Bill Keller - The New York Times Magazine

N E W  Y O R K, January 26, 2003

In December, George W. Bush had one of those turbulent spells that can cause a president nightmares about tumbling over the falls in a barrel. First he purged his economic team, the kind of housecleaning that tends to be taken as an admission of failed policies. He ordered a North Korean freighter arrested at sea, on the way to Yemen with a suspicious cargo of missiles, then sheepishly let it go on its way -- an amateurish misstep in his war on terror. The man he proudly put forth to head an investigation of America's vulnerability to terrorists abruptly declined the job because it would interfere with his consulting business. The party's leader in the newly recaptured Senate blundered into a career-ending display of insensitivity that peeled open the party's history of race-baiting.

And the impact of these seeming embarrassments on President George W. Bush was? Scarcely a nick. No outbreak of articles postulating a White House in disarray. No mutters of discord in his ranks. On the contrary, he (or at least his political judo master, Karl Rove) was hailed for his genius in helping maneuver a presidential favorite into the Senate leadership. Bush's approval ratings held firm and high. Nothing stuck. Any more than a year of corporate scandals, some involving White House friends, had stuck. Any more than the recurring reminders of Al Qaeda's unimpeded reach -- in Bali, in Kenya -- had stuck.

Bush's seeming invincibility to bad news may be exasperating to Democrats, but it was no surprise to Michael Deaver, the shrewd public relations man who played Karl Rove to an earlier president, Ronald Reagan. When Deaver was handling spin for Reagan, one frustrated Democrat described the scandal-proof chief executive as the Teflon President. This time around, Deaver watched the White House twirl and sidestep through the serial crises of December with deep professional admiration. To Deaver there was nothing mysterious about it, no Teflon. It was just the relentless discipline of a president who consistently defies the expectations of people who think they are smarter than he is.

Like a lot of Republicans who have watched both Reagan and Bush at close hand, Deaver sees uncanny similarities between them. The presidents are alike in their outlooks and career paths, in their agendas of tax-cutting and confrontational deployment of American power, in the ideological mix of their advisers. (Whatever you read about the president's inheritance from his father and Gerald Ford, the Reagan DNA is dominant in the staffing, training and planning of the Bush administration.) More than that, there are important similarities of character and temperament. And both are simple men who have made a political virtue of being -- in Bush's word -- "misunderestimated" by the political elite.

That Bush is Reaganesque is a conceit that some conservatives have wishfully, tentatively embraced since he emerged as a candidate, and one that Bush himself has encouraged. The party faithful have been pining for a new Reagan since Reagan, and for Bush the analogy has the added virtue of providing an alternative political lineage; he's not Daddy's Boy, he's Reagan Jr. The comparison has only gained currency since Bush entered the White House. Some Republicans speak of the current era, with the culmination of Reagan's ballistic missile defense and the continuing assault on marginal tax rates and, especially, the standing tall against global evil as the recommencing of the Reagan "revolution."

"I think he's the most Reagan-like politician we have seen, certainly in the White House," Deaver said. "I mean, his father was supposed to be the third term of the Reagan presidency -- but then he wasn't. This guy is."

Reagan's devout do not all buy this analogy. Some wonder about the depth of Bush's commitment to their causes. Others fear the comparison might diminish their hero, now living out his days in an Alzheimer's oblivion. Peggy Noonan, Reagan's gifted speechwriter and a torchbearer for his memory, has portrayed Bush in one of her books as eager to be likened to Reagan, but she insists that the two men are incomparable. Bush, she says, represents "the triumph of the average American man." He is, she told me, "like a successful local businessman in the boring local business who becomes a school board president." (She meant that in a good way.) Reagan, on the other hand, was "hardly your basic man on the street."

Many students of the presidency would argue that a basic-man-on-the-street quality -- a plain-spoken, unassuming genuineness -- is central to the appeal of both men, but Noonan's wariness is understandable. Let's concede that this kind of comparison can be reductionist. At its silliest, it can lapse into a parlor game of the Lincoln-had-a-secretary-named-Kennedy variety. Times change. Presidents reflect their times.

But midway into Bush's first term, measuring the emerging president against Reagan is an instructive way of looking at Bush's qualities and of explaining his popularity. It is even, with a larger margin of error, a basis for hazarding some guesses about the course he will follow, particularly now that his hand is strengthened by a Congress of his own party, by the unlikelihood of internal opposition in 2004 and for that matter by the lack of coherent opposition from the Democrats.

