Bush had been low since early in his second term. One May 2006 report had Bush approval in the 20s, rivaling the lowest approval ebbs of predecessors Jimmy Carter (for one reason) and (for quite another) Richard Nixon (Editor&Publisher, May 11, 2006: Bush Approval Rating Hits the 20s for First Time; Roper Center, Job Performance Ratings for President George W. Bush). These things pointed to election reversal for the president's party in the congressional midterm election, where the American people could speak to their president in a manner he had to hear. The November 2006 midterm was a repudiation of his Iraq war policy visited upon Republican incumbents and challengers for the 110th Congress, which switched to Democratic control of House and Senate for the first time since 1994 (Renka, Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2010). The President faced a deeply skeptical 110th Congress for the last two years of his second term while also saddled with lame duck status (imposed by Amendment XXII's two-term limitation).
That low rating and midterm reversal cannot be dismissed purely as normal trouble for sitting presidents. A May 2006 comparison of 15 midterm presidential approval positions since 1950 put Bush ten points below the 14th ranked position (Charles Franklin, Political Arithmetik - Midterm Presidential Approval and 2006; Mark Blumenthal, Mystery Pollster - Job Approval at Midterm). Professor Pollkatz's Flush Bush graphic shows his steady downward spiral to mid-2006 followed by settling in at mid-30s approval and high 50s disapproval. These ratings are signs of real trouble for the president and the country.
Bush had also been a lightning rod for partisan and ideological division. Those who intensely opposed Bush hailed a 1 June 2006 survey showing that U.S. voters rated him the worst modern president (Quinnipiac University Search Detail - June 1, 2006). That's the position of a man who enjoyed lofty approval and miniscule disapproval ratings for a full 18 months, from September 2001 to March 2003 (Political Arithmetik - Approval of President Bush, 2001-present; Professor Pollkatz, first-year spiral number entries at Flush Bush). The other 11 modern presidents dating from Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s were never so high as Bush was then, because the vile and graphic attack of 9-11 produced a giant rally effect boosting Bush to near-record approval levels. Americans do rally round both the flag and the president when under direct attack (Political Arithmetik - Presidential Approval in Historical Perspective; Roper's Presidential Approval (at bottom, "Comparing Past Presidential Performance"; text Figure 20.1, p. 557). There was also a smaller but notable rally boost in the March 2003 onset of war with Iraq. All rally effects are subject to slippage in approval back to normal partisan divisions, and the Bush rate of decline after rapid peaking was typical. But what's untypical is how far down he has gone from those lofty peaks after two starts of wartime.
A qualitative and cultural side accompanied this downfall. Cartoons on and off the web derided his physical demeanor, his intelligence, his speeches, and his thoughts. Some of the humor has stung deeply, in particular the notorious (or celebrated) case of Steven Colbert Roasts President Bush - 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner - Google Video, 29 April 2006. The memorable term "Mission Accomplished" from the President's orchestrated 1 May 2003 piloting of a Lockheed jet landing on the U.S.S. Lincoln Flight Deck has become a widely recognized source of mockery ("Mission Accomplished" - Wikipedia). So has "You're doing a great job, Brownie" during the dismal federal response to Hurricane Katrina's August 2005 trashing of New Orleans (Brand 2005, NPR Slate's Politics FEMA's Dangling Man). Some artists' calls for his impeachment emerged in music releases. He was viewed as un-presidential by millions of his fellow citizens. In my own view, he was overwhelmed by the job.
One indicator of the weakened Bush position is congressional deviancy from his preferred policy agenda by his fellow Republicans. Bush had long relied heavily on the core conservative voters on the party-ruled House side of the Hill to reliably press his legislation agenda forward. That was no longer to be taken for granted once the 109th House gave way to the Democrat-majority 110th, led by Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi instead of Tom DeLay's protege Dennis Hastert (Renka, Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2010). Even before that, there were signs of the President's diminished command of Hill affairs. As usual for presidents, this weakening became most evident on major domestic policy initiatives. In 2006 the House Republican conservatives insisted upon a strict border-security and criminalization approach to immigration reform, and they staked that position against both the White House and the more moderate Senate version of this bill (Allen 2006, House GOP threatens to ‘blue-slip’ bill - June 7, 2006). It did them no electoral good; and in 2007-08, they stood no chance of enacting a hard-line anti-immigrant measure into law.
