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Leadership in the Bush White House

What kind of leader is George W. Bush? Harvard's David Gergen assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the President's command-and-control style.

During his first months as governor of Texas, George W. Bush carefully hung a portrait in his office, directly across from his desk. The painting, by W. H. D. Koerner, is named "A Charge to Keep," after the title of a famous Methodist hymn by Charles Wesley. As Bush recalls in his memoir of the same title, he then sent a memorandum to his staff: "When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves."

Bush's personal identification with the painting, which now hangs in the Oval Office, reveals a good deal about his sense of himself as a political leader—who he thinks he is, the role he plays, and the centrality of his religious faith. But the way we respond also reveals a good deal about us, his intended followers, and about the effectiveness of his leadership style.

His followers today tend to see in Bush what he sees in the painting: a brave, daring leader riding fearlessly into the unknown, striking out against unseen enemies, pulling his team behind him, seeking, in the words of Wesley's hymn, "to do my Master's will." They see him as a straight shooter and a straight talker. They take comfort in his religious faith and think he is leading us toward a mountaintop.

A Charge to Keep
"A Charge to Keep" (W. H. D. Koerner, used with permission)

His critics can look at the same painting and see something very different: a lone, arrogant cowboy plunging recklessly ahead, paying little heed to danger, looking neither left nor right, listening to no voice other than his own. They think he is careless, even deceptive, and often says one thing while doing another. That he believes he is doing the Lord's work only increases their apprehension. He's not taking us up a mountain, they fear, but over a cliff. Indeed, some believe he is the most dangerous president in a century or more.

Bush's leadership in the White House has thus become a national Rorschach test. Depending on our perspective, we are drawn to or repelled by him. Rarely in modern American history has any president become as polarizing. Scholar George C. Edwards III pointed out a decade ago that approval ratings for recent presidents tend to run about 35 percentage points higher among members of their own party than among people identifying with the out party. For Bush Sr., for example, the average gap between Republicans and Democrats was 37 percentage points. Reagan and Clinton, more divisive leaders, often drove the gap to 50 percentage points or more. But George W. Bush's gap is off the charts: his approval rating among Republicans hovers in the high 80s; he's down in the 20s among Democrats—a chasm of more than 60 percentage points. Increasingly, people like him or they don't; the not-certains are disappearing.

What, then, can one say about Bush's leadership nearly three years into his presidency—about its style and shape, its effectiveness and its risks? Some judgments at this point are necessarily tentative. We do not yet know how his presidency will turn out. Even so, we know enough to begin drawing some broad, early conclusions about Bush as a leader. Four seem especially pertinent here:

1. He has embraced a command-and-control style that sharply challenges much of today's conventional wisdom about leadership and indeed is a marked departure from other recent presidents.

Bush is a top-down, no-nonsense, decisive, macho leader who sets his eye on the far horizon and doesn't "go wobbly" getting there. He is crisp and can be confrontational, expecting others to follow or get out of the way. He is a big-picture fellow who learned in business school and in Austin to focus on only two or three goals at a time and pursue them fiercely, seeing other issues as distractions. To lead, in his book, is to decide. He asks questions and actively listens before he decides, but he doesn't agonize, and once the decision is made, he doesn't brook internal dissent. He happily delegates details, but he monitors his team closely. If they swerve off course, he snaps them back into line. He is a man from West Texas, a man of God, and proud of both.

We have seen this kind of tough, decisive leadership before—in Jack Welch at General Electric, George Patton on the battlefield, Bobby Knight on the basketball court.

Once he sets a course, he may try his hand at public persuasion. But if people don't swing behind him, he plunges ahead anyway, trusting that they will catch up later. Far more important to him than the art of persuasion, or so it appears, is discipline of message. He has learned through experience that if he and his team repeat a clear, simple message long enough, the public is much more likely to give him permission to act, even if they aren't fully persuaded. Thus his public relations strategy in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

Just as he imposes a demanding physical regime upon himself, he also insists that his team stick to a script and drill it home repeatedly. He is slow to trust and has a long memory for those who cross him or his family, but he is devoted to those who are faithful. Loyalty to the man, loyalty to the mission, loyalty to the message—you don't stay on his team long unless you get with the program.

Bush also has nerve. If he thinks the mission important enough, he will take a risk—even put his presidency on the line. "So what if no president since Franklin Roosevelt has picked up congressional seats in his first mid-term election? So what if I risk embarrassment by campaigning hard for Republicans? Let's rev up Air Force One and barnstorm the country." That's the way Bush acts, and more often than not—as in the 2002 election—he wins his bets.

