This past Sunday the New York Post published an excerpt (unavailable online) from the new book by psychoanalyst Dr. Stanley Renshon, In His Father’s Shadow: The Transformations of George W. Bush, just out from Palgrave MacMillan. The book is a psychological portrait of the president.
Dr. Renshon teaches in the Ph.D. Program in Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is also a Power Line reader and has kindly forwarded us the excerpt that appeared in the Post on Sunday:
George W.’s presidential ambitions developed late in life. He himself has said of them, “I didn’t wake up when I was 15 years old saying, ‘I really want to be president.’ I didn’t feel that way at 21, 31, 41.
George W.’s political ambitions were part “family business” and part identification with his father. But he was not consumed with political ambition. Had he been burning with political ambition, he could have easily landed a high-level spot in his father’s administration. George W.’s chief ambition was to make good.
It’s hard to measure the scope of any president’s ambitions by the number of laws or executive orders he signs. Every president can now assemble a long list of such items given the activist nature of assemble a long list of such items given the activist nature of modern government. Those interested in presidential ambition must look elsewhere.
One place to look is whether presidential initiatives are incremental or transformational. The first builds in small steps on the policy frameworks bequeathed to a president. The second seeks to transform those very frameworks. George W. Bush’s policy initiatives definitely mark him as a transforming president.
George W.’s transformational aspirations do not appear to stem from an oversized personal ambition for glory or power. Rather, they seem to be tied to a profound personal and political dislike of the prevailing policy paradigms in both domestic and foreign policy.
Bush is firmly convinced that the liberal paradigm has reached an impasse if not a dead end, a view doubtless fueled by his experience with the arrogance and presumption of some of those who champion it.
This view dates back at least as far as his famous college encounter with William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then Chaplin at Yale. They met just after young George W.’s father had lost a race for the Senate to liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough. Coffin informed a young Bush that the “better man won.” This was an insensitive, rude, and arrogant remark and George W. never forgot or forgave it. It was a gratuitous slight against his beloved father, but it also came to represent for George W. the presumptuousness of the liberal elite.
Bush’s desire to transform the liberal paradigm was based on more than sour personal experience. It also stemmed from his conviction that the liberal paradigm of American foreign policy was inappropriate in a newly dangerous world. September 11 cemented his conviction that over reliance on multilateral agreements with no enforcement mechanisms, always accommodating allies with their own self-interest, and a reluctance to use force unless it was legitimized by the “world community” might prove suicidal.
President Bush announced on September 1, 2001, that his four priorities for the fall were the economy; education; his “faith-based” legislation; and security, including defense, Medicare, and Social Security. In reality, this list did not add up to four.
Two of these, the president’s education bill and his faith-based bill, were embodied in a single bill. The other policy initiatives could only be accomplished in several other major bills. Bush’s major tax cut, for example, was viewed as the first in a series of such steps.
The fourth area, security, contained a number of important programmatic initiatives-among them defense strategy and reorientation. These in turn involved a number of new programs such as the missile-defense system.
While many misunderstood, and some disparaged, Bush’s agenda, of this there could be little doubt: Far from presiding over an administration of limited policy ambitions, Bush’s policy agenda was enormous, expansive, and geared toward providing examples of his new domestic policy paradigm.
Observant reporters noted, “Any one of Bush’s major campaign planks could keep a president occupied for most of his first year in office; Bush seems determined to try to do them all at once.” Indeed, it was precisely this fact that led his critics to complain that Bush led as if he had a mandate.
Critics expected, and then demanded, a scaled-back agenda or one that was consistent with their views. Bush did neither, and that decision reflected another important element of his psychology. Bush is a president who is comfortable taking controversial stands and sticking with them.
Yet there is more to this aspect of his psychology than taking a position and sticking to it. He is able to do so through sometimes severe storms of public anxiety and critics’ cries to change course.
Despite mounting American casualties in Iraq, a devastating abuse scandal with prison guards, and demands for the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, Bush sails ahead neither deflected nor deterred.
Where did George W.’s character integrity come from? One answer is that he was able psychologically to be engaged with others, yet also able to stand apart. He wasn’t dependent on others for his basic sense of worth and confidence. He had had years of that kind of love in his family. And he had a long history of standing apart, against family expectations in general and his mother’s in particular. It proved to be good practice.
As president, Bush has initiated an unusual number of policy initiatives that go against the public grain. They begin with different premises and propose different solutions than the prevailing conventional wisdom. As a result, the public is being asked to rethink many policy areas. This asks a great deal of the public and it is not surprising that they have doubts and anxieties.
The president’s critics know this and seek to fan the flames of public worry and doubt. Bush, if he is to succeed, therefore must not only confront and master a high level of public concern with the changes he proposes, but do so against the strong headwind of partisanship.
The president’s tax cuts have drawn the united criticism of Democrats and have been received tepidly by the public. His vow to overhaul the Social Security system, allowing citizens to control and invest part of that income, is a major policy departure. So is the president’s policy to tie educational policy to testing in order to gauge whether students are learning.
In foreign policy, the Bush administration has promulgated the strongest formulation in American history of this country’s right to defend itself. He has specifically said that this policy envisions the possibility of going to war or attacking those who have not yet attacked this country. And this administration has taken on the responsibility for rebuilding Iraq while an insurgency rages, even as Democrats criticize the president and the public registers severe doubts and anxiety about the enterprise.
In each case, President Bush has been criticized at home and abroad. Yet his focus, resolve, and commitment to his policies appear undiminished.
Bush’s policy ambitions truly are transformational.
But they are more than that. They represent a commitment to the policy ideals and values that President Bush has developed and a willingness to fight for them.
As president, the list of major policies on which Bush has decided against his conservative base is a long one, and not widely acknowledged.
Donald Lambro, writing in the conservative Washington Times, wrote: “Bush has made several decisions in recent weeks that have infuriated conservative leaders here and out in the grass roots. He is pushing for amnesty to illegal immigrants in the border-security bill in an attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters. He imposed higher tariffs on imported steel sought by the industry in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.”
True, Bush did not castigate the no-interracial-dating polices of Bob Jones University when he spoke there during the 2000 primaries. It is likely that Bush was aware of their policy, but chose to give his standard stump speech and not confront it. However, this raises a larger issue that can be simply framed: Is this behavior the exception or the rule?
Similarly, consider the president’s imposition of steel tariffs that were obviously inconsistent with his free trade principles. Was this a deviation from Bush’s principles? Clearly. Was it politically advantageous to the president? Yes. Was it helpful policy? Apparently. Was it an exception to the rule, or one of many violations of it? A fair look at the president’s record would indicate that it was an exception.
If saying no to your allies on policy issues is one measure of presidential character integrity, Bush has given clear and repeated evidence of it.