It is clear that the George W. Bush presidency has been a roller-coaster ride for the country, but what explains its ups and downs?
At the heart of any presidency lie events and the political skills of the president and his administration. Presidents have discretion to create some events, but they also are subject to nondiscretionary events that just happen to them. Such events create positive and negative political impact for presidents.
A careful look at the major events of the Bush presidency from this perspective explains the roller-coaster ride. Bush had two impressive years and then encountered big trouble, both self-created and from without.
By examining the chronicles of major events in three reputable reference sources — The World, Time magazine and New York Times almanacs — I was able to identify major trends of Bush presidency through 2005. Events involving Bush’s presidency were included in my list if at least two almanacs mentioned them.
The events were then classified as discretionary, happenings the president helped to create, or nondiscretionary, news foisted on the president from without. I also classified the events as politically positive or negative for Bush in the short term. Multiple researchers checked my classifications, producing a reliable chronicle of Bush administration events and their political consequences.
The evidence reveals tremendous zigs and zags for this president. Despite a highly controversial election, the Bush administration got off to a very strong start, buoyed by savvy presidential actions and news from without that boosted the president.
In 2001, the Bush administration produced 26 positive discretionary events and only one negative event. Recall the tax cuts, major education reforms, an arms control deal with Russia and military success in Afghanistan.
In addition, nondiscretionary events ranked 3-1 positive for the administration, most notably including the Sept. 11 catastrophe that produced an upsurge of public support for Bush.
The Bush administration’s roll continued at a slower clip in 2002, posting a 4.2-1 positive ratio in its discretionary actions despite bad news on the economy. By the end of 2002, though, the Bush administration had already racked up a majority of all its positive discretionary events so far.
The turning point in Bush’s presidency was clearly the Iraq war. The successful invasion has been just about the last good international news that the Bush administration received. From 2003 through 2005, negative fallout from the war buffeted the administration — the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Valerie Plame leak, no weapons of mass destruction found, no clear connection with Sept. 11 revealed.
In the event count, 2004 was clearly Bush’s worst year, with half of all the major negative news events buffeting the administration so far occurring in that year. Twelve major news events from without were negative for the administration in that year; none was positive. One of Bush’s greatest political accomplishments was winning reelection in such an ominous situation.
The first half of 2005 produced a small recovery in positive discretionary events for the administration, but that was short-lived. Overall, the administration has compounded the bad news since 2002 with errors of its own — the poor response to Hurricane Katrina, failure at Social Security reform, staff shakeups, the Dubai Ports World fiasco, the aborted Harriet Miers nomination. That leaves the administration in a deep valley in 2006 with limited prospects for recovery.
This event analysis suggests that the George W. Bush presidency will be remembered as turning on the Iraq war. Whether or not Iraq is ultimately judged a success, the immediate political costs for Bush have been heavy indeed, and the administration responded to this adverse environment with a series of costly political errors.
The grand goals of the Bush administration — a political realignment and policy revolution benefiting conservative Republicans — were partially realized by 2002. Since then, progress on those goals ground to a near halt, undone by adverse events and the White House’s unskillful response to the ensuing difficulties.
Schier is the Congdon professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.