Giedre Pranaityte: The Presidential Leadership of George W. Bush and its Impact on the Erosion of the Conservative Regime

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.Giedre Pranaityte


The focus of scholarly attention in relation to the presidential leadership has recently shifted to “typological theorizing as a new approach to systematic comparison” (Bennet and Elman, 2006, 456). There are numerous attempts to develop a comprehensive system which would allow to examine different presidencies and styles of leadership by using clear patterns of evaluation. It would also create ample possibilities for political scientists to make more accurate insights and conclusions. Scholars seek to diminish their reliance on changing political circumstances or personal traits of presidents. As Gary King explains, they are challenged by the need to acknowledge that individuals are important and that presidents can be studied systematically” (King, 1993, 406). In other words, it still is quite difficult to merge presidents' individuality and the need for a systematic examination of their leadership skills into one coherent whole.

Some challenging ideas about innovative ways of the analysis of presidencies have been proposed by the prominent American scholar Stephen Skowronek (1997, 2008). He offers a detailed analysis of the presidential leadership in the course of the American political history. Skowronek suggests the division of all U.S. Presidents into four recurrent types, which have been termed the politics of disjunction, the politics of articulation, the politics of reconstruction and the politics of preemption. In fact, his attempt to allocate presidents to four categories despite historical and political differences as well as distance in time can be regarded as a successful effort to overview “the problems of governing in modern America” (Skowronek, 2008, 2).

In this essay the main objective is to test the place that the forty-third president occupies in Skowronek's typology. I argue that George W. Bush starts his presidency as an orthodox innovator but later his leadership style changes in relation to the erosion of the governing regime. The research problem includes the following questions: Does the presidential leadership of George W. Bush conform to Stephen Skowronek's concept of an orthodox innovator? Does the erosion of the Republican regime change George W. Bush's leadership from the politics of articulation to the politics of disjunction?

The essay has been subdivided into sections and sub-sections. At first, some significant theoretical considerations about orthodox innovation are provided and the most important elements of the politics of articulation and the politics of disjunction are explained. Then, it is analyzed whether George W. Bush meets necessary criteria to be labeled an orthodox innovator. Finally, the attention is paid to the transformation of George W. Bush's leadership from the politics of articulation to the politics of disjunction.

I. Theoretical Approach to the Presidential Leadership and its Types

Developing his theory about the presidential leadership, Skowronek devotes much attention to the development of the political system throughout the American political history. He characterizes this process as “a recurrent sequence of change” and notes that major political coalitions are engaged into a perpetual struggle for power while each of them ardently supports “a particular approach to public policy questions” (Skowronek, 2008, 28). When a certain political coalition succeeds in occupying a dominant position, it usually creates a governing regime which initially possesses a high degree of resilience and makes a huge influence on political trends and institutional activities on the federal level. Later, as inevitable changes occur in the political arena, the regime is no longer able to meet “the manifest governing demands of the day” and gradually becomes weak (Skowronek, 2008, 29). Importantly, the disintegration of the governing regime is expected to happen when the dominant political coalition is troubled by internal discord and no longer fulfills the expectations of its supporters. As Skowronek notes, the process of “erosion in majority-party support” cannot be separated from inevitable failures of the president to accomplish “the difficult task of keeping faith with a ruling coalition in changing times”(Skowronek, 2008, 63 and 45). When the authority of the Executive is undermined by his inability to implement important political objectives and the unity among the representatives of the governing regime disappears, another political coalition comes to power and establishes a new regime.

Every president of the United States has to develop a relationship with the dominant regime either in opposition or affiliation. Skowronek defines the presidential leadership as “something of a struggle between the individual and the system” and emphasizes that “the system changes as well as the incumbent” (Skowronek, 2008, 77). It remains clear, however, that at first one needs to understand the political stance of the Executive and grasp the essential features of his leadership related to it. Later, many challenging questions about concrete presidential successes and failures in the realm of politics ought to be raised.

II. The Politics of Articulation and Orthodox Innovation

In order to understand the development of the leadership of George W. Bush in more depth, one really needs to perceive the politics of articulation which is inseparable from the concept of orthodox innovation. In fact, Stephen Skowronek distinguishes two generations of orthodox innovators and indicates that George H. W. Bush represents the first one since he has emerged as a faithful follower of Ronald Reagan's policies unable “to articulate his own vision for the nation.” (Skowronek, 2008, 104). Being too much related to the previous president, George H. W. Bush could not adapt to changing circumstances, develop adequate schemes of governing and propose workable solutions to new problems freely. To put it simply, orthodoxy has exerted too much power on him through conservative supporters. Consequently, some of his major new initiatives have been rejected as unacceptable.

