The New Age Presidency

George W. Bush broke a mold four years ago: Even though he lost the popular vote, he governed as if he had won by acclamation. This stunned the Washington establishment, which expected him to bow and scrape before the local power-brokers-that-be, but it also enabled President Bush to accomplish far more than his critics would have dared believe.

His first term featured not only the Bush Doctrine and the War on Terror, but also stunning domestic-policy victories, ranging from three separate tax-cut packages and big-ticket reforms in education and health care. Now, he’s at it again. He has asked many members of his Cabinet to resign, not out of displeasure at their work, but out of an understanding that he can’t have a vigorous and aggressive second term without an aggressive and vigorous Cabinet.

Look carefully: In virtually every case, the president has replaced a political veteran with an equally seasoned, but younger, political warrior. The first Bush administration — call it Bush I — featured men and women who had made their fortunes and didn’t need to seek approval from Official Washington. This was a good thing, and enabled the president to surround himself with people who would give wise and fair counsel.

He can expect the same thing from Bush II, but the new crew offers something more essential in a second administration — pure, ebullient ambition; not the ambition of the preening or backbiting striver, but of men and women attracted to big challenges and higher purposes. In fact, this profile describes the president himself. George W. Bush isn’t the kind of guy to linger in front of a mirror admiring his stately visage. He wants to get things done.

That kind of presidential goal-setting also distinguishes this from other recent second-term presidencies. Returning presidents have a tendency to coast on first-term glory and to treat their last four years in office as a time in which to reflect upon and consolidate past achievements. There’s almost a sense of nostalgia about the final years of a presidency.

Ronald Reagan followed this pattern; so did Bill Clinton. Both not coincidentally found themselves in political trouble halfway through their second terms — in part because of misbehavior in high places, but also because they had frittered away their political capital. They could not redirect public attention to larger goals; they could not pound Congress with demands to get moving on compelling action items.

This president has learned from those mistakes. In addition, he has an advantage that no returning U.S. president since FDR has enjoyed: a Congress dominated by his own party. To take the historical analogy further, he’s the first president in a century (since Teddy Roosevelt) to have outlined a bold and imaginative agenda for his second term. And he doesn’t have to worry about a vice president trying to cast him aside so the Number Two can prepare for becoming Number One.

So when you read stories of a White House in disarray, ignore them. This is a White House girding for action — and one that will make American politics over the next four years as interesting (and contentious) as it has been in a very long time.

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