I began this exercise inclined to think of Bush as Reagan Lite -- that is, a president with shallower, unschooled instincts in place of the older man's studied, lifelong convictions, and without the mastery of language that served Reagan so well. Perhaps, I'd have said, he is a bit of a Reagan poseur -- the White House being such a studio of contrivance and calculation. I ended my research more inclined to think that Bush is in a sense the fruition of Reagan, and that -- far from being the lightweight opportunist of liberal caricature or the centrist he sometimes played during his own election campaign -- he stands a good chance of advancing a radical agenda that Reagan himself could only carry so far. Bush is not, as Reagan was, an original, but he has adapted Reagan's ideas to new times, and found some new language in which to market them. We seem not only to be witnessing the third term of the Reagan presidency; at this rate we may well see the fourth.

They are westerners (Midland, Tex., is truly the West, not the South), with a fondness for the region's open spaces and don't-fence-me-in rhetoric. Karl Rove contends that this is one reason that Reagan and Bush have been underrated by the media elite, whose prejudices are still manufactured mainly in the East. As president, Reagan was happiest clearing brush on his mountaintop ranch in California, and Bush loves chain-sawing cedar on his expanse of Texas prairie. Bush is a latecomer to this lifestyle, having acquired his ranch while a presidential candidate, and he is more self-conscious about it. (Reagan disappeared to his ranch and called it vacation; Bush calls his the Western White House and makes it a showcase of his authenticity.) Like Reagan, Bush takes great pains to run his ranch on ecologically sound principles, even as he dismantles environmental regulation. In the West, that is not considered hypocrisy but virtuous self-interest.

Defying the advice of the experts, they launched seemingly hopeless campaigns against popular incumbent governors and astonished their own party by winning. Each went on to win a second term by large margins. Reagan's executive experience was more meaningful. (California has a strong-governor system, while in Texas the governor defers to rambunctious, independently appointed agency heads.) Both managed to work with Democratic legislatures, which often entailed ruthlessness in California but in Texas required mainly charm.

They are the least introspective of presidents, but unashamedly spiritual, professing a personal faith that goes well beyond churchgoing. Bush bonded with Vladimir Putin over the Russian's story of a lost crucifix and opens cabinet meetings with a prayer. Reagan would sometimes astonish visitors by talking about Armageddon in a way that did not seem to be merely allegorical. Both attracted evangelical voters with their born-again vernacular. More than other presidents of recent times, they imbued their civil rhetoric with evangelical themes and suggested that America has a divine assignment in the world to spread what Reagan called "the sacred fire of human liberty."

Bush, like Reagan, is a man of self-discipline, punctual, diet-conscious, religious about his gym time and a good night's sleep, devoted to simple, mind-clearing outdoor exertion, impatient when meetings dawdle. Perhaps Bush, a reformed binge drinker, and Reagan, the son of an alcoholic, each learned to view rigorous routine as a safeguard against chaos.

Reagan and Bush are known as devoted homebodies. Laura Bush is not the assertive, hyperprotective West Wing enforcer Nancy Reagan was, although Karen Hughes played something close to that role for Bush. Bush is more gregarious than Reagan, but they are loners, in the sense that they are perfectly at ease without company. Both men are often described as comfortable in their own skins.

Ideologically they are to the right of the popular median strip. Reagan's principles were developed over decades and fortified by a selective but extensive reading of history. Bush's seem more instinctive. This makes him less predictable. Where Reagan's creed was a catechism of ideas reinforced by anecdotes, Bush's is a more earthbound compound of experience and politics. His relevant schooling includes a dozen years studying the campaigns and presidencies of Reagan and his father, and a largely unsuccessful but self-defining career in oil development, a big-bets industry that mythologizes risk.

"Bush's views are honed more by experience than by information," said a Republican strategist. "For Bush, cutting taxes is not a philosophy. It's the result of spending much of his life immersed in a milieu with people who groused that taxes stifle investment and innovation."

Reagan, who became president just before his 70th birthday, arrived at the Oval Office pretty much a finished product. Bush is still more of a work in progress. But they seem to share a palate of beliefs that mix Christian moralism, American nationalism, laissez-faire economics laced with a heavy dose of supply-side theory and a general mistrust of federal government as inefficient and unaccountable.

Each spent his first wad of political capital pushing a large tax cut -- even as oceans of red ink rose around him. Reagan's first tax bill was more sweeping, but as the details of Bush's next budget make clear, he's nowhere near finished. Each man talked about tax cuts as a way to unleash private energy and, secondarily, as a way to starve oppressive government.

Martin Anderson, who was Reagan's domestic policy chief, helped organize policy tutorials for Bush during the campaign, and says he often felt he was watching a new incarnation of Reagan. "On taxes, on education, it was the same. On Social Security, Bush's position was exactly what Reagan always wanted and talked about in the 70's," he said. "I just can't think of any major policy issue on which Bush was different."

Bush talks, as Reagan did, about a world of black and white, and tends to measure his counterparts in politics and world affairs by a moral standard. Diplomacy was personal for Reagan; once he recognized Mikhail Gorbachev as a genuine reformer, he left behind his most doctrinaire anti-Communist advisers in his willingness to do business with the Soviet Union. Bush is like that, too.

