The “Invitation Only” Presidency of George W. Bush

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Michael A. Genovese is Professor of Political Science and holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Lori Cox Han is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Chapman University in Orange.

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In order to govern effectively, presidents devise complex strategies for wooing the public. They do this because it is widely believed that if a president has high popularity ratings, moving the baroque system of government becomes a bit easier. In short, popularity greases the wheels of government.

A great deal of time is spent devising and implementing strategies for what presidential scholar Tom Cronin has called the “theatrical presidency,” and presidents use the bully pulpit, trips (both foreign and domestic), speeches, and symbolic gestures to draw attention to themselves. With that attention, they hope to gain popularity that can be converted into power. A popular president, it is believed, gets a better deal out of Congress than an unpopular one; a popular president gets better press than an unpopular one, and so it goes.

President Bush, whose popularity ratings were rather anemic in the early stages of his presidency, benefited from the reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, and a “rally ‘round the flag” effect catapulted his popularity into the stratosphere. At one point, Bush’s popularity was at 91 percent, an unheard of rating that only George H.W. Bush had ever achieved (during the first Gulf War). Of course, over time those inflated numbers have come back down to earth (as they did for his father as well leading into the 1992 election season—a rather unfortunate time for the elder Bush’s political fortunes). And now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal government’s “unacceptable” response (Bush’s own words), the ongoing troubles in Iraq, a failed Social Security reform effort, the CIA leak scandal that has led at this point to the indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and a host of other problems, the president’s numbers have hit an all-time low (36 percent, by one measure).

Prior to the summer of 2005, President Bush had been able to employ a rather effective strategy to draw favorable attention to himself and thereby increase his popularity ratings (not an easy task for a president who is not rhetorically gifted). There are several rules to the Bush public strategy that explain his success with the public:

First, pay reporters and columnists to promote the Bush agenda. On several occasions, the administration has been outed on this strategy and ultimately, it backfired. Second, release fake news reports packaged as real news. On several occasions, these fake news reports which promote the administration and its policies actually appeared on newscasts as real news. Third, develop a cozy relationship with several conservative and well-funded political action committees (PACs) which will then “go after” the president’s opponents, as was the case during the 2004 presidential election when the “Swift Boat Veterans” attacked Senator John Kerry’s war record. This also occurred after the election when conservative PACs went on the assault against the AARP because that organization opposed the president’s Social Security reform plan. Fourth, deny, deny, deny. Your supporters in the energy business don’t want the government to regulate emissions that cause global warming? Deny that it exists. Virtually every scientist who has studied global warming is issuing alarm bells, but if the science doesn’t fit your goals, merely deny that the science says what it says. Then ask, “Who you gonna believe, me or the evidence?” Or, if the war in Iraq is going badly, merely say, as Bush does so often, “We’re makin’ progress” or “Freedom and liberty are on the march.” Fifth, rely on the politics of fear by constantly reminding the audience that “we are at war.” Bush has always been eager to exploit the fears of the public over terrorism, and this has worked well for him, particularly during the 2004 presidential campaign. Sixth, travel around the country appearing before adoring crowds who will envelop the president in praise and applause, as well as lob softball questions at him. Of course, many of these events are “invitation only” and the crowds are carefully screened to eliminate any chance of a protester or tough question from the audience.

So, what’s the problem with this strategy if it has worked so well for this president? This “invitation only” strategy is not aimed at informing or drawing the public into the debate, it is designed to manufacture reality for an audience currently hooked on reality TV. It is a “spin” oriented approach that assumes that the public will not see that the emperor has no clothes, and perhaps more importantly, no arguments or substantive responses to the significant questions that are currently being posed to the federal government. Intended to create the illusion of reality, the lapdog news media serve as enablers as the Wizard of Oz uses smoke and mirrors to manipulate the public, and absent a Toto to pull the curtain away and reveal the illusion, many merely sit in front of their television sets and are entertained by this latest reality TV show.