But even the conservative revolt on immigration is unusual behavior for Republicans confronting this President. Congress under Republican management on both sides of Capitol Hill had been remarkably obedient and deferential to the White House since 2003 on both legislative questions and on congressional oversight of this wartime executive branch actions. The President began calendar 2005 right after 2004 reelection with an affirmation of his power: "Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in... after the 2000 election. I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election, and I'm going to spend it for... for what... what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is-- you've heard the agenda-- Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror." (Online NewsHour - President Bush Announces Agenda for Second Term -- November 4, 2004).
He did not speak in that vein by 2007 or 2008. We've known since 2001 that this President did not communicate much in person with Capitol Hill, preferring instead to hand down orders and expect full and prompt obedience (Wayne 2006). By calendar 2006 as Republicans still ruled the Hill, that no longer would do. Voices on Capitol Hill recognized that Bush had to intervene personally with persistence and skill if in 2006 his moderate immigration reform bill were to ever become the law of the land. That takes hard work, long hours, and close attention to detail for a man not noted for devotion to any of these things up to now. The Bush immigration bill died, and so did his ambitious conservative plan to overhaul the Social Security system. Bush capital vanished in 2005 and 2006 even before the midterm 2006 election reversal for his party.
He did not change his ways. Bush was noted for his personal consistency, some calling it outright stubbornness. The War in Iraq is customarily given chief blame for Bush's reversal of fortune. Indeed, the President himself assigned it almost exclusive responsibility, resolving meanwhile to tough it out on grounds that it is the historically necessary thing to do within the context of a long-term American war on terrorism. He cannot be accused of inconsistency here, as he has voiced this resolve from the war's start in March 2003, now more than 5 years old (for example, see Online Speech Bank President George W. Bush - Iraq War Address at Fort Bragg, NC (6-28-05)). By 2007 or 2008, we knew what to expect of him.
The basic George Bush political identity has also been consistent since 20 January 2001. From the start he threw his lot in with the religiously oriented cultural conservatives, and he did not deviate from that (Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, October 17, 2004). He ostentatiously spoke of his personal religious faith as a central article in speeches and policy orientation. A consequence of this personal orientation was the Bush Administration tendency to dismiss inconvenient truths, even when fully backed by authoritative scientific evidence. Bush from 2001 consistently put scientific credential below one's personal loyalty, ideology, and religious conviction in the internal rank-ordering of source acceptance.
In short, the man had not changed. His power and capacity to move others did. The question here is why. One answer is essentially personal, the other is institutionally rooted. To now we've focused on the former, but I've already stated a preference for the latter. I believe Bush's decline in power was not a result of him changing his nature or skills or inclinations; instead he was vastly less equipped to work his will upon others to get things to go his way. That's an institutional attribute of the American political system.
Sources of Presidential Power Top; Next Down
Presidents are politicians. We know that but sometimes shy from recognizing its full consequences. Politics is the art of using power to achieve public goals. Presidents vary considerably in their mastery of this art, but all of them must try. The Constitution scarcely confers the necessary powers on the presidency to get on without this skill. The president is not a constitutional prime minister whose tenure in office is directly measured by control of the parliamentary majority on important Administration votes. All modern presidents do have considerable powers to take direct action or "power without persuasion" (Howell 2003). Indeed so, yet most of that power also lies outside or beyond the constitution.
George W. Bush proved astute enough as a politician to win statewide election twice in Texas, take himself twice to the nation in 2000 and 2004, and again prevail both times. His politics is part of a highly divisive era, so much that his approval ratings are a lot more deeply divided by the partisanship of respondents than any previous president (Jacobson 2006). His political strategy appeals to his conservative Republican economic and cultural base, with an very occasional centrist move across the aisle to Democrats and the moderate Republicans. But by 2006 through 2008, his conservative identity became so entrenched that Democrats across the board simply did not trust him. Bush could not "cross the aisle" for support from the Democratic-run 110th Congress.
A modern president is also the chief administrative officer of the executive branch. This is mainly a function of the modern presidential office dating from the 1930s, when the New Deal preceded wartime of the 1940s in fostering a vast expansion of the federal executive branch. The modern president can use positive tools (speeches urging action, legislative requests, executive orders, executive agreements, and more) to implement policy through the executive bureaucracy. The presidents before the 1921 enactment of the Budget Act could scarce do likewise, since they lacked the tools and staff to directly oversee what the executive branch did.
