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Commentary: Obama can learn from Bush's failures

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Bush tried to get the Senate Republicans to OK auto bailout
  • Instead, Bush will have to use Treasury funds to bail out the Big Three, he says
  • Bush neglected basic power of president to persuade, rather than coerce
  • Obama can benefit from using "soft power" of presidency to achieve goals
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says the ultimate power of a president is to persuade, not to coerce.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- President Bush failed to persuade Senate Republicans to vote for the automaker bailout, but it wasn't for lack of effort. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney put on a full-court press last week.

During a private meeting with Senate Republicans, Cheney reportedly told his colleagues that failing to pass the bill would result in "Herbert Hoover" time. Everyone understood what he meant.

Hoover is one of the few presidents whose reputation has never been revived.

Bush will probably give the automakers money from the financial bailout package as a last resort, but this is not the option that the administration preferred.

The defiance of Senate Republicans against a president from their own party, in a moment of true economic crisis, was a political slap in the face.

The debate has reinforced the notion that the president ends his time in Washington without the power to compel his own party to take action or to build public pressure on Congress.

There's a great irony in the fact that President Bush's administration, which has worked harder than almost any other in recent memory to expand presidential power, ends with Americans thinking so poorly about the institution.

According to a Gallup Poll was released in September, public satisfaction with the executive branch reached a level that has not been seen since Watergate. Only 42 percent of Americans said that they had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the executive branch, compared with 40 percent in April 1974.

Bush and Cheney never really grasped the way to use and grow presidential power effectively. They and their advisers relied almost entirely on building the institutional strength of the executive branch, from their use of signing statements to circumvent the legislative will to a reliance on covert national security procedures that were intended to avoid legislative prohibitions enacted in the 1970s.

Without question, the presidency is stronger institutionally after Bush leaves office than when he came to Washington. In that respect, he was successful.

But Bush failed in terms of public confidence in the executive branch. Current opinion polls offer a stark contrast to the executive branch confidence ratings that hovered between 62 percent and 72 percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When the public and Congress does not trust an institution, it becomes very difficult for the holder of power to achieve his or her objectives.

As he decides what kind of president he would like to be in the coming years, Barack Obama might think about the distinction that diplomatic scholars have made between "soft" and "hard" power to describe how the United States can influence nations overseas.

Hard power involves the use of military force and economic sanctions to coerce opponents into accepting American demands. In contrast, soft power refers to a reliance on exporting cultural and ideological values to expand U.S. influence in a much more subtle fashion.

The ultimate power of the president is the power to persuade, not to coerce. Some of the greatest modern presidents, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, understood this well.

They achieved influence over policy and shaped public debate through their ability to make a compelling argument, something that Bush was unable to do before the initial vote on the financial bailout and again before the auto bailout vote.

During the New Deal, FDR spoke to Americans through fireside chats on the radio to convince citizens that they could regain confidence in their depressed economy and government leaders. His radio addresses led many Americans to support his initiatives and trust his more innovative proposals.

FDR combated isolationists in Congress, as the dangers in Europe and Asia increased in the 1930s, through a series of powerful public speeches in which he laid out the case for intervention and gradually wore down his opponents.

Roosevelt was also extremely effective at working with Congress by weaving together coalitions through constant negotiation and discussion. When FDR turned toward the use of hard power after the 1936 elections, with a court-packing plan that would have added more liberal justices to the Supreme Court, the opposition to the White House increased, and FDR encountered more trouble reaching his goals.

Reagan was very much the same breed of politician. To be sure, like FDR, he introduced many institutional changes that strengthened the muscle of the presidency. But Reagan also relied heavily on his ability to persuade the public and Congress.

From the start of his time in the White House, Reagan delivered a series of speeches that dismissed the ideological arguments of the New Left from the 1960s and insisted that the U.S. could still claim a superior political and economic system in the war against communism.

Calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down" the wall separating East and West Germany, Reagan advanced a vision of the Cold War that found considerable support. His staff members worked carefully to focus media attention on a specific issue every day.

Reagan was able to disarm members of Congress through his one-on-one meetings and by making speeches to the public as legislative debates over a bill were taking place. President Ford praised Reagan as a "first-class communicator."

President George W. Bush took a different course of action. His presidency was defined by the use of hard presidential power. The Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Vice President were the forefront of the push to restore an imperial presidency. But the strategy did not work. Bush quickly learned the limits of this approach.

He lost control of the White House and Congress to the opposing party, he finished his term without having achieved most of his domestic agenda, and he departs with Americans thinking almost as little of the executive branch as they did when President Nixon resigned in total disgrace.

President-elect Obama has shown indications that he knows how successful presidents try to make their office more powerful not through force but through persuasion.

The enthusiastic response to his election -- both at home and internationally -- as well as the strong public confidence he has developed improve the chances that he will be able to use soft presidential power in the coming years.

Whether he follow this model remains hard to predict, particularly because temptations will increase to turn to brawn over brain as he confronts economic and national security crises and becomes familiar with the tools that Bush left behind.

But if Obama embraces the soft presidential power strategy that was employed by FDR, Reagan and other successful presidents, he will find himself in a much stronger position than Bush and might very well be able to rescue this nation and build the long-term majority that so many Democrats are hoping for and so many Republicans lament having failed to achieve.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About George W. BushBarack ObamaRonald Reagan

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