President Bush takes getting used to. Following a gregarious and seemingly omnipresent Bill Clinton, George W. Bush presents himself publicly only when he thinks it's necessary. He limits his exposure as one might horde food or energy, but for different reasons. Bush seems to view his office as something to be used for the good of others, not self-aggrandizement.
Some eyebrows were raised when the president declined to attend ceremonies for the returning "detainees" held in China for 11 days. Bush believed it would draw attention away from those being honored and, besides, he wanted to observe Easter weekend with his family.
For too long we've asked our presidents to do things the Founders never intended for them to do. Then, when a president fails to live up to our impossibly high expectations, we turn on him and elect someone else of whom we make similar demands.
James Madison noted that the Constitution was conceived so that "the powers delegated...to the federal government are few and defined." (Federalist Paper 45) He prophesied in the same document that, "the number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular States." That was true in George Washington's time when 350 civilian government employees served a population of 3 million. The federal government is now the nation's largest employer, with 2.7 million worker (not including the postal service), according to 1999 Labor Department figures.
The Founders spelled out just six areas of responsibility for the president, but Congress soon began assigning extra-constitutional responsibilities to the chief executive. They have included full employment, a national housing program, supervising energy resources, providing federal relief for natural disasters, spending billions in a failed effort to improve education, watching out for the environment, administering 40 percent of the nation's land area and, most outrageously (and unconstitutionally according to the 10th Amendment), creating federal programs which replace and usurp many powers and responsibilities originally reserved for the individual states.
Madison said: "The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State." (Federalist Paper 45)
The idea that solutions to problems could be found in a single, centralized government bureaucracy was most recently observed to have failed in the Soviet Union, but similar experiments have failed worldwide. Central planning is expensive, often costing far more than the price of similar work in the private sector. It is also sluggish and tempts politicians with too much money, which tends to institutionalize politicians and their pet projects far beyond the usefulness of both. Add to this the often super-human powers we expect a president to have and we sow the seeds of his failure, or diminish his ability to succeed, even before he takes office.
Like Ronald Reagan, President Bush seems to understand that the power and prestige of the presidency must be rationed. He is not required to have a comment on every subject. He cannot influence everything and everyone. He doesn't feel the need to be part of every news cycle. The less he speaks and acts, the more the people pay attention when he does and the more they realize that ultimate power is theirs, along with the responsibility to make their own choices and lead their own families.
The more President Bush behaves in ways the Founders intended, the better he will look. The less he tries to "improve" lives from Washington (which has enough trouble improving itself), the more Americans will see that this is their own responsibility. The less Bush appears on the national stage, the more we will look to ourselves. And the more he does less of these things, the less we will expect of him and the more highly we will think of him.
There aren't many presidents who could come up with such a strategy. But with President Bush it isn't a strategy. It's just the way he is.