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The Contemporary Presidency: Decision Making in the Bush White House


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank John Burke, Mary Anne Borelli, Louis Fisher, Michael Genovese, Fred Greenstein, Nancy Kassop, Dick Pious, Andrew Rudalevige, Bob Spitzer, and Jeffrey Weinberg for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

James P. Pfiffner is University Professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He has written or edited twelve books on the presidency and American national government, including Power Play: The Bush Administration and the Constitution.


The White House Office is so large and complex that a systematic process of policy evaluation is essential in order to provide the president with a range of options on all important policy decisions. Some of the most important decisions that President George W. Bush made in his first term were taken without the benefit of broad deliberation within the White House or cabinet. This article will take up four cases of policy decisions to illustrate the lack of a regular policy process and consultation that characterized many important decisions of the Bush administration. Two focus on detainee policy: the military commissions order of November 13, 2001, and the February 7, 2002, decision to suspend the Geneva Conventions. And two are about the war in Iraq: the initial decision to go to war and the decision to disband the Iraqi army. The pattern that emerges from an examination of these four decisions is one of secrecy, top-down control, tightly held information, disregard for the judgments of career professionals, and the exclusion from deliberation of qualified executive branch experts who might have disagreed with those who initially framed the decisions.