George W. Bush, being more distant in time from Ronald Reagan, belongs to the second generation of orthodox innovators. Contrary to his father, George W. Bush has endeavored to construct “grand superstructures on the regime's foundations.” (Skowronek, 2008, 100). He has also tried to adjust the conservative ideology to the present and implement his vision towards politics and governance into reality. The president has supported some new ideas by endorsing compassionate conservatism, which would combine “rights-based claims to entitlements and the virtues of individual responsibility” (Milkis and Nelson, 2008, 430). Special attention has also been paid to social activity of religious organizations. Following Stephen Skowronek's approach, one can easily notice that the president's support for conservative ideals stands for orthodoxy, which, in turn, derives from the political heritage of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Meanwhile proposals to provide more assistance to vulnerable circles of society add some hues of innovation and transform George W. Bush into “Reagan Plus.”(Skowronek, 2008, 135). As Stephen Skowronek notes, “[t]he object of a politics of articulation is to fit the existing parts of the regime together in a new and more relevant way” (Skowronek, 1997, 41). This challenge is usually entrusted to the leaders who are referred to as orthodox innovators. Interestingly, orthodox innovators are defined by five important criteria that explain their actions, choices and political decisions.

The commitment to tread in the footsteps of strong presidents and combine their ideology with new practices makes the first criterion for orthodox innovators. As Skowronek explains, orthodox innovators “galvanize political action with promises to continue the good work of the past and demonstrate the vitality of the established order in changing times” (Skowronek, 1997, 41). The main challenge for the president is to make the political regime acceptable to different groups within his party and wider circles of society at the same time. It is quite a complicated task, indeed, because the supporters of the president have to be persuaded that potential innovations do not undermine their interests and political ideals.

The second criterion for orthodox innovators is related to their inclination to disregard unexpected events instead of adapting to a new reality. It should be emphasized that the orthodox innovator usually sets an explicit political agenda and tries to implement it despite possible obstacles or unfavorable circumstances. According to Skowronek, this type of leadership requires the president “to stand fully committed up front, fully revealed in one's commitments, and ready to act” (Skowronek, 2008, 123). In order to implement his objectives, the president needs to foresee future events and make influence on them. The only way to achieve this complex aim is “to insist on tight control from the center” (Skowronek, 2008, 137). However, this approach might deprive him of flexibility while searching for compromises and alternatives.

The eagerness of orthodox innovators to get involved into political confrontation and military action serves as the third criterion. Skowronek explains this phenomenon by calling such leaders “muscle-flexing presidents, impatient to complete the work of their predecessors” who sometimes overestimate the influence of the United States, especially in the realm of foreign policy (Skowronek, 2008, 136) . On the one hand, the president can take advantage of the warfare and achieve three important political objectives: strengthen the governing regime by rallying its supporters for a clearly defined cause, expand the presidential powers and make the potential critique from the opposition seem unpatriotic. On the other hand, the failure to attain some goals of the initial agenda and achieve a rapid victory undermines the authority of the Executive. Meanwhile, the governing regime experiences a crisis and remains “overburdened with responsibilities, ideologically distended, and tumbling into disarray” (Skowronek, 2008, 141).

The fourth criterion stems from the necessity for orthodox innovators to diminish divisions within the governing regime and make it more acceptable to the troubled society. As Skowronek points out, the politics of articulation implies a constant need “to mitigate or assuage the factional ruptures within the ranks of the establishment” (Skowronek, 1997, 41). In this situation, the leadership of the president depends on his ability to re-unite the followers and fend off the opposition. However, orthodox innovators, in most cases, fail to get these tasks accomplished and the governing regime continues to split into petty factions.

The fifth criterion is based on the assumption that orthodox innovators usually have little chance of re-election. They often lose the election for the second presidential term due to the inability to meet the expectations of the constituents and the representatives of the governing regime. A typical orthodox innovator usually takes high risks because after dashing initial hopes and making too many political mistakes he might end up his presidential career being “swamped by charges of betrayal” (Skowronek, 2008, 136).

