Bush's Shifting Ideology

President Bush, with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, left, and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., announced an economic plan at the White House.
President Bush, with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, left, and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., announced an economic plan at the White House. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 20, 2008

President Bush's decision to shore up the financial markets with massive government intervention is the latest sign of a broad ideological transformation of his presidency.

After a first term in which he largely adhered to conservative -- or neoconservative -- principles, Bush has moved away from long-standing positions on a range of foreign and domestic issues. In the final year of his second term, he has reached out diplomatically to North Korea and Iran, engineered a dramatic midcourse correction on the Iraq war and increased the government's role in the daily workings of the economy to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable when he first pursued the nation's highest office.

Given that Bush toppled two foreign governments and slashed taxes dramatically in his first term, the policies of his second term are striking, particularly to those who had hoped his presidency might usher in enduring conservative rule in Washington. Some leading conservatives seemed stunned yesterday by the turn of events that has left the federal government in control of one of the world's biggest insurance companies and the two largest financiers of home mortgages.

"I believe that the president is exhausted and the vice president has been marginalized, and what you now have is the Washington interests . . . dominating the administration," former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in an interview yesterday. "We have now launched big-government Republicanism. If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy. We would have had pious speeches about the folly of bureaucrats running businesses."

Given the gravity of the financial crisis, others in the political world did not begrudge Bush his deviation from conservative purity on economic policy. Some in both parties considered the administration's moves a welcome abandonment of ideology to cope with a global economic slowdown, instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the ongoing war in Iraq and the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

"He has become overcome by hard realities, including his weaker political base and intractable problems," said Fred I. Greenstein, a leading presidential scholar at Princeton University. "That makes him more like a garden-variety pragmatist and less like a mission politician who is driven by a creed."

John Gardner, a speechwriter and consultant who served in Bush's first administration, said he saw the president's recent moves on the economy as less driven by an ideological shift than a reaction to unusual events. "I am just not convinced that if these things had happened in 2002 or 2003 the answers would have been any different," he said. "The Fed and Treasury have had policy tools that have been in existence for some time, and they are being used because of the pressure of events. I don't think any president would want to say, 'Credit collapsed on my watch.' "

Former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), once a close ally of Gingrich, agreed. "We're beyond ideology," he said. "Most Republicans and Democrats don't like the idea of a taxpayer bailout and expansion of regulations," but right now, he said, "I think it's a necessary course correction."

That was the view yesterday at the White House, where the president and his aides suggested they had little choice but to act to avoid an economic calamity.

"Our system of free enterprise rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the marketplace only when necessary," Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden. "Given the precarious state of today's financial markets, and their vital importance to the daily lives of the American people, government intervention is not only warranted -- it is essential."

One of his top economic advisers was more blunt in a subsequent briefing for reporters. "The consequences of inaction here were crystal clear and were far worse, far more severe, than any concerns about the consequences of the action," said Keith Hennessey, director of the National Economic Council. "This president has always been averse to government intervention in markets, and he only has wanted to do that when it's been necessary. It is clearly necessary now, as those markets are not functioning properly."

Bush has always been less ideologically rigid than his critics have granted, embracing a dramatic expansion of the Medicare program with a new prescription drug program (albeit one tailored along free-market principles) and pushing, unsuccessfully, for a liberalization of immigration rules. He also presided over a dramatic increase in federal spending, disappointing many conservatives.

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