Each man had a trauma early in his presidency, a violent epiphany, that won him an outpouring of popular support and confirmed in him a sense of destiny. For Reagan, it was being shot, almost fatally, outside the Washington Hilton just two months after his inauguration. For Bush, of course, it was Sept. 11.

Both men are optimists -- an appealing quality in politicians, since a prerequisite for setting out to make things better is a faith that they can become better. The optimism is more guarded in Bush than it was in Reagan, who was our sunniest modern president.

And perhaps the most important similarity of all: each man will be remembered as a risk-taker. They each have an impulse for the audacious. Bush has consistently pressed for more aggressive options in the war on terror -- not sending a cruise missile at an empty tent, but declaring war on all terrorist groups with global reach and states that harbor them, authorizing a war in Afghanistan based on untested new tactics and technology. Now he seems bent on a war with Iraq and a game of diplomatic chicken with North Korea.

"Reagan and this Bush both have that presidential temperament," said Lou Cannon, who has written four Reagan biographies and is at work on his fifth. "They don't commit themselves quickly, but when they do they don't second-guess themselves. They're willing to take the main chance."

There is a classic "Saturday Night Live" Reagan skit in which, as soon as the cameras are gone and the Oval Office door is closed, the amiable chucklehead becomes a slightly sinister strategic mastermind. It was hilarious precisely because we all believed in the genial dimwit. Even now, even after he has taken the country to war, it is possible to imagine the same skit featuring George W. Bush. Both of these presidents inspired, and to some extent still inspire, a frisson of disbelief: how did this guy get to be president of the mightiest nation on earth?

Standing Bush and Reagan side by side is interesting not least because of the way both men have been taken so lightly by the pundits and scholars and political savants and late-night humorists who so often set the tone of political discourse. Their presidential gaffes have been compiled in amusing paperbacks sold at bookstore checkout counters. They have been mocked for their inability to master detail, for their devotion to facts that are not facts, for their seeming lack of intellectual heft. In the European press especially, both started off as cowboys and buffoons.

Reagan was dreamy, prone to confuse movies with real life, capable of forgetting the names of his cabinet members; Bush is inarticulate, likely to lose his place midthought and inclined to lowbrow bluster. The conservative columnist Robert Novak has said that Bush has "the smallest vocabulary of any president I've ever seen." David Frum, a conservative who worked as a Bush speechwriter, has written that "conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House."

Both presidents, schooled in the discipline of message, can sound to those who listen for a living as if they have been programmed by some attending Svengali.

"This business of saying the same thing over and over and over again -- which to a lot of Washington insiders and pundits is boring -- works," Deaver said. "That was sort of what we figured out in the Reagan White House. And I think these people do it very, very well."

It is not just highbrow condescension. Although Reagan won handily in 1980, many voters were uneasy about his bellicose rhetoric and his novelty economics, along with his Hollywood credentials. Twenty years later the exit polls found that 42 percent of voters felt Bush was incapable of handling a world crisis and that 44 percent felt he did not "know enough" to handle the presidency. Of those who voted for Bush, 51 percent said they had reservations about their vote.

These numbers have pretty much been erased since Sept. 11, but some conservatives still worry that Bush, like Reagan, will be diminished in the first draft of history because he is held to be a lightweight by the kind of people who write those first drafts.

David Frum has just published an admiring insider book about the Bush presidency -- jumping in early, he told me, because he feared that Bush's legacy would be hijacked by liberal critics if conservatives did not stake their claim early.

As it happens, Reagan has been enjoying an intellectual rehabilitation. The publication in 2001 of Reagan's original, handwritten scripts for the radio homilies he delivered caused many skeptics to concede that he was a better writer and thinker than most had generally imagined. Martin Anderson, who edited the volume and who presides over something of a Reagan industry at the Hoover Institution, is at work on a follow-up volume of Reagan's private letters. Noonan's book exalting the Reagan presidency as the triumph of character was a best seller last year. The History Channel ran a gauzy tribute in November.

Not all of the Reagan revisionism has been so kind, though. Frances FitzGerald, focusing on the Reagan ballistic missile defense scheme in her absorbing 2000 book, "Way Out There in the Blue," detected a large measure of political opportunism behind the idealistic visionary. (She also deflated the myth that Star Wars did in Soviet Communism.) But interest in Reagan runs high, and the trend in appraisals is favorable.

Notwithstanding occasional cloudbursts of scorn from the great Eastern liberal conspiracy, the establishment view of Bush has also moved significantly. We have already gone in two years from the affable campaign doofus portrayed in Alexandra Pelosi's HBO documentary and Frank Bruni's election memoir, "Ambling Into History," to the incisive, decisive chief executive of Bob Woodward's war-room reconstruction, "Bush at War." That transformation cannot be entirely written off as a masterful spin job, nor entirely attributed to a presidential growth spurt following the grave challenge of the terror attacks. There is something there, some pre-existing quality, that avid Bush critics have missed.

