Friday, September 9, 2005
By Steven L. Taylor

It has been said that one of President Bush’s strengths has been the ability assert leadership in time of crisis. Certainly that was a theme that was put forth, and I think was key, to his 2004 re-election campaign. Questions like “who do you trust to lead the US in the war on terror?” tipped Bush’s way and public sentiment on that type of question helped Bush defeat Kerry, I would argue.

Setting aside any question of whether one believe that he has steered the country to the right outcomes, there is little denying that he was able to rally the nation after 9/11 with great effectiveness. And while he has been criticized for not admitting mistakes, he has normally been able to turn certitude into a political strength.

Now, granted, any attack on US soil will lead to any President receiving substantial public support. But still, Bush was able to be the Leader of the Moment that was needed.

I will further grant that the lack of WMD in Iraq and other issues in regards to that policy have eroded public confidence in the President’s leadership abilities. However, the Katrina situation has been interesting in terms of analyzing this presidency, as President Bush has seemingly been unable to assert any significant leadership presence into this crisis.

I recognize that this is an event of historic proportions (of course, so was 9/11) and that a natural disaster is different than an attack and that since we have established routines in regards to hurricanes that it created a different response than even a terrorist attack on the levees would have brought.

Still, this is a national crisis and in national crises, the President has, apart from policy-specific roles to play, an important symbolic role to play. The President really hasn’t done a very good job of that in this event.

As such, I think that the following piece from the the NYT makes some very valid points: Leader Who Rose in 9/11 Slips in Wake of Storm

Nine days after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush stood before a joint session of Congress and rallied the nation to a new mission.

On Thursday, nine days after it became apparent that New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush stood in an auditorium across the street from the White House and directed storm victims to a Web site and a toll-free telephone number.

“We have 3,000 people working around the clock to take the calls,” he said.

There are obvious differences between the situations. But while the first showed Mr. Bush capable of commanding the nation’s attention, transcending partisanship and clearly articulating a set of goals, the second has left him groping to find his voice and set out a vision of how the government and the American people should respond.

And, I think that this is a fair assessment:

But as Thursday’s performance made clear, he has remained small bore in addressing the crisis, casting himself more as a manager than a leader.

I am not talking in this instance, by the way, about actual policy responses, nor am I am engaging at the moment in any specific critique of the response to the disaster. I am simply noting that there has been a decided lack of strong leadership from the President in the wake of this event. Along those lines, this assessment is fair:

Mr. Bush’s public appearances since the storm have frequently been off key. He has praised the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance, and he has recalled his days of carousing in New Orleans. As he spoke to the cameras on Thursday, he reached for a few high notes. He declared Sept. 16 a national day of prayer, asking that Americans pray “with confidence in his purpose, with hope for a brighter future.”

But most of the rest of his speech was a guide to government assistance programs, including Medicaid, assistance for needy families, food stamps, housing and job training, many of which he has tried to trim in the name of leaner government.

As such, I think that Ken Mellman is correct:

“His image as a strong leader has been undercut dramatically,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist.

“I don’t think he’s a tremendously effective communicator,” Mr. Mellman said, “but he inspires trust as a regular guy. But people have to trust in something. When he’s not offering anything other than Web sites and phone numbers, there’s nothing in which to trust.”

And while the following may be the case, it is hardly a rousing endorsement, either:

Some Republicans said that the criticism of Mr. Bush had been overblown and that he had properly been focusing first on rescue and relief operations. Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said the president showed “solid and steady leadership” on Thursday.

“I think the president is finding his voice,” Mr. King said.

It will be interesting to see if he finds it.

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7 Responses to “The Leadership Thesis”

  1. Director Mitch Says:

    So you want a politician to make you feel better, confirm your feelings, and feel your pain? You sound like a longer version of this post.

  2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Do I personally? On balance, no.

    However, to deny that part of the President’s job historically has been about leadership on the national level that id often symbolic is to noty understand the presidency.

    Are you going to argue that the anti-terrorism policies post-911 could have been accomplished if Bush had not demonstrated substantial leadership on the public stage?

    Heck, part of what made Washington the perfect man for the job of first president had as much to do with symbolism and public leadership as anything else.

  3. dole done Says:

    I am a lifelong Republican but have never been a Bush fan. It was so clear from the 2000 primaries on that he was an intellectual lightweight and–more importantly someone whose entire career was based not on merit, but on exploiting his family connections. His ability to “inspire trust as a regular guy” is utterly beyond comprehension to me since he is essentially the epitome of the blueblood New England elite.

    His post- 9/11 performace, I thought was largely reckeless. The “crusade” comments, the “Texas sheriff” business, and “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” rhetoric was so puerile and lacking in sophistication that it is a wonder how anyone could take him seriously.

    I think he got quite a bit of help from a compliant press at the time and in the run-up to the Iraq war.

    Fast forward to Katrina–the rationale for the War has turned out to be entirely false, terrorist attacks continue throughout the globe in spite of our “war,” and the demonstrated incompetence of all levels of government to deal with a major catasrophe has culminated in people seeing though his charade.

  4. The Misanthrope Says:

    This post is one of the reasons I like your blog. You do lean right, but you try hard to be balanced. And, more often than not, your comments make me think twice on various topics.

  5. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:


    Many thanks. That is perhaps the highest compliment you could have paid me as it relates to this blog.


  6. Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Leadership Says:

    [...] Steven T. has a terrific, thoughtful post from Friday on President Bush’s “leadership.” I agree, first of all, with Steven’s assessment that the high grade the public gave [...]

  7. Solo Dialogue Says:

    Katrina Recriminations (or the Emperor’s New Cloth

    With two weeks having passed since Katrina hit, it is fair to say that all levels of government failed the people of the Gulf Coast, and especially New Orleans. But ultimately, I think the federal government has an especially shameful place in what h…

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