We have seen this kind of tough, decisive leadership before—in Jack Welch at General Electric, George Patton on the battlefield, Bobby Knight on the basketball court. But we don't often see this brand of leadership in the presidency, and it very much runs against the grain of current leadership studies. Bill Clinton, for example, was studiously non-hierarchical and would look at every problem from a multitude of perspectives before slowly and painstakingly arriving at a policy position; George H.W. Bush consulted widely on international problems, relied upon old friendships, built up coalitions—and only then acted. George W. Bush, by contrast, is in some respects more similar to Franklin Roosevelt, as journalist Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in a widely noted National Journal piece. FDR was also a big risk taker, liked bold, dramatic policies that shook up the landscape, and was often accused of public deception. But FDR was also much more of a public educator than Bush, talking people carefully through the challenges and choices the nation faced, cultivating public opinion, building up a sturdy foundation of support before he acted. As he showed during the lead-up to World War II, he would never charge as far in front of his followers as Bush. If anything, Bush more closely resembles Teddy Roosevelt: TR would have loved the Koerner painting and instantly seen in Bush another rough rider. Still, it is worth remembering that TR was also an intensely curious man of immense learning, who read as much as a book a day in the White House.

The command-and-control approach was still in vogue for CEOs when Bush studied at the Harvard Business School in the mid-1970s, and there is little doubt that as the first MBA president, he reflects his training. But in much of leadership studies today, that style is distinctly retro. The consensus in the field now holds that the person at the top should engage in consensual, collaborative leadership. Don't issue orders or fiats, but persuade and gently bring others around to your point of view. Since no one has a monopoly on wisdom—indeed, reality itself may be socially constructed by the most powerful in society—a public leader, more than leaders in any other arenas, should seek multiple perspectives, inviting voices of dissent. Let wisdom rise to the top instead of sending orders down. Deliberate, negotiate, collaborate, and then collaborate some more. Perhaps this is a caricature, but if you thumb through the pages of the many new books on leadership, you will find those precepts. Indeed, I have taught them myself. But with a nonchalant wave of the hand, Bush goes his own way. He's very much his own man.

2. Despite his unorthodox style, Bush has been far more daring in setting a national agenda—and achieving it—than any expert thought possible three years ago.

A word here about leadership definitions. Scholars in the field have long debated whether leaders should be measured by how successful they are in reaching their goals or by how much good they accomplish. Most have embraced the first approach, while others such as James MacGregor Burns have vigorously argued for the second, more normative standard.

David Gergen
David Gergen

For the moment, let's consider Bush only by the first definition—by how much of his agenda he has carried out. By that yardstick, there can be little doubt that he is emerging as one of the most formidable presidents in modern times. Certainly, he is reshaping the geopolitical landscape more profoundly than any of his recent predecessors. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he has twice sent U.S. forces on military campaigns, swept two regimes from power, committed the U.S. to rebuilding Iraq, broken up terrorist cells, begun to marginalize Yasser Arafat, and has begun to squeeze Syria, Iran, and North Korea. On a grander scale, he has reframed U.S foreign policy to his own, more assertive taste, backed away from multilateral commitments he thought unwise, begun an overhaul of the Pentagon, and may yet pursue a transformation of the Middle East and the creation of an American empire. To paraphrase Sidney Hook's famous definition, Bush's leadership is not just eventful—it is event-making.

While less revolutionary, his domestic changes have been consequential as well. Three times he has persuaded a closely divided Congress to approve major tax cuts, and whatever their stimulative effect, they are almost certain to do what Bush and his conservative base want: to shut the spigot on large new social spending for years to come. He has also reshaped environmental policies to fit the conservative agenda, begun to reshape civil liberties, persuaded even Congressional Democrats to support him on Iraq, and with the creation of the Homeland Security Department, put through the biggest overhaul of the Executive Branch since the New Deal. In the process, he has also changed the presidency itself. For all of their manifold talents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both left the office of the presidency weaker than they had found it. Ever since, power has been oozing out of the White House and toward Congress. Until Bush. He is the first president in years to draw power back to the White House. And all these sweeping, rightward changes, conservatives argue, are exactly why liberals are infuriated. Bush's "astonishing performance" since September 11, writes Charles Krauthammer, has "left the world reeling and Democrats seething. The pretender has not just seized the throne. He was acting like a king. Nay, an emperor."

Looking ahead, there is a distinct possibility that the Bush presidency could fashion even larger alterations in the political landscape. Despite his stumbles in recent months, he remains the favorite to win re-election. Only two other Republican presidents have managed to serve out two full terms in the past hundred years—Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan—and both are rising in the eyes of many historians. For Bush even to join their ranks would be a feat unimaginable in November 2000. But his political reach may not stop even there. His strategist Karl Rove, ever resourceful, is plotting ways for Bush to become another William McKinley, breaking a long stalemate in American politics by lifting Republicans into long-term dominance of Congress as well as the White House. It's a long shot, but it's shorter today than it was three years ago.