III. Theoretical Considerations about the Politics of Disjunction

The politics of disjunction is another “cell of the typology” which assists in examining the presidential leadership (Skowronek, 1997, 36). In fact, it possesses four distinctive criteria that reveal which presidents can be characterized as disjunctive. This presidency type is important to the full-fledged analysis of the legacy of George W. Bush since it explains some of the most significant transformations on the political stage, which have taken place in the United States during the last four years.

The first criterion for disjunctive leaders is connected with their inability to distance themselves from the unsuccessful governing regime and provide new political alternatives. Here, the presidents emerge as being “affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day” (Skowronek, 1997, 39). Due to important changes or unexpected difficulties, political obligations of the governing regime fail to produce desired results and the general public becomes dissatisfied with it. In this case, the role of the president becomes unenviable because he is “caught between the stark demands […] for regime maintenance and the blunt charges of regime bankruptcy” (Skowronek, 2008, 90). In other words, the president is transformed into a mediator between the representatives of the establishment and its opponents. As the political climate gradually becomes unfavorable, the leader is very likely to find himself forced in a tight corner by the “[o]pen recognition of serious problems within the establishment coupled with a promise of continuity” (Skowronek, 2008, 90).

The tendency to make repetitive failures while trying to instigate inner reforms of the governing regime is defined as the second criterion for the politics of disjunction. When the president puts a special emphasis on the need to implement necessary changes within the political establishment, he elevates the expectations among the members of society and makes “a promise to fix things up” (Skowronek, 2008, 88). However, the regime remains quite defensive, despite its rapid erosion, and eventually the process of change is brought to a sudden halt. When numerous attempts to ameliorate the situation give no effective results, the constituents start to believe that “the task of breathing new life into an old order seems to be beyond the political capacities of the presidential office” (Skowronek, 2008, 88). Therefore the Executive experiences a big loss of the popular support and his abilities to influence political processes diminish.

The third criterion is associated with the decrease of the presidential credibility and authority due to the continuous erosion of the regime. The failure of disjunctive presidents “either to forthrightly repudiate or forthrightly affirm their political inheritance” inevitably provokes “a crisis of political legitimacy” (Skowronek, 2008, 90). To put it simply, the president is seen by the people and the media as inactive and dysfunctional, while the members of the regime turn away from him and start searching for a new leader. According to Skowronek, the disjunctive presidents sometimes “press major departures of their own from the standard formulas and priorities set in the old agenda” but these desperate measures merely underline their inability to act as true change-makers and accelerate the disintegration of the regime even more (Skowronek, 1997, 40). The opposition, in turn, exploits this situation to its own benefit by emphasizing the presidential passivity and by denouncing the ills of ineffective politics.

The widespread condemnation of the disjunctive president leading to his political loneliness can be termed the fourth criterion. When all endeavors to provide adequate solutions to long-lasting problems appear to be futile, the leader quickly becomes the main target of political scapegoating. The opposition also makes a good use of the situation to increase its chances to come to power. As the Executive is turned into “the premier symbol of systemic political failure”, the presidential election seems to be the only way out of this political impasse since a new regime needs to be constructed (Skowronek, 1997, 39).

IV. The Analysis of George W. Bush's Leadership and its Results.

The first objective of the essay is to test if George W. Bush meets five criteria for a typical orthodox innovator. The second objective is to analyze whether his leadership style has changed into the politics of disjunction. The presidency of George W. Bush is also examined according to four criteria for the disjunctive leadership. Besides, it is aimed to determine in what ways the forty-third president fits into theoretical models and whether he strays from them. It should be noted, however, that in the essay more attention is paid not to the dimension of the regime vulnerability but to the content of the presidency types.

V. The Presidency of George W. Bush in Relation to Orthodox Innovation

Firstly, all orthodox innovators are expected to build their leadership on the ideological basis of their predecessors who have made the governing regime resilient to the political opposition. George W. Bush matches the first criterion since he has clearly been willing to come back to “the yet-unfulfilled promises of the Reagan Revolution” (Skowronek, 2008, 129). In fact, after winning the first-term presidential election in 2000, George W. Bush still had to establish himself as a credible leader of the nation. It was a difficult task, indeed, because a considerable part of the population questioned the legitimacy of his victory against the Democrat candidate Al Gore. Unable to impress the public in the realm of foreign policy, he decided to concentrate on domestic issues. As Sydney M. Milkis and Michael Nelson observe, George W. Bush has made an important step by choosing “to emphasize traditional conservative issues such as tax cuts, regulatory relief, energy production, and missile defense” (Milkis and Nelson, 2008, 428). Besides, he often expressed a firm belief that the United States of America possesses an inherent obligation to support democracy all around the world.