This president enjoyed some early reputation as a businesslike Republican for running orderly and disciplined meetings, setting an agenda, demanding inward and outward loyalty to it, and getting what he sought. But administrative competence is often not visible until tested in crisis. The War in Iraq by 2007 was a widely recognized administrative failure attributable to the president's chief political agents, especially former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The domestic side was not much better. Homeland Security was grossly inadequate at handling Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, where I probably knew the extent of flood disaster before officialdom in that conflated Department truly did. Inconvenient truths about the world eventually catch up to presidents who act in denial of reality. Finally there is scandal. The political demand for absolute loyalty resulted in at least one highly placed White House officer "outing" a CIA officer whose husband had become an articulate public adversary on the Bush rationale for war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq (Plame affair - Wikipedia). In 2007 we witnessed a sorry spectacle of an inadequate Attorney General Alberto Gonzales try to explain away the politically inspired firing of eight U.S. attorneys. This quartet of events has demolished any sense that George W. Bush is a passably competent administrative chief of government.
Modern presidents are speakers as well. This is the peculiarly modern presidential attribute once called the "bully pulpit" that allows modern presidents to command our public attention like no other. An effective public communicator--a Franklin Roosevelt with Fireside Chats, a Kennedy with calls to duty and high purpose, a Reagan invoking heroism among common people during State of the Union Addresses, Clinton speaking to the sorrow after destruction of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building--can profoundly stamp that speaker as an historical contributor to America's perception of itself. But most modern presidents face this task, do it willingly and often, but do not do it particularly well. That is where George W. Bush resides. He was not a poor speaker when it's the formal occasion of an Inaugural Address or a State of the Union Address, both of which are carefully written and edited along with extensive pre-speech practice time for the president himself. But when George W. Bush spoke in normal daily or weekly events, the results were startlingly ineffective. To corroborate this online, google up the term "Bushisms" (for example, Political humor - Bushisms; The Complete Bushisms - By Jacob Weisberg - Slate Magazine; Bushism - Wikipedia; on video - 8 Years Of 'Bushisms' - CBS News Video). This went beyond the occasional blooper or bombast from a famous politician (The History Place - Bloopers, Blunders and Bombast). It was habit. He stumbled through a series of thoughts, voicing one item and then returning to it over and again when its link to something else does not come forth. This reflected his approach to the daily job of governing the nation. He vacationed often, took his exercise routines obsessively during the day, did not study hard, and eventually couldn't help but show the effects of that in his spoken manner.
Now why else do some presidents lose power in the manner illustrated by President Bush? There is a fixed calendar through which all presidents pass, beginning with the first-year presidential honeymoon during which presidential approval ratings are relatively high because opposition-party disapproval is low (Gallup 2009, Obama Honeymoon Continues; 7 Months Is Recent Average). Once normality of everyday presidential conduct returns, then so does strong partisan opposition. We can see this happen in summer 2009 with emerging Republican and conservative opposition to President Obama's proposed plan for national health care. So that's for new presidents; what about aged ones?
For that we have lame duck status. That's courtesy of the presidential term limitation imposed by our 22nd Amendment, enacted in 1951 at Republican instigation to ensure that no future president could duplicate Franklin D. Roosevelt's unprecedented four terms in office (Renka, Timeline of Modern Presidents). Eisenhower in 1960, Reagan in 1988, Clinton in 2000, and Bush in 2008 were in their eighth and final years of power. Naturally other politicians looked ahead to reshaping the party and its leadership in that light; and it means a certain cavalier disregard for the wishes of the current President that would never pass muster earlier. This applied to all four late second term presidents, not to Bush alone; and should President Obama be reelected and in power in 2016 it will inevitably curb his authority as well.
We also know that second-term midterm elections have not been kind to the sitting president's copartisans in the Congress. President George W. Bush endured a strong partisan rebuke in November 2006 and thus confronted divided government in 2007 and 2008. That is commonplace for modern presidents, especially since 1969 (Renka, Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2010); but the effect of having the opposition control both houses of Congress is now greater than in the past. That's because both parties in Congress and the country have become much more internally cohesive (or homogenous), and the two parties are farther apart with their elite cadres often displaying an abiding dislike for the persons and principles of their adversaries (Poole's Data Download Front Page and The Ideological Structure of Congressional Voting; Jacobson 2006). Thus a president who enjoyed unified government, as Bush did from 2003 through 2006, could get away with a certain arrogant assurance that he will get his way in the Congress. Bush did so despite a certain personal and rhetorical neglect of his own party's leadership there.