One of the biggest mistakes people have made about Bush is to look at all the seasoned pros he hired and take that as a sign of weakness. Much Washington punditry still insinuates that Dick Cheney is the presidential ventriloquist, that Rove is the political mastermind -- and that Bush is in over his head. This seems to me wrongheaded. In most of the world an executive who surrounds himself with highly competent advisers is regarded as admirably self-confident.

Lou Cannon points out that both Reagan and Bush picked vice presidents (George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, respectively) with resumes far more impressive than their own. Contrast that to Nixon's choice of Spiro Agnew or Bush Sr.'s of Dan Quayle -- gravitas-free running mates seemingly intended not to overshadow the president.

Speaking of Reagan and the younger Bush, Cannon told me, "They don't have a huge ego, and that enables you to get really strong people around you. Reagan never took umbrage, when I was covering him, if Jim Baker got credit for something, or George Shultz. It never bothered him a bit. Bush has that. If Cheney or Rumsfeld gets credit, that's fine with him."

The White House is, to be sure, protective, intolerant of public dissent, cautious about putting the gaffe-prone president into situations (like regular press conferences) where he might embarrass himself. But Bush has shown a willingness to overrule his better-credentialed aides on important matters, including Cheney on the decision to take Iraq to the United Nations.

"You can't watch Bush and Cheney together for half a minute and feel any doubt about who is the trusted adviser and who is the president," says Frum, who was himself initially unimpressed by Bush.

As for the idea that Bush is lazy, incurious or just not very bright, his supporters argue that critics have tended to judge the president by standards that are superficial or misleading. Bush is not, like Bill Clinton, a polymath who can dazzle you with his mastery of detail, who can speak for hours without notes, who can argue an issue from a dozen sides. He is, they say, adept at focusing an issue, asking the pertinent questions, relegating distractions to the sidelines, driving on to a decision and sticking to it.

Compare the disciplined Bush of "Bush at War" with the Bill Clinton of another recent insider book, Kenneth Pollack's "Threatening Storm." That book, a case for going to war against Iraq, portrays the Clinton administration (in which Pollack served) prolonging the discussions while recoiling from the big decisions, equivocating, shifting ground, always looking to keep options open.

"Good advice doesn't come in a box marked 'good advice,' " Frum says. "No president can know all he needs to know. What you want, above all, is somebody who's got the ability to recognize good choices when they are presented to him."

On wednesday mornings, the Washington foot soldiers of the right -- the gun rights people, the anti-abortion groups, the privatize-everything lobby, the tax-cut enthusiasts -- meet to talk strategy at the office of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. The active political right can be roughly divided into conservatives and revolutionaries -- those who are governed by a sense of caution and pragmatism, whether the issue is sustaining the economy or keeping the world safe for American interests, and those who have a fervor to change the fundamentals and are willing to break some eggs to do it. The Norquist meeting is omelet central.

Those, like Norquist, who have been around through periods of frustration and irrelevance have not felt so pumped since the heady and short-lived House rule of Newt Gingrich -- and that was the passion of opposition. Now the White House sends emissaries to their meetings and treats them as allies. They sense that this is Reagan redux, and while some wonder -- as ideologues often wonder when in the company of politicians -- if they are being used, Norquist assures them that in Bush they have a serviceable marriage of political expedience and radical agenda.

Norquist has been a field marshal and a kind of political id for Reagan and Gingrich. He is convinced that Bush, unlike his father, both buys the basic rightist, leave-us-alone agenda on principle and believes that, properly articulated, it is the route to sustained political gain for his party. "Bush 41 didn't learn from Reagan," Norquist told me. "His whole view of what was doable was determined pre-Reagan. George W. is a post-Reagan president. He came of age watching Reagan succeed and his father fail. With Bush, this stuff is visceral."

Under the first President Bush, of course, the pragmatists were clearly in charge. Under Reagan -- and again now -- the play-it-safers and the boat-rockers coexist in a state of tension, an energetic, charged equilibrium.

This is most obvious in the area where least was expected of Bush: his engagement of the world. Bush has been willing to throw overboard reams of established foreign-policy doctrine in his enthusiastic assumption of the role of solo superpower, scrapping the ABM treaty, scheduling the first deployment of antimissile batteries and enshrining "pre-emption" as the American military doctrine. In Reagan's administrations, scorn for treaties and international organizations as an encumbrance on American power was rife, but not dominant. It is the default position in the Bush White House.

Reagan had within his administrations a coterie of moralists, mostly in the second and third tier, who advocated an interventionist role for America. Bush, of course, does, too. They are, many of them, the same people: Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon (and Richard Perle in an advisory role), Richard Armitage and John Bolton at the State Department, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams at the National Security Council and others.