3. Even as a backlash grows against him, the qualities of leadership Bush has demonstrated—yes, the qualities of his leadership—have attracted a following that is large, loyal, and intense.

It can be argued, of course, that were it not for the war on terrorism, Bush would be a run-of-the-mill president. Context often defines the qualities of leadership that people want at a particular moment. Churchill was washed up in 1939 but was summoned to power when war came. As soon as war ended, as he later quipped, he was given the "Royal Order of the Boot." In a similar vein, Americans rallied behind their commander in chief after September 11, and continuing conflicts have helped to fuel his popularity ever since.

Yet it would be too easy to say that only the coming of terror has sustained Bush. In truth, a great many Americans have welcomed the way he has risen to the challenge. He has struck back hard and without apology. That "don't mess with Texas" approach goes down well in a country where NASCAR racing is the fastest-growing sport. Indeed, those who decry top-down, muscular leadership must recognize that in good times and bad, a great many Americans still prefer it, especially in their president.

The buttoned-up culture of the Bush White House ensures message discipline, but it also reduces the flow of information to the public.

Bush comes out of a long and durable tradition in American politics. Our culture has a powerful macho strain: we are attracted to men who walk like John Wayne, talk like Gary Cooper, and look like Tom Cruise on a flight deck; we often scorn collaborative leaders like Jimmy Carter as weak and ineffectual. Frederick Jackson Turner taught long ago that the West has left an indelible stamp upon the national character—and, as should now be clear, upon leadership styles, too.

Similarly, Americans like risk takers. From the Pilgrims who sailed on the Arabella to the astronauts who flew to the moon, from the cavalry at Little Big Horn to the troops at Omaha Beach, a willingness to take risks has been part of the nation's DNA. For his supporters, Bush's bravado is one of his most admirable traits.

Bush's own character and his religious faith are also important building blocks for his support. While many Americans applauded Clinton's policies, they were embarrassed by his behavior and greeted Bush with relief. Bush had clearly taken a walk on the wild side when he was young—some would say a rather extended tour—but he is now anchored in faith, family, and friends. No less than 46 percent of Americans now proclaim themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, and regular church-goers gave two thirds of their votes to Bush in 2000. They remain a crucial part of his political base today.

Nor should one underestimate how much Bush's hot-pepper conservatism has strengthened his leadership. Not even Reagan stirred up the faithful in the ways Bush has. The Gipper talked conservative but tended to govern more toward the middle. Bush talks center and governs right—often, radical right. Liberty to him is our foremost national value—liberty, that is, as the founders saw it: freedom from government. Isaiah Berlin argued that in the twentieth century, America's political leaders like FDR moved beyond this belief in "negative liberty" to an embrace of "positive liberty" —the notion that government can be a positive instrument to liberate citizens from poverty and discrimination. Bush clings to the original concept. That steadfastness, like his evangelical faith, resonates with conservative Americans of all stripes—social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign-policy neocons.

All those qualities have forged a large and durable political base. Never during the first two-and-a-half years of the Bush presidency did his job approval rating drop below 50 percent—a feat achieved over the past three decades by only one other president (Bush père). In the aftermath of September 11, his approval skyrocketed above 90 percent and it remained above 60 percent for the next sixteen months. The slide that began in early summer could continue, but it seems doubtful that he will repeat the precipitous, 60-point drop of his father: his conservative base is too strong and loyal for that.

At the heart of that solid support is a belief that he is an effective leader. A survey in spring 2003, when his approval was in the high 60s, asked his supporters what they most admired about him. A smattering said they liked his economic policies; larger numbers liked his policies on terrorism, but over half—52 percent—said they were drawn to "his general personal strength and sense of leadership." Columnist David Broder concluded, "Democrats may challenge Bush on the issues, but it will be tough to topple him from his leadership pinnacle." His leadership is his most valuable political asset.

4. Even as it has strengthened his political base, Bush's brand of top-down, assertive leadership also runs clear, deep, and dangerous risks. Over the past year, the dangers have become ever more visible and could eventually be fatal for his presidency.

The trouble with top-down leadership, history suggests, is that is can yield strong short-term results but turn sour over time. For one thing, top-down leaders and their teams spend too little time soliciting and cultivating the views of others. Advisers don't anticipate trouble nearly as well. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and dissenters are given short shrift. Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly blinkered in his conduct of the Vietnam War, as did Richard Nixon on an array of issues. Decisions can still be brilliant, as were Nixon's gambits in breaking up the Sino-Soviet alliance, but there is a high probability that they can go horribly wrong, as Nixon found during Watergate. And over time, closed administrations tend to provide incomplete or misleading information to the public; their accountability suffers. The top-down approach also places a special burden on the leader himself: because he gathers so much power to himself, it is essential that his judgment be well and widely informed and imbued with experience. Simply put, this is not Bush's strong suit.