Secondly, orthodox innovators are unable to accept a new reality and they try to adapt all unexpected events to their initial agendas. It is obvious that George W. Bush meets the second criterion since sudden challenges in the aftermath of 9/11 has rendered him incapable to create an entirely new approach to foreign policy. It should be noted that the president has endeavored to offer simple solutions to the terrified America by stating: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done” (Bush: 2001). In fact, George W. Bush has chosen to lean on orthodoxy more by relying exclusively on the American power. It is essential to bear in mind that politics for an orthodox innovator is “a struggle for definition” while the leadership is equaled to “the assertion and control of definitions” (Skowronek, 2008, 122). After the terrorist attacks in New York, the president has established himself by providing clear ideas about his political identity as a wartime president and by protecting them at all costs. Importantly, making the inaugural address at the very beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush also expressed his readiness to “show courage in a time of blessing by confronting problems instead of passing them on to future generations” (Bush: 2001). This bold commitment to make tough decisions if necessary can be interpreted as his political credo. By establishing his strong position from the very beginning and acknowledging “the value of definition in leadership”, the president has related himself to orthodox innovation (Skowronek, 2008, 121).

Firm determination to use military force and get involved into the war against terrorism, instead of using an unexpected chance of creating new political standards of international cooperation, shows that George W. Bush conforms to the third criterion for orthodox innovators, too. In Stephen Skowronek's opinion, he has followed into the footsteps of previous orthodox innovators such as Lyndon Johnson by clinging to “national ambition, political arrogance, and imperial presumption” (Skowronek, 2008, 162). After a quick and seemingly decisive victory in Afghanistan, he made a fatal decision to extend the warfare into Iraq and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein on charges of having Weapons of Mass Destruction. As Zbigniew Brzezinski puts it, the president has become involved in “a new global confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation that might even call for a solitary crusade” (Brzezinski, 2008, 135-136). Due to the inability to prove the existence of those weapons and suppress the insurgency, the president was accused of various misdeeds, including bad leadership. This turn of events characterizes George W. Bush as an orthodox innovator who was expected to strengthen the Republican regime by winning “muscle-flexing wars” but his failure to get the job properly done has caused “disaffection through the president's own ranks” (Skowronek, 2008, 165). Interestingly, George W. Bush emerges as a great risk-taker who has experienced a massive loss in a dangerous political gamble.

George W. Bush meets the fourth criterion for orthodox innovators since he has not succeeded to put up a rebellion among his supporters. The president corresponds to the model because he has also tried to defend the conservative regime against the growing discontent of the American society and the rage of the Democratic opposition. However, his attempts to calm the constituents, re-unite the party and silence the opponents have not produced any positive results. In fact, strategic failures and military losses in the Middle East have infuriated the general public. The Republicans, in the meantime, have divided among themselves into two pro-Bush versus anti-Bush camps. Consequently, the conservative regime's power to govern the nation has been diminished.

As Stephen Skowronek points out, “[o]rthodox innovators are not often elected twice” (Skowronek, 2008, 141). In this context, the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 makes an interesting deviation from the theoretical model. It is the only criterion for orthodox innovators that the president fails to meet but this interesting fact proves his extraordinary political fortitude in times of crisis. George W. Bush's opposition to pro-choice policies and gay marriages as well as the support for the Christian concept of a family have appealed to religious voters. The re-election can also be explained by “a lingering effect of the 9/11 trauma” as well as “the general reluctance of the American people to depose their commander in chief in wartime” (Skowronek, 2008, 146). Thus George W. Bush has been given a second chance to serve as the President of the United States.