"When George Bush Sr. took over as president, Jim Baker couldn't wait to sweep out these old Reagan people," one senior Reagan aide said. "They had no positions to speak of in the first Bush administration. But now they're back."

From Reagan's "evil empire" to Bush's "axis of evil," clarity of purpose is now the posture, if not always the practice, of American policy. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, sees this as the clearest similarity between Bush and Reagan -- an assertion of moral certainty, even when it makes some people squirm. By framing the struggle with Communism, and now the war on terror, as a fight of good versus evil, she says, these presidents delegitimized the enemy and forced the argument beyond mere tactics.

"Many people are much more comfortable with on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand explanations," she said. "But there are very often cases where there are not arguments on both sides. And I think President Bush has been pretty willing, when that is the case, to speak in black-and-white terms."

Righteous purpose is strong stuff, and it can be highly flammable. It's worth remembering that moral certainty led Reagan's administration into the culminating scandal of Iran-contra, the scheme to sell missiles to Iran and divert the profits to arm anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Bush has not only rehired several of the Iran-contra intriguers, but he has also reproduced elements of the climate in which the plot was hatched -- obsessive secrecy, a premium on loyalty, a taste for working through foreign proxies, an impatience with Congressional oversight.

Four years after he last slept in the White House and two years before he wrote an eloquent farewell to America and drifted into the fog of Alzheimer's, Reagan gave a speech that suggested how he might have coped with the messy world Bush inhabits. In December 1992, he walked into the Oxford Union, his perpetual tan offset by a light blue suit, and took his place behind the twin teleprompters that accompanied him on his travels.

"Evil still stalks the planet," he declared. At the time, the first President Bush was confounded by the horrors of failing states from Somalia to Yugoslavia. Al Qaeda's brand of stateless terrorism had not yet riveted the world's attention, but it was clear that some sort of ill-defined mayhem was replacing Communism as the main worry for Western civilization. Reagan had presided over the end of the cold war, but his successor, for all his talk of a new world order, had made little headway in defining what that would be. Now Reagan offered his answer: a great, humanitarian coalition in which America would stand alongside other civilized states.

Most of his life, Reagan conceded, he had seen international organizations like the United Nations as an encumbrance, as "debating societies" and hotbeds of hostility toward America. But the end of the cold war had liberated these organizations for a higher purpose. He proposed nothing less than a standing "army of conscience," operated by the United Nations, to carve out humanitarian sanctuaries from evil.

The speech received almost no attention here, but it is amazing to read now, when Reagan's spiritual successor is laboring to answer the same questions of American purpose. Bush's new American imperialism -- he would prefer to call it leadership -- seems a far cry from Reagan's idealistic Oxford vision of common cause. In practice, though, I imagine Reagan would have been game to go it alone when the United Nations tried his patience, and Bush, for his part, has found it useful to temper his unilateral impulses. Bush's speech to the United Nations, warning the world body of irrelevance if it did not rise to the challenge of Iraq, was not so far in spirit from Reagan's -- though a Bush "army of conscience" seems more likely to be wearing the uniforms of the 101st Airborne than the blue helmets of the U.N.

Bush's domestic policy is (as Reagan's was) less coherent, obscured as it is by the preoccupation with a menacing world, and more subject to the vagaries of electoral politics. A couple of months ago, the conventional wisdom was that Bush had no domestic agenda. He had gotten his tax cut and a version of his education plan, and that was pretty much the end of it. But it should be amply clear by now that Bush is determined to break from the center-hugging course -- the incrementalism, fiscal prudence, and moderation -- that characterized the presidencies of his father and Clinton.

Bush has not just cut taxes; he has pushed tax cuts with a supply-side bias -- that is, with the professed aim of stimulating investment rather than consumer demand, and too bad if this favors the rich or engorges the debt. He has persisted in arguing for tax cuts long after many Republicans, especially the cautionary voices of big business, have started worrying more about the deficit.

Many Republicans, anxious about red ink and wary of the Democrats, expected Bush to tack toward the middle, perhaps pre-empting the Democrats by cutting the payroll tax, which would most benefit lower-income taxpayers. (Even Reagan, without recanting in the slightest his devotion to the gospel of tax reduction, responded to mounting deficits by signing three tax increases into law.) On the contrary, Bush's latest budget plan is a fresh splash of Reaganism -- eliminating taxes on dividends altogether, for instance.