President Bush sometimes reaches out for alternative views, but over time he and his administration have acquired a reputation for being one of the most closed and ideological in recent years. While he is one of the most decent men to occupy the office, he also seems one of the least curious. He rarely traveled overseas in his early adult years—his office in Austin listed only five countries he had visited before his presidential election—and began his White House years by asking that memos be kept to two pages or less. He has said publicly that he rarely reads newspapers and relies on his staff to summarize the news for him. He is a quick study; he has appointed some outstanding advisers and he asks them hard questions before making a decision. But his advisers cover a fairly narrow range on the intellectual spectrum—from moderate to hard right—and in international affairs, they are often divided. The net result is that the President runs an obvious danger of basing decisions on too narrow and limited a flow of information and opinions. Moreover, the limited information only reinforces his tendency to see issues in stark black-and-white terms. That approach worked in rallying the country and then winning conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but seems peculiarly inappropriate for winning the peace in those same regions. To deal with the cunning and scheming minds that foment terror, we would probably be better off with Nixon—he was intimately familiar with both the scepter and the switchblade.

The buttoned-up culture of the Bush White House ensures message discipline, but it also reduces the flow of information to the public and plants seeds of distrust. Every White House in the television age has fought hard to influence what voters see and hear, and there is nothing wrong with that. Winning hearts and minds is indispensable to governing. Where administrations go over the line is in refusing to answer reporters' questions openly and candidly, or spinning the answers so much that they distort the truth. The Bush team—and it is far from unique in this respect—is widely perceived as doing both, especially in the run-up to the Iraq war. So long as public events were breaking in their direction, they paid no price, but when troubles came in Iraq, the press began to retaliate (one example among many: the controversy over a sixteen-word sentence about African uranium in Bush's State of the Union address). Distrust for the administration, already widespread in Europe, has now become a full-fledged campaign issue at home.

Experience suggests that presidents tend to make wiser decisions when there is a little less efficiency and more openness. For all of his personal flaws, Bill Clinton created highly sophisticated, subtle policies because he practiced what might be called "360-degree leadership." Before making decisions, he tried to learn the views of everyone in the full circle of public dialogue, especially those who have so long been in the shadows—African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, or, in international affairs, the peoples of nations like South Africa and India. The process was sloppy, but from the melée emerged policies that were sensitive to many different perspectives and generally stood up well over time. No one would recommend that George W. Bush embrace the Clinton style—he would be horrified at the thought—but he would be well served as a leader if he threw open the doors of his White House.

His style of leadership encourages short-term thinking, and as we are now realizing, the flip side of boldness can be recklessness.

Another risk in top-down, command-and-control leadership is that these days it tends to stir up resentments and anger. A half-century ago, leaders of institutions were accorded latitude for making decisions on their own. Since then, nearly every institution—from the family unit to corporations, churches, and the White House—has suffered sharp declines in authority. A leader cannot assume the automatic trust of her followers; she must earn it, showing respect for followers by soliciting their views in advance of a decision. That's a major reason why leadership studies now emphasize a more collaborative approach and urge appreciative forms of inquiry. Make everyone feel included, so the theory goes, and you are more likely to command broad support. Collaboration is an important source of soft power. By taking a different road, Bush has certainly gotten things done, but when trouble has hit—as in Iraq—he has found that he can no longer count on a united electorate. Internationally, of course, disenchantment with his administration is even more pervasive, and some experts believe the terrorists are winning.

Finally, Bush runs the risk that his crisp, damn-the-torpedoes style, combined with his ideology, may compel him toward policies that pay off in the short term but court serious problems down the road. His fiscal policies come instantly to mind. It was understandable that in his first year, when he inherited substantial budget surpluses, he would cut taxes so that Democrats would not spend the money on new social ventures. His initial tax cuts were also a reasonable spur to a slowing economy. But he has insisted upon continued reductions in long-term taxes even as he has permitted overall spending to increase by more than 7 percent a year. The combination has not only brought the sharpest reversal of fiscal outlook since the Korean War but also put the country on an unsustainable path. Whether the same charge can one day be fairly placed against his war policies remains to be seen. The point is that his style of leadership encourages short-term thinking, and as we are now realizing, the flip side of boldness can be recklessness.

Inevitably, as we step back and see Bush whole, our imaginations are drawn again to that painting by W. H. D. Koerner: should we celebrate the daring young rider as he scrambles up that tough terrain? Is he leading up a mountaintop...or over a cliff? Bush may have been more provocative than he knew in hanging it in the Oval Office.

Reprinted with permission from "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," Compass, Fall 2003. Compass is published by the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

For more information on Compass, write to cpl@ksg.harvard.edu.

David Gergen served as an adviser in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton White Houses. He is director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.