But likewise, the 2006 midterm shift to opposition-party (Democrats this time) control of Congress brought this to a crashing halt. That shift too is commonplace, as second-term midterm results often are adverse to the president's party. Take a look at 1938 with Franklin Roosevelt, 1958 with Eisenhower, 1966 with Johnson, 1974 with Nixon/Ford, and 1986 with Reagan. All were major seat losses for the president's party (Renka, Party Control). Only Clinton's 1998 was not, and that's because the Clinton party had already endured the election disaster of midterm 1994 that wiped out Democrats in districts that had voted Republican in the 1992 presidential election. But the 2006 shift means more than most earlier ones in terms of support for the president. This shift is enhanced by the same sharpened partisan climate on Capitol Hill that had earlier helped the President.
When opposition parties return to power after years out of the executive, they usually have abundant targets among the political appointments of the sitting government. With the highly demonstrable administrative incompetence of some Bush political appointments, alongside some highly ideological conduct by cultural conservatives, the Democrats in the 110th Congress in 2008 were very busy using legislative oversight to construct a record of political meddling and outright poor performances. There was no shortage of likely targets for subpoena and embarrassing testimony. Only passage out of power slowed that process down.
Presidential Succession Top; Next Down
So far the U.S. Constitution has hardly been in evidence where conduct of the modern presidency is concerned. But there is one strong exception to that. It's the problem of orderly succession from one president to another. The normal route of succession, of course, is through the quadrennial general election in November of years 2000, 2004, 2008, and so forth. But one has only to look back at the Timeline of Modern Presidents to see several major disruptions in the tenure of presidents. That is the succession problem. Succession was handled in slipshod fashion during the historical American presidency of 1789 to 1932. But since FDR and 1933, the enhanced power and importance of the modern presidency has gradually become so obvious that we have fixed the way one President (and Vice-President) succeeds another.
The Timeline shows that Franklin Roosevelt did not assume office until 4 March 1933, a four-month transition dating from his election in November 1932. That date is an 18th century leftover from days when Americans did not dare travel to Washington D.C. for an inauguration in mid-winter; but in the 1932-33 Hoover to Roosevelt interim, the Great Depression produced an unprecedented host of bank failures in one state after another. So we modernized the Constitution with Amendment XX to the Constitution, enacted in early 1933 even before FDR began to serve. It changed the future-year inaugural date to January 20 (first effective in 1937). And more importantly, it formally placed the order of succession directly into the Constitution, partially replacing provisions of the Presidential Succession Act of 1886.
Roosevelt did not instigate Amendment XX, but he might be called the true father of Amendment XXII to the Constitution. Enacted in 1951 during the late Truman presidency, this was a product of the 80th Congress of 1947-48. They deeply resented Roosevelt breaching the informal two-term presidential limit by getting reelected to a 3d term in 1940, not to mention an abbreviated fourth one in November 1944 despite being near death due to congestive heart failure. The result was term limiting of all future presidents elected from 1952 onward. That ended up curbing Eisenhower in 1960, Reagan in 1988, Clinton in 2000, and George W. Bush in 2008, to a certain constitutional and political "lame duck" status. What's more, it powerfully elevated the political importance of the vice presidency, since these aspirants to high office could now be certain of a fairly open path to nominations once lame duck status afflicted the current occupant. The year 2008 is rare for absence of a vice president as active aspirant in either presidential primary.
Neither Amendment XX nor XXII solved one gaping problem that became evident when Franklin Roosevelt died. Take another look at Truman on the Timeline, and you'll see that he presided for 45 months (12 April 1945 to January 1949) with no vice president! What's more, President Truman disliked any notion of having an unelected presidential Cabinet officer become president through succession. So he asked Congress to amend the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 to put the top Congressional officers right behind the vice president in the line of succession. Rather naturally, Congress liked that idea, producing the current Act in 1947 with the Speaker of the House in line right behind the Vice President.
Now take a look at Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2010. The 80th Congress of 1947-48 was Republican, and therefore the Speaker was Republican Joseph Martin. No offense to that gentleman, but had President Truman been terminated from office for any reason during that Congress, Republican Martin would have become President. Not many citizens of a democracy would consider that a sensible thing to do in successions. Truman had obviously not anticipated the switch in congressional control to the other party.