Obviously, this strategy is not fool proof, and the president’s tepid response in the initial days of Hurricane Katrina, followed by his falling approval ratings, suggests that perhaps this strategy needs to be revised. Clearly, not only have many segments of the American populace been left out of the national political dialogue on the most pressing issues, but Bush himself seems to be out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of Americans (at least, if reports of his initial inability to understand the significance of the disaster in the Gulf Coast are correct). And while the president’s acceptance of blame for the federal government’s poor initial response to Katrina was the first time ever that this administration has provided anything close to a mea culpa, there is no indication that their overall public strategy will change.

Why continue to employ the “invitation only” strategy, even as a majority of Americans now disapprove of Bush’s performance? In part, because they can. Of course, the deeper cause for employing such a potentially risky strategy is perhaps fear. Of what, one might ask, is the president afraid? Plenty. As his economic policies grossly favor the wealthy, the president risks stirring the embers of class warfare. As the war in Iraq goes badly, the president risks increased opposition and falling popularity. As the energy companies loot the treasury, the president runs the risk of being outed for not having a policy that favors most Americans. As allies and adversaries look at the United States as a threat to international peace and stability, the president runs the risk of seeing his prestige and popularity at home plummet to levels that are even lower than they currently are, and even more shockingly low abroad. And while Bush may be a lame duck, the future of his party, and even more importantly, his own presidential legacy, are at stake.

However, the stakes are even higher for the rest of us. We need a president willing to inform and educate the American public, as well as engage citizens in a substantive dialogue that contributes to the best that our democratic process has to offer. Otherwise, we all pay a high price for the “invitation only” presidency of George W. Bush. And in a democracy, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The legacy of decades of dumbed down PC public education atop a thick layer of crude and mindless TV infotainment.

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Mr. Safranski,

The reason that the Democrats have failed to throw a knockout punch while Mr. Bush is on the ropes is because they are even more inept, incapable, clumsy, untruthful, unpopular, false and paralyzed than the President and Congressional Republicans.

What an unfortunate situation we currently find ourself in as a people, Hopefully, but not likely, fresh faces will step forward in 2006 and by 2008 an unknown will emerge to capture the White House to really restore integrity to the Office of the President that was promised by Mr. Bush during his 2000 campaign.

One can only hope.

Charles Edward Heisler - 12/11/2005

In slobbering about the "By Invitation Only" presidency of George Bush, I notice the authors fail to mention, by way of contrast, any other American Presidents who threw themselves in front of angry crowds in order to "educate" the ignorant citizens.
Sorry to prick your bubble historians of note, but there were none. It is the nature of democracy for leaders to "appear" strong and in doing so, make their public appearances, "appearances"!
I agree with your first critic, if I wanted a rehash of worn Democratic mantras (that have failed by the way) I would go to the DNC site.
What is it about modern academics that causes them to start out with quasi-interesting themes only to slip-slide into mealy mouthed sloganeering??? Could it be that no one is paying the least attention to their decades old failing liberality??

Allan David Branchau - 12/10/2005

The thing I find so disturbing is that a Senator with Joe Liberman's reputation could be sucked into being an acomplace in the Bush war machine. Isn't this the guy who shocked the Democrats whith a harsh denunciation of Bill Clinton. Maybe Liberman should look in his wallet and see which Party he carries a card saying he belongs to.

Bill Holzapfel - 12/9/2005

Accusing the authors of creating fiction is a strong charge. Any evidence to back up you assertion?

Bill Holzapfel - 12/9/2005

While it's all too true that most Democrats in Congress lacked the courage to question the President (or, more accurately, to risk being put on Rove's hit list), the responsibility for invading Iraq rests squarely with the President. If you read the October 2002 resolution (available on the White House website), it makes clear that the ultimate decision to go to war rests with the President and relies upon his judgment as to whether military action is necessary or appropriate. Funny how an administration which is so focused on jealously guarding executive prerogative is so willing to resort to the "they made me do it" defense.

Frank Halsey - 12/8/2005

True. It is difficult to challenge something when Democrats themselves continue to promote the continuation of the war in Iraq. They are themselves accomplices to this war. But too late now. Had the Democratic party remained pure from the start their case would have been stronger.

