George H.W. Bush entered the White House as only the third president in two centuries to be inaugurated for the first time with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposing party. This would be a challenging factor for the best communicator of thoughts and ideas - Historian William Leuchtenburg says Bush had an inability to communicate either. Leuchtenburg writes that this was demonstrated at the start with Bush's Inaugural Address which, "exposed how much difficulty Bush had in marshaling his thoughts… With no strong sense of mission or coherent conception of public policy, which was played throughout his tenure by his inability to communicate cogently what he called the 'mission thing'."
One area where he did demonstrate executive leadership was in the lead up to and prosecution of the Gulf War. According to Leuchtenburg, Bush, "believed that he had constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to order troops into Kuwait without congressional approval, but as Congress, fortified by strong antiwar sentiment in the country, readied itself for a showdown with the president over the War Powers Act, he sidestepped by asking for its consent. His advisers thought he was taking a very great risk because Congress might not go along, but Bush wanted to show Saddam [Hussein] that his decision to intervene represented the national will.... Sometime after the roll call, he said if Congress had turned him down, he would have gone ahead anyway."
Of course allied troops quickly pushed Iraq out of Kuwait and immediately and ever after [and least until 2003] it was debated whether Bush should have pursued Hussein into Iraq. Leuchtenberg - with the hindsight granted by the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq by Bush's son - writes, "Bush, though, had sound reasons for not continuing the war. The reputation of the United States in the Muslim world would have been damaged by newsreels of U.S. troops killing fleeing Iraqi soldiers no longer offering resistance on the 'Highway of Death'.… Furthermore, he recognized that his allies had not committed themselves to regime change, only to clearing the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait."
Bush's success in the Gulf War - and in foreign policy in general - was not matched at home. Leuchtenburg points out, though, that much of Bush's domestic troubles stemmed from the enormous debt left behind by his predecessor. Still, his decision to go back on "No new taxes!" - however valid it was economically - destroyed his ability to lead his own party. Leuchtenburg writes, "Bush's decision to renege on his pledge never to raise taxes greatly impaired his relations with his party. So discountenanced were right wingers that the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, Ed Rollins, who had been [Ronald] Reagan's political director, urged GOP congressional candidates to run for office on their own.... A more serious consequence of the budget melodrama was its impact on the president's public standing. Bush's behavior reinforced the impression that the president was a man with no firm convictions or, worse still, that, with his eyes on the 1988 election, he had willfully made a promise that he knew he could not keep."
Even his triumph in the Gulf, Leuchtenburg says, had what turned out to be a negative effect on his 1992 campaign. The irony of that victory in 1991 negatively impacting the '92 campaign stemmed from Bush's immense popularity after the war. Because of it, Leuchtenburg writes, "many of the top Democratic frontrunners - Governor Mario Cuomo, Senator Bill Bradley, and Congressman Dick Gephardt - dropped out of the race early...that development also created an opportunity for the ambitious governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who proved to be a formidable rival. The series of breakthroughs abroad on Bush's watch - the capture of [Manuel] Noriega, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Kuwait - had burnished his reputation. But the president's very successes lessened concern over foreign policy, which was his greatest strength, and enabled Clinton to exploit Bush's main source of vulnerability: discontent with the recession."
In November 1992, with only 37% of the popular vote, Bush - Leuchtenburg writes - "gained a smaller proportion of the popular vote than the discredited Herbert Hoover in 1932 or the overwhelmed Barry Goldwater in 1964. He even lost 27% of registered Republicans, as well as 68% of independents."