Bush has already surpassed Reagan in advocating a shift of responsibilities from government to the private sector, and from the federal governments to the states. The aim to partly privatize retirement (through individual investment accounts), education (through vouchers) and welfare (through faith-based charities) has proceeded gradually, and with some temporary retreats, but no one close to Bush doubts that it is a sustained crusade. You could easily imagine Reagan's husky chuckle the other day as Bush announced plans to outsource up to 850,000 federal jobs -- about half the government's civilian work force -- to private contractors. This is on top of the 170,000 federal employees who will lose most of their contract protections when they are folded into the new Department of Homeland Security. In the name of efficiency, Bush stands not only to weaken the federal apparat, but also to bleed the public employee unions -- the lone growth sector of organized labor. By regulation and legislative initiative, the Bush administration has been methodically undermining what remains of organized labor's influence. If, as some labor experts believe, the precipitous decline of union clout began in 1981, when Reagan dismissed striking air-traffic controllers, then Bush is indeed continuing Reagan's work with relish.

Bush's appointees to federal regulatory bodies like the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have, of course, been as ardently antiregulation as Reagan's, and Bush has been, if anything, more willing to brandish executive powers to accomplish deregulatory missions that might face a hard time in Congress. His scorn for environmentalists as naysayers, nit-pickers and limit-mongers is undisguised, as was Reagan's.

A world without trade barriers, in which markets spread a balm of democracy, is another Reagan dream to which Bush has professed allegiance. (Reagan first proposed a free trade zone for North America in 1979.) Here it is tempting to say the comparison breaks down. Among those who believe Bush puts political expedience above principle, there is no more damning evidence than his decision in March to slap punitive tariffs on steel imports, and his condoning of similar anticompetitive favors to the farm and textile industries. The Republican faithful were scandalized by how readily the man who preaches free trade was willing to pander to protectionist sentiment.

The indignation was justified, but possibly premature. Yes, White House officials concede, the steel tariffs were part of a political calculation, but one they insist serves a larger strategic end. The tariffs were used to persuade lawmakers in steel and textile states that Bush was not some free-trade zealot who would endanger American jobs if he was given greater freedom to negotiate trade deals without Congress looking over his shoulder. With those bartered votes, Bush won that authority by the narrowest of margins.

The president's next act got nowhere near as much attention as his protectionist backsliding. In November he proposed to the World Trade Organization that tariffs on all industrial and consumer goods be phased out, reaching zero in the year 2015. The proposal -- like Reagan's free-trade proposals -- was regarded skeptically, as a rhetorical gambit or a negotiating posture, and it may prove to be nothing more. But textile-state lawmakers were alarmed, and they have come to believe that on free trade Bush is dead serious.

So, incidentally, have the Teamsters. The conservative trucking brotherhood is one of the few unions Bush has actively courted. But in November he stiffed them on one of their highest priorities. He ordered that Mexican truckers be permitted to transport goods from south of the border anywhere in the United States. This, by the way, was another case of Bush finding the sweet spot where political advantage and principle coexist. By moving to open cross-border traffic this way, he infuriated the Teamsters -- who have taken him to court -- but he sent a valentine to the 20 million people of Mexican descent who live in America.

The point is not that Bush won't do what it takes to be re-elected. He will co-opt and retailor Democratic ideas (as he has done on the creation of a Homeland Security Department and prescription drug coverage), he will temporarily drop issues when the time is not right (as he did on school vouchers) and he will compromise (as he did, for example, by going along with the federalization of airport security). But for all the political tacking, this is a president with a discernible direction, and it is not the middle of the road.

"Bush 43 is exactly where Reagan was, but he stands on Reagan's shoulders," Norquist said.

When the pollster Richard Wirthlin began working with Reagan, then governor of California, in 1969, he was puzzled by the fact that Reagan consistently polled six to nine points higher than any of the opinion research models predicted. It took Wirthlin a few years to figure out the problem. The forecasting models were weighted heavily toward issues -- whether or not voters felt a candidate held compatible views on a checklist of subjects.

"Issues appeal rationally, but Reagan appealed way beyond the rational dimension," Wirthlin recalls. "He tapped into values." Thus while many voters found Reagan's specific positions too conservative, they voted for him anyway because he seemed to care about the kind of things they cared about, and they generally trusted him to do the right thing. Bush, says Wirthlin, connects in the same way.

Bush's father and Bill Clinton were programmatic presidents. For any problem, they had a five-point plan. Al Gore, of course, was the ultimate wonk candidate, the man of to-do lists, the man who badgered Bush during the final debate to declare his view of "the Dingell-Norwood bill," whatever that was. Bush, though he has a better command of detail than Reagan, is not facile enough to play that game, and when he does let himself get pinned down on the details, he exposes the fact that on taxes or guns or abortion he is more conservative than most voters.

"Bush instinctively, and Rove intellectually and tactically, knew they should not compete issue by issue," said a Republican strategist. "Clinton and Gore had the edge. So you got a values campaign: 'an era of responsibility,' 'leave no child behind' and, of course, 'compassion.' "

As president, Bush has continued to emphasize themes -- encapsulated in slogans, stenciled on backdrops, illustrated by powerful visuals. Matthew Dowd, who runs polling for the Republican National Committee, said Bush's inattention to detail -- so easily mocked -- hurts him not at all with voters. "Voters are pretty sophisticated," Dowd said. "They think nitty-gritty detail is going to be decided by Congress anyway. It's more important to connect on principles and values."

