In revealing comments this week, Presidents 44 and 43 offered divergent visions of how to lead in a democracy. Barack Obama talked about a "collaborative, consultative process." George W. Bush continued to praise something very close to the opposite.
At his final press conference as president, Bush repeatedly argued on Monday that presidents must tune out opposition to their policies at home and abroad. In one sense, that's admirable: Americans want a president with convictions strong enough to withstand momentary shifts in public opinion. And yet, in practice, Bush has shown how that virtue can mutate into a pinched and solipsistic approach to leadership.
In word and action, Bush consistently rejected the idea that leadership is an interactive process in which a president, through consultation, collaboration, and adjustment, tries to set a course that can rally a broad majority of his fellow citizens (or a broad range of nations). Instead, he repeatedly suggested he believes that a president's principal responsibility is to divine the "right" answer to any problem and then to implement that solution, regardless of the obstacles. "I don't see how I can get back home in Texas," Bush said on Monday, "and look in the mirror and be proud ... if I allowed the ... loud critics to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country." Bush's vision implies that a president operates with a constituency of one: his own conscience.
At times, that approach allowed Bush to drive events. During his first term, despite narrow Republican majorities on Capitol Hill, he enacted several of his key priorities, such as tax cuts, into law. He stockpiled presidential power, particularly on domestic security. And even amid ambivalence at home and resistance abroad, he invaded and remade Iraq.
Obama talked about a "collaborative, consultative process." Bush continued to praise something very close to the opposite.
The most immediate price of Bush's strategy was to sharply divide both domestic and international opinion. At his press conference, Bush dismissed that opposition as merely the "loud voices" that afflict every president. But Bush paid more than he acknowledged for the impassioned resistance that he provoked.
For one thing, that opposition made it difficult for him to advance legislative ideas that required bipartisan support. Bush's top second-term domestic priority was restructuring Social Security. On Monday he said that the effort failed because legislators were reluctant to reform the program absent a crisis; in fact, he faced two larger problems. One was that he chose a solution (private investment accounts) that was attractive primarily to his base; the other was that he had governed in a manner that so alienated rank-and-file Democrats that Democratic legislators had little to gain -- and much to fear -- from working with him on such a controversial issue.
Because Bush never established a broad consensus for many of his initiatives, he also increased the odds that they would not outlast him. Although some conservative pundits are claiming to foresee "continuity" between Bush and Obama, in fact the incoming president already is moving to undo core Bush decisions on issues from torture and Guantanamo to tax cuts and climate change.
Containment anchored American foreign policy for decades after World War II. But Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive invasion will likely leave office with him. Can anyone imagine Obama emulating that doctrine to overthrow an antagonistic regime?
Finally, Bush's unbending approach proved self-defeating because the backlash to it helped deliver the government to his Democratic critics. That has provided them not only the inclination but the means to uproot his policies.
Will Obama learn from Bush's mistakes? On ABC last Sunday, Obama spoke of a "collaborative ... process" that produces a grand bargain in which "everybody is going to have to give" to confront gaping federal deficits. That hints at a more inclusive and interactive approach to leadership -- one in which the president sets an overall direction but binds others to his purposes by incorporating competing views. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says that Obama is committed to "coupling" the public investment prized by liberals with "deadly serious spending reform" in areas from military procurement to entitlements that could appeal to conservatives. "This can't just be a replay of the past 30 years' [arguments]," Emanuel insists.
So far, like Bush's initial promise to govern as a "uniter," those are just words. But if Obama redeems them with deeds, he could make a more lasting imprint than his defiant predecessor, who heads offstage conceding nothing about the value of building consensus in a democracy.
This article appears in the Jan. 17, 2009, edition of National Journal.