Jim B. Harris - 12/7/2005

One can only wonder how things would have been different if the Democrats had chose to follow the lead Clinton had established in his dealings with Iraq instead of their Orwellian change of philosophy and history just because it happened to be a Republican President who finally took out Saddam.

Anyone recall the Iraqi Liberation Act Clinton drafted and had Congress pass? 1998. Go back and read it, and then realize that his dreams have come true, and next week, tens of millions of Iraqi's will go to their poll's and elect their very own Congressional members.

Seriously, if Gore had won in 2000 and had done the same things Bush had, the left and the Democrats would be the ones here today supporting the Iraqi actions, and sadly, it is not too hard to imagine the right blasting the illegal war, lies, etc.

Yet we KNOW that, because we are able to step back and look at the actions of the political parties. We can also read the words of Clinton and the left pre Bush 2, and we can only wonder how the left's selling of its soul contributed to the lack of proper dialogue between the President and his people.

Ryan Portillo - 12/7/2005

One major reason Bush has beaten his political opponents at every turn or why his opponents can't seem to make any political headway is that this war is every bit as much a Democratic war as a Republican one.

Enough Democrats had enough knowledge to know that they were being lied into war in October, 2002. And except for a courageous 21 Senators and 2 Republicans, they went along for the ride. Sen. Edwards who served on the Intelligence Committee also knew. So he's also a liar.

Ryan Portillo - 12/7/2005

Exactly how will this work, these initiatives to establish and promote liberty and freedom in the Middle East? I doubt you have a plausible answer for this.

So the Administration actually planned this significant foreign policy approach after 9/11, the protracted war, the U.S. military personnel and equipment shortages, the "cakewalk" itself, the rise of global anti-Americanism, Iraqi civilian death tolls rising and greater their resentment of foreign occupation, etc.,etc., the murderous chaos we have so far? What gruesome comic book are you reading from?

But you could be right. Maybe they did plan this, but not for liberty and freedom unless you’re a girl scout who believes that stuff. Even though the Bushies had to ditch the idiotic fantasy of the "cakewalk" they haven’t abandoned those chief goals: milking Iraq dry and planting a permanent military footprint in the region. We can see now that the US cannot control Iraq even with their few troops and "democratic government" being installed and if that doesn’t work the next best thing is to weaken the state and open its oil reserves to select foreign investors. It’s all about power and the money. If so, then this Administration’s (Bush is not the idea man) "incompetence" is just a mask for stone-cold calculation.

samuel d martin - 12/7/2005

George Bush will be recorded as one of the most significant foreign policy presidents in our history. His initiatives to establish and promote liberty and freedom in the Middle East, will if sustained by futrure leaders(after 2009) remove the major seeds of terrorism endemic to that region. Iraq will join Israel and Afghanistan as beacons of light in an otherwise totalitarian area.

Lorraine Paul - 12/6/2005

How apt to use the nautical analogy! As a US ally we are also sinking into the same stagnant policies; none of which are favouring even the middle-class, let alone the disadvantaged!

Further, just like the US, we do not have a strong mainstream opposition party to pull us out of the mess. Even if we reached dry land we would only find ourselves up that well-known creek!

Walter McElligott - 12/5/2005

USA may need a lot of things, more fiction about Bush sure isnt it.

Paul Kucharski - 12/5/2005

"And in a democracy, we have no one to blame but ourselves."

We need to face facts, the whole spin and deny approach worked. He got re-elected. Those who put him back in office bought the spin, so we only have ourselves to blame. We need to face the fact that Americans are not nearly as well informed as they ought to be. This works because people aren't willing to question and look past it.

John Cameron - 12/5/2005

Bush is only the Captain of USS Titanic,he does not control the ship of state.
Full Speed ahead agenda NWO.PNAC.

mark safranski - 12/4/2005

This article had an interesting nugget of a concept to develop and much room for analysis but the authors appear to be more interested in recycling strings of Democratic sound bites.

At least they should ask the question on how a president they view as completely inept, incapable, clumsly, untruthful,unpopular, false and paralyzed has also systemically beaten his political oponents at every turn. Or why his opponents can't seem to make any political headway even now when Bush's fortunes are at their lowest ebb.