In the alchemy of politics, moreover, stupid can be smart. Presidents who don't pretend to be supervising every detail are less likely to be blamed when details go awry.

Reagan, whose swing voters were Southerners and blue-collar Democrats, sometimes deployed the language of values to stir resentment. Bush, who hopes to add more suburban women and Hispanics to the Republican base, has managed to market fundamental changes as a gentle, centrist agenda.

"Reagan's rhetoric on welfare was the welfare Cadillac cheat," said a senior White House official. "Bush's rhetoric is that welfare saps the soul and drains the spirit." This is probably little consolation to the poor, who face ever more stringent work requirements unaccompanied by money to help pay for child care.

If people basically trust Bush when he professes humanitarian concern on subjects like welfare, prescription drugs, education and retirement -- and so far most seem to trust him -- then he can bring about changes that would have frightened the electorate in Reagan's day.

The best example of this is Social Security. Before he was elected president, Reagan proposed allowing individuals to "opt out" of Social Security. But when, soon after taking office, he sent Congress a proposal to slash the retirement program, the plan hit a buzz saw. He never dared offering legislation to privatize Social Security, although the idea was discussed.

Martin Feldstein, who was chairman of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, said they couldn't figure out a way to do it without arousing a panicky backlash among elderly voters. When Feldstein worked with candidate Bush on the design of his tax and Social Security proposals, though, he was impressed that Bush had discerned a new political opportunity that may outweigh the fears of the elderly. Polls showed that younger and middle-aged voters were comfortable with individual retirement instruments like 401(k) programs. Moreover, the anxiety about whether Social Security will be around when they retire, which has always been seen as an argument for shoring up the status quo, is in Bush's mind an argument for inventing something new.

Thus while the administration is still debating the timing of an assault on Social Security -- are voters ready for it before 2004? How big a setback was the implosion of Enron's retirement plan? -- the president no longer regards Social Security as the lethal "third rail" of American politics. It is likely to be one of the big bets of his presidency.

Bush's thematic approach to tectonic changes in government is not all marketing gloss. Bush is not, at heart, as antigovernment as Reagan was, in part because much about government that antagonized people in the 1980's has been ameliorated. Top tax rates that seemed stifling at 70 percent are now around 40 percent. Absurd excesses of regulation have been reduced, and entitlements like welfare no longer inspire the same anger. And of course the threat of terrorism has awakened, not least in Bush himself, a greater appreciation that government has a purpose.

Thus while Reagan tried to abolish the federal Department of Education, Bush has tried instead to refashion it as an enforcer of accountability in the states and cities where most education decisions get made. (Testing, more than vouchers, has always been Bush's great enthusiasm in education.)

Whether the rationale is sound management or ideology, though, the results are no less substantial. Private retirement accounts, faith-based initiatives, vouchers, outsourcing and volunteerism all diminish the role of government in favor of the marketplace and individual responsibility.

There is little prospect, of course, that Bush will actually shrink the government. But then Reagan didn't, either. Thanks to the armor of special interests and to the predilection of presidents to do things, Reagan left behind a much bigger federal enterprise than he inherited, including a whole new cabinet department (Veterans Affairs) and 60,000 more employees. Reagan asked Americans to dream heroic dreams, but he rarely asked them to give up anything. President Bush, even with a war on, shows no greater desire to bet on sacrifice.

When he was compiling Reagan's radio addresses for publication, Martin Anderson found himself wondering how often Reagan had discussed abortion. He searched 1,044 scripts and found exactly one speech on the subject. In it, Reagan justified abortion to protect the health of the mother or in cases of rape, thus falling well short of the right-to-life hard line. As governor, he signed one of the most liberal state abortion laws, and as president he did little directly to challenge the essentially permissive state of American law.

Yet Reagan was always treated by the anti-abortion constituency as a kindred spirit. This is another Reagan lesson Bush seems to have taken on board: if you have underlying credibility with the advocacy groups, you do not have to undertake quixotic efforts on their behalf.

Friends say that on abortion, gay rights, school prayer and other culture-war issues, Reagan's sympathy for the religious right bumped up against his hands-off view of government, and against his reading of the public mood. Bush, like Reagan, understands that Americans like a good example, but they won't abide a scold. He has thus managed to champion both "traditional" values and "inclusiveness," and when the two are hard to reconcile -- on gay rights, for instance -- he avoids the issue.

