This post tends towards political theory more than towards politics - though, the thoughts offered were inspired by a political piece in the NYT. Bear with it, if you can.
I think it's safe, first, to begin by assuming that all Presidential administrations take actions with at least this principle guiding their behaviors: act in ways most likely produce a desired policy outcome. The thought is simple. Take all and only those actions that are likely to produce the policy you prefer; indeed, if one could know with certainty that an action would not further or would hinder some preferred outcome, why would you advance that policy? Let's take this as given.
Second, the article I mentioned goes to pains to discuss a second, thought not mutually exclusive, end weighing on nearly every action of the Bush 43 Administration: act only in those ways least likely to constrain the Executive's authority, with the corollary that one ought to act wherever possible to expand the Executive's authority. I would expect that some version of this applies to every Presidential administration - Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative - and I take it as interesting that the ideological objectives of every (reasonably obvious or recent) Administration converge on the question of the (lack of) limitations on its own authority.
Now, such a constellation of goals can produce what we might call an action matrix, or a constellation of action possibilities ranked according to their combined likelihood of both expanding executive authority and achieving some policy end. The most preferred actions are those that have a high combined likelihood of succeeding - producing the policy goal - and likelihood of broadening the scope of executive authority; the least preferred will have higher likelihoods of narrowing authority and of failing to produce the policy outcome. Given the final feature of Presidential action reasoning - that policy outcomes can be achieved either via unilateral executive action or by joint executive and legislative action - we can produce a reasoning array that looks a little like the following one.
Now, with the preferences I've mentioned already in mind, which options would the Bush
Administration been likely to have rejected and accepted as matters of categorical preferences? It seems to me that it would have preferred successful expansive actions categorically, and demurred from failing-narrowing actions categorically. So, let's eliminate all of those.
Which leaves us with only those Legislative or Executive actions that expand Executive authority. Fair enough. But as I mentioned above, it's likely that most Presidential Administrations acted as it believed was in accordance with these principles. What made the Bush Administration different? As near as I can tell, the Bush Administration gave a higher degree of credence to the following belief than have most Presidential administrations, or than most citizens deemed appropriate: All things equal, unilateral actions tend either (a) to reduce opportunities for narrowing of power or (b) to have higher likelihoods of success in achieving policy aims. Call this the Unilateral Power Principle (UPP).
Now, what's interesting about this? What's interesting about this is that, I'd argue, armchair-historically that some version of the UPP is one pretty essential preference that differentiates liberals from conservatives, even if it does not differentiate liberal from conservative Presidents. Though it clearly does, at times. For instance, LBJ's greatest Presidential achievements were legislative ones - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, and even the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution - and all had the interesting feature of expanding executive authority. Similarly, one might expect, for Clinton: NAFTA, Medicare, Welfare Reform, etc. By contrast, Bush 43 and Reagan were much better known - though, for Reagan, I can hardly list them - their unilateral executive actions than for their successful legislative maneuvers. The decisive matrix, according to such conservatives, then, looks something like this.
But to make the point a little differently, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Bush 43 proved such a unilateral actor, since his Administration simply pushed further the boundaries of the UPP, a principle that his own party had for some time openly espoused. The interesting question, I think, though, is something like this: whence the anger? That is, what generates the liberal and independent rage at President Bush's expansion of Executive authority? Democratic Presidents - President Obama not excluded - after all, behave similarly. So, we arrive at a subsequent question: Is the anger at Bush generated by his expansion of Executive power, as many critics suggest, or does this analysis, instead, give the lie to those claims? For my part, with all of my own anger at Bush to reconsider, I don't know that I can give an answer.