Washington Anyone who compared the frequency of their news conferences -- and their fondness for such encounters -- would automatically place George W. Bush and Franklin D. Roosevelt as polar opposites. Where FDR enjoyed sparring with reporters and invited them into the Oval Office twice a week, Bush has made such sessions so rare that each one becomes a special event.
But as last week's Rose Garden news conference demonstrated, there is one respect in which Bush and Roosevelt were very much alike. In both of them, self-confidence was overflowing. As a counterpuncher to criticism and as a doubt-free exponent of his own beliefs, the current president is right up there with the inventor of the New Deal.
In a remarkable feat of journalistic prescience, the cover of the July 26 issue of National Journal, a highly esteemed Washington weekly, depicted Bush as FDR, electronically placing the Democrat's pince-nez and trademark cigarette holder on the Republican's face in a pose that emphasized both men's jut-jawed readiness to take on the opposition.
The photo illustrated an essay titled "The Accidental Radical," by Jonathan Rauch, one of the most insightful journalist-authors in the capital. His thesis, which I found convincing, is that the two men, who came to the White House after relatively short stints as governors of New York and Texas, respectively, lost no time in shattering the widespread misapprehension that they would, as good Establishment aristocrats, do nothing to rock the boat.
Instead, FDR created the modern welfare state and forged the New Deal political coalition that largely dominated American politics from 1932 to 1968. Bush, Rauch argues, is pressing forward major structural changes in both foreign and domestic policy, revising the doctrine and reputation of conservatism and aiming for long-term political dominance by the GOP.
Roosevelt made his changes under the spur of the Great Depression and World War II. Bush has the impetus of 9-11 to thank for the doctrine of pre-emptive wars, used to justify the attack on Iraq, and for the creation of the Homeland Security Department, one of the biggest restructurings of government since the New Deal. But many of Bush's other innovations, such as his sweeping tax changes, his education initiative and the pending expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, are rooted in nothing other than his own sense of what the times require.
The real similarity, Rauch says, is the daring Bush and FDR both displayed -- and the size of the policy and political gambles both were willing to take.
I have commented previously on the surprise in seeing how Bush, who campaigned as a nice guy who would calm the roiled waters of Washington but not upset the status quo, has defied the basic assumptions about everything from the role of the federal government in education (making it much more intrusive) to the conduct of foreign policy (making it much less deferential to the views of other nations). The comparison Rauch makes to FDR does not strike me as being overblown.
But there is one big difference, as he points out. We know how the New Deal turned out. It was a smashing political success and Roosevelt's unprecedented three-plus terms, during which he led the nation in escaping the Depression and defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, earned him the monument memorializing him on the Mall.
We can't yet know how Bush's experiments, bold as they may be, will work out either substantively or politically. Rauch ends his essay with a chilling scenario in which a mythical historian writing in 2019 recounts how it all unraveled for Bush by the middle of his second term.
Nothing in his script -- an America isolated from traditional allies and increasingly preoccupied with unfinished foreign interventions, its economy hobbled by runaway budget deficits as the demands of its retiring baby boomers mount -- is entirely implausible. But none of it is inevitable, either.
As Rauch notes, FDR's political heir, Lyndon B. Johnson, seeking to match or outdo his mentor, "pushed the system and the public too hard" and left office a badly broken man.
Rauch's last paragraph is worth quoting: "The point of this article is not to predict failure for George W. Bush, much less to wish it. The point is to dramatize the stakes he is playing for. He is risking his presidency, his nation's fiscal and geopolitical strength, and the conservative movement. If he wins, he is FDR. If he loses, he is LBJ."