A fine example of Bush's instinct to tiptoe around cultural land mines was his intervention the other day in a Supreme Court case on university admissions. Operating in the backwash of the Trent Lott affair, with Republicans scrambling to demonstrate their empathy for black voters, Bush endorsed "diversity" and denounced "quotas," but in his legal brief he ducked the hard question of whether racial preference is ever allowable.

Bush's concessions to the culture warriors may be meaningful, but they will not be frontal. He can, and has, cut off aid to family-planning programs overseas. He can, and will, sign a bill outlawing the procedure critics call partial-birth abortion. And he will appoint federal judges whom the right finds congenial. (Asked during the campaign to identify his favorite Supreme Court justices, Bush named Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, exciting conservatives to the point of ecstasy.)

He can also appeal to the anti-abortion movement by restricting new technologies like stem-cell research. In the months before Sept. 11, Bush went through an agonizing public process of deciding, and concluded that stem cells should be treated as human life. As Frum points out, this was the biggest political victory the "pro-life" lobby had enjoyed in many years, but it was accomplished without riling Americans who favor abortion rights.

In promoting his agenda, Reagan had the advantages of a silken tongue (which Bush does not) and a demoralized opposition (which Bush shares). While polls earlier this month showed the first flickers of doubt about Bush's conduct, his 58 percent approval rating is identical to Reagan's when he won his 49-state re-election victory in 1984. Bush has a few other things going for him that Reagan lacked.

First, the national war footing has generated a swell of patriotism and shared anxiety that floats not only a more muscular foreign policy but also much of the president's domestic agenda, at least until now. The president has little hesitation in invoking the war on terror on behalf of just about anything. Second, the economy, while dyspeptic, is suffering in a different way than it did in Reagan's day. In the 1980's Reagan's ambition to reduce the size of government, and particularly the relentless growth of entitlements, was impeded by the high rate of inflation. Inflation drives up the cost of government programs and makes people cling to the security of the federal safety net. Inflation today is the least of the economy's problems. Third, Bush has a friendlier and more cohesive Republican majority in Congress than Reagan had for most of his tenure.

Bush has a firmer hand on his executive branch too. Under Reagan and Bush, the tensions between conservatives and radicals have been personified by divisions among their top advisers. The skirmishes between Colin Powell's State Department and Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon over the projection of American power had their precursors under Reagan, when Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger clashed. Shultz, like Powell, was sometimes in the position of taming the in-house idealists, and like Powell, he sometimes suffered the slings of archconservatives. Bush, like Reagan, presides over an uneasy coexistence of tax-cut zealots and deficit hawks.

But Bush is undoubtedly Reagan's superior in the executive management of a divided, competitive staff. Reagan delegated all but the biggest decisions. He recoiled from internal conflict and could not bear to fire anyone. (David Stockman, the budget director, unburdened himself to a reporter on the voodoo of Reagan's economics and kept his job anyway.) The Reagan years were marked by angry resignations, endless wars of leaks and back-stabbing. Bush, perhaps by virtue of his business education and experience -- and his years as, in effect, a junior White House staff member to his father -- is more personally engaged in sorting out the issues, maintaining the discipline and culling the misfits. By comparison with that of Reagan's day, the tension between the diplomats and the moralists, between the tax-eliminators and the deficit hawks, between the idealists and the realists, has been contained and synthesized into a common cause. A result is that Bush is less likely than Reagan to be constrained by contention in his own ranks.

There was about Reagan, like it or not, a dream of America and its potential that was often utopian. It was easy to ridicule -- as the first President Bush did with his memorable sneer at the "vision thing" -- but it made Reagan more than the sum of his advisers and his constituencies.

What is Bush's morning in America? He clearly has the instinct to do big things, and barring some failure of leadership -- a serious misadventure abroad, a corroding economy -- he has the license. What does America look like if he succeeds?

Two years ago the question would have seemed ridiculous. We knew America had to be governed from the center. That was the lesson of Bill Clinton's popularity, it was the constraint imposed by a divided electorate and in Bush's case it was the price of a minority victory. Bush had no mandate. But Bush, like Reagan, seems to believe that presidents make their own mandates.

What Bush is striving for, on the evidence of the choices he has made so far, is bold in its ambition: markets unleashed, resources exploited. A progressive tax system leveled, a country unashamed of wealth. Government entitlements gradually replaced by thrift, self-reliance and private good will. The safety net strung closer to the ground. Government itself infused with, in some cases supplanted by, the efficiency and accountability of a well-run corporation. A court system dedicated to protecting property and private enterprise and enforcing individual responsibility. A global common market that hums to the tune of American productivity. In the world, America rampant -- unfettered by international law, unflinching when challenged, unmatchable in its might, more interested in being respected than in being loved.

If he fails, my guess is that it will be a failure not of caution but of overreaching, which means it will be failure on a grand scale. If he succeeds, he will move us toward an America Ronald Reagan would have been happy to call his own.