It’s little remembered now that a renewed sense of public purpose was also Bush’s hope. We recall with amused pity the phrases “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler America,” but those ideas meant something to Bush. He’d studied at the feet of the policy mandarins who surrounded his father, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, conservative men who nonetheless believed in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, a proposition Reagan made his name maligning. Though he first ran as a Goldwater conservative, as a young congressman — like Obama but unlike Carter, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W., he came out of the Legislature — Bush proved his mettle by bravely voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fair housing bill, after Johnson had announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, and over the objections of Bush’s incensed white Houston constituents.
In 1988, Bush could not run openly on reversing his predecessor’s policies, as Obama would later run against his son, but he did so tacitly. He was troubled by the rampant deregulation and decline in social services funding of the 1980s. Indeed, one slogan of his campaign, since forgotten, was “We Are The Change!” (add “we seek” to the end of that, and you have an oft-repeated slogan of the Obama campaign).
As president, Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. He put the full weight of the White House behind renewing the Clean Air and Water Acts (a coup Obama would be lucky to equal). He effected the first minimum wage increase in a decade. Most gallingly for his friends on Wall Street, in the wake of the S&L crisis he approved the most significant package of financial regulation reforms until 2010’s Consumer Financial Protection Act.