VI. The Leadership of George W. Bush and its Shift Towards the Politics of Disjunction

Analyzing the development of George W. Bush's presidency, one can clearly see the shift of his leadership from the politics of articulation to the politics of disjunction. The failure of the president to separate himself from the conservative regime after the re-election as well as his inability to provide new solutions to the fatigued nation demonstrate that he meets the first criterion for a disjunctive leader. Despite harsh criticism from all sides, after the reelection George W. Bush has repeatedly insisted on the need to “[respond] to a global campaign of fear with a global campaign of freedom” (Bush: 2005). He has not been able to distance himself from previous policies because clearly defined commitments to defend the nation make the core of his leadership. Thus, in the eyes of the American society the forty-third president remains inextricably linked to military, strategic, political and economic mistakes of the Republicans. In Skowronek's opinion, when the president is regarded as inseparable from the disintegrating regime, he is very likely to end up in “the impossible leadership situation” (Skowronek, 2008, 90). In fact, these words turn out to be prophetic for George W. Bush since he is no longer seen as an inspiring leader but rather as a political outcast, being rejected by both major parties as well as his people.

The development of George W. Bush's presidency towards the limited control over the Republican Party and stark divisions within the conservative regime prove that the changing pattern of his leadership corresponds to the second criterion of the politics of disjunction. All presidential endeavors to stop or, at least, diminish struggles among moderate Republicans and the neo-conservative wing of the party seem to be limited and inefficient. According to Stephen Skowronek, the split between these two groups has grown wider due to “rising schismatic pressures” (Skowronek, 2008, 146). Much harm to the regime has also been done by the attacks of the Democrats who continue to demand for the military withdrawal from Iraq.

The president's failure to protect his political position or reject it decisively has caused a deep credibility crisis. His ambiguous stance regarding such controversial questions as the legal status of Guantanamo prisoners, the use of torture during interrogations, huge financial expenses on the Iraq war and the inadequate governmental response to the after-effects of the natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region or forest fires in California has frequently been highly beneficial to the opposition due to “the widening disjunction between established power and political legitimacy” (Skowronek, 2008, 31). The process of the disintegration of the regime has been further accelerated by growing economic challenges. Finally, the recent credit crisis has added its share of additional tension to the president as well as to the eroding regime due to lingering doubts in the Congress concerning the housing bailout. All above mentioned facts lead to an observation that the third criterion for the politics of disjunction must also be applied to noticeable changes in the leadership style of George W. Bush.

The unenviable position of the forty-third president becomes obvious while analyzing recent discussions on the American foreign policy and domestic issues. At present George W. Bush is no longer seen as a trustful and strong leader of the nation anymore. Instead, he is blamed by his own party for failures in Iraq, poor economy and diplomatic concessions to North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The Democrats, in turn, denounce him for inflexible policies towards Iran, the housing crisis and failed deregulation practices. Any attempts of the president to make a compromise or propose an acceptable solution make him into “an easy caricature of all that has gone wrong” (Skowronek, 1997, 39-40). In other words, the forty-third president is depicted to the troubled Americans as the incarnation of all evils that need to be wiped off. In the course of the recent presidential race Barrack Obama's success of getting elected depended on his ability to criticize the president and the governing regime which lost the support of the constituents. The most popular slogan of the last election has recently been: “We do not need four more years of Bush's policies!” This extremely negative attitude towards the presidency of George W. Bush and his political denouncement prove that he meets the fourth criterion for the disjunctive leader.

Final Comments and Conclusion

Stephen Skowronek's theoretical observations about George W. Bush as an orthodox innovator really help to cast a new glance at his failures and successes. After analyzing George W. Bush's leadership according to five criteria for orthodox innovators, one comes to a conclusion that the forty-third president, indeed, can be allocated to this category. Importantly, he fails to meet just one criterion out of five. Skowronek's typology of the presidential leadership also gives an excellent possibility to pay more attention to the transformation of George W. Bush's leadership style from the politics of articulation to the politics of disjunction. The analysis shows that four criteria for the politics of disjunction are applicable to his second presidential term. Some valuable insights from scholars as well as the president's speeches have demonstrated how challenging and many-faceted the leadership may be in theory as well as in practice. Clearly, the so-called Bush era remains a broad field of study and it is hardly possible to discuss everything at a time. Therefore many questions still should be raised and many more interesting observations could be made on this interesting topic in the future.

List of Literature

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Idem, President George W. Bush's Inaugural Address, <> (8 XI 2008).

King G., The Methodology of Presidential Research [w] In Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Approaches. ed. G. C. Edwards III, J. H. Kessel, B. A. Rockman. Pittsburgh 1993, s. 387-412.

Milkis S., Nelson M., The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007, wyd. V, Washington 2008.

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Idem, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, Cambridge 1997.


Source: "Geopolityka" 2009, nr 2.

Foto: Wikimedia Commons