The Magazine

The Responsibility President

May 28, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 35 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
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All presidents need a little help from their opponents, and George W. Bush's opponents in the Democratic party and the media have done him a favor. First they tried to persuade America that George Bush is an imbecile who doesn't know enough to be an effective president. But now that he's run a successful presidential campaign and performed well in his first few months, that stereotype won't work. So their fall-back clich is that Bush and his team are tools of corporate America. Well, there may still be a few pink diaper babies who cling to the Woody Guthrie worldview that pits rapacious and polluting corporations against the common man, but most people have a more complex view of the world.

We almost feel sorry for Bush's critics, because Bush is surprisingly enigmatic. He's more conservative on some issues than many expected, but more liberal on others, such as education. He's not a triangulator; he's a neck-snapper. You watch him heading right and then -- bang! -- he caroms left. Moreover, Bush himself has muddied the waters by calling himself a compassionate conservative. He is compassionate, but it isn't compassion that motivates his strong stands on taxes, missile defense, Social Security, and budget discipline.

Usually, the truth about a politician is hidden in plain sight, and this turns out to be the case with George W. Bush. The Bush administration has helpfully compiled some of the president's early speeches in a pamphlet. If you read through them, you discover that there is a theme to the Bush presidency, and the theme is "responsibility."

When he ran for office, Bush said that Americans needed to ring in a new "responsibility era." In his inaugural address, he said, "America at its best is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected. Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats; it is a call to conscience." In a tribute to Pope John Paul II, Bush declared, "The pope reminds us that while freedom defines our nation, responsibility must define our lives." And in an address in Little Rock on April 25, Bush said, "We need to usher in a period of personal responsibility, where each of us understands we have the awesome responsibility to be a good citizen. If you happen to be a mom or dad, you have the awesome responsibility of loving your children with all your heart and all your soul. If you're a fortunate citizen in this country, you have the responsibility of putting your arm around a neighbor in need and saying, 'Brother or sister, somebody loves you. Somebody cares.'"

Responsibility is also more than just a key word of the Bush administration. Even in his demeanor, Bush seems to understand that he has assumed a serious responsibility. He insists on jackets and ties in the Oval Office. He insists that meetings start on time. In short, he acts like a man who expects that everyone around him will behave responsibly.

On policy matters, he has already championed a bankruptcy reform act that demanded that people take responsibility for their debts, rather than just walk away from them. The essence of the education reform package he sent to Capitol Hill was that schools and school administrators had to be held responsible for their successes and failures. He supports Social Security privatization in part to give citizens greater responsibility for their retirement funds. He supports tax cuts to give taxpayers more control over their own earnings. This theme has surfaced even in ways that are unexpected for conservatives. He hasn't spent much time attacking Hollywood for polluting culture. When asked about the V-chip, he said, "Well, how about the off-knob?" Parents are responsible for controlling what their own kids see.

The impulse to hold people responsible extends even to unexpected areas like the current debate over energy policy and the environment. This debate has been vulgarized by Washington pundit culture, which divides energy policy into production (deemed evil) and conservation (deemed virtuous). Reporters are now running around trying to figure out which category is given greater emphasis in the Bush plan. That's inane. No business and no individual thinks this way. If you are going to devise an energy policy, of course it is going to include both production and conservation, which indeed the Bush plan does.