Of course, Harry did survive the 80th, did win a 1948 upset election, and did serve his own term with a vice president. And in 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected along with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. But the Kennedy assassination finally persuaded us to amend the Constitution one more time. This was Amendment XXV to the Constitution in 1967. Among other things, it provided for replacement of any vacated vice presidency through presidential nomination and confirmation by both Senate and House. Exactly that provision had to be employed, not once but twice, to clean up the Watergate mess and Agnew mess created by former President Richard Nixon. First, Vice-President Agnew resigned under pressure in October 1973, and the Amendment enabled Richard Nixon to then name Gerald Ford, who was confirmed that December. Ford in turn replaced Nixon in August 1974 as the latter resigned. And then President Ford named another political figure to fill his former Veep chair (scroll down the Timeline to Nixon-Agnew-Ford-Rockefeller).
Not ideal to have an unelected Ford as President, perhaps; but I argue that it's far better than absence of Amendment XXV. In that event, once Agnew was gone and Nixon was forced to cough up incontrovertible evidence of his direction of the Watergate scandal, then succession would have yielded the Speaker of the House as next in line. And he, Carl Albert of Oklahoma, was a Democrat (see 93rd Congress, House side, in Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2010). For his part, Albert wisely did not want that job obtained in that way. He recommended the former House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to the Nixon White House as Agnew's replacement, ensuring that Ford would win confirmation by broad bipartisan assent in the Congress (Carl Albert > Speaker - Wikipedia; Vice President > Succession and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment - Wikipedia).
Succession is not perfect by any means, as some future crisis over a presidential disability may eventually show us. But compared to the haphazard pre-1933 condition of things, it's greatly improved. That is only fitting in light of the greatly enhanced power of the modern presidency (and vice presidency).
Conclusion Top; Next down
Now take a tour through the U.S. Constitution, Article II to see how much, if any, of these observations can be derived from a reading of the document. Take your time, but in the end, you'll have to conclude that it is futile save for the case of modern presidential succession. You will not learn enough of how the presidency truly operates from touring this site. Modern practices of a giant modern superpower have shaped this office into something greatly different than the modest position described in a few sparing clauses and phrases there. Ours is no longer a young country.
Blumenthal, Mark. 2006-07. Mystery Pollster - Job Approval at Midterm. URL: www.mysterypollster.com/main/2006/05/job_approval_at.html.
Brand, . 2005. NPR Slate's Politics FEMA's Dangling Man. URL:
Eggen, Dan and Michael A. Fletcher. 2007. Embattled Gonzales Resigns, Washington Post, 28 August 2007. URL: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/27/AR2007082700372.html.
Franklin, Charles. 2006-07. Political Arithmetik - Midterm Presidential Approval and 2006. URL: politicalarithmetik.blogspot.com/2006/05/midterm-presidential-approval-and-2006.html.
Howell, William G. 2003. Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jacobson, Gary C. 2006. A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People. New York: Pearson Longman.
Myers, Steven Lee, and Philip Shenon. 2007. Embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Resigns. New York Times, August 27, 2007. URL: www.nytimes.com/2007/08/27/washington/27cnd-gonzales.html.
Patterson, Thomas E. 2008. The American Democracy, 8th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
Poole, Keith. undated. The Ideological Structure of Congressional Voting. URL: voteview.com/ideological_maps.htm.
Professor Pollkatz. Flush Bush. URL: www.pollkatz.homestead.com/files/flushbush_files/zzzBUSHINDEX_3014_image001.gif.
Renka, Russell D. Party Control of the Presidency and Congress, 1933-2008. URL: cstl-cla.semo.edu/renka/ui320-75/presandcongress.asp.
Renka, Russell D. Timeline of Modern Presidents. URL: cstl-cla.semo.edu/renka/ui320-75/timeline.asp.
Suskind, Ron. 2004. Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. URL: www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html.
Wayne, Stephen J. 2006. Bush and Congress: Communication
Without Much Consultation. Extensions: A Journal of the Carl
Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, Spring 2006, pp. 14-18.
 The sad spectacle of Gonzales and the firing of the U.S. Attorneys is chronicled here: U.S. Attorney Firings Investigation - washingtonpost.com. On his 27 August 2007 departure, see Eggen and Fletcher, Embattled Gonzales Resigns, 28 August 2007; Myers and Shenon 2007, Embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Resigns. His troubles are not noted in the laudatory Bush White House bio; see The White House, Alberto Gonzales, Former Attorney General.
 The Presidential Succession Act - Wikipedia shows that the 1886 law had removed them from succession.
Copyright©2009, Russell D. Renka