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Bush's Leadership Style: Decisive or Simplistic?

By Mike Allen and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page A01

With his speech Thursday night to the Republican National Convention, President Bush will be inviting voters to endorse not only a set of policies -- but also a style of leadership.

Republicans draw a sharp contrast between what they portray as Bush's directness and what they call rival John F. Kerry's tendency to worry issues to death. White House aides describe a president who gathers a small circle of trusted advisers, listens to brief debates and then offers swift, gut-based solutions to problems.

President Bush, center, with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers. (Jeff Mitchell -- Reuters)

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But a close examination of Bush's operating style, based on interviews with former administration officials, Bush friends and outside experts, offers a more nuanced picture. In some cases, as in the decision to go to war with Iraq or to seek large tax cuts, Bush has indeed moved quickly to set his course and stick to it. In others, such as North Korea policy, he has let things languish and pushed problems to the future. He has also not hesitated to switch positions when necessary, such as when he first opposed, then backed, the creation of a Homeland Security Department.

Many of Bush's admirers describe him as a leader who asks tough, probing questions of advisers but also say he is a person who, once he picks a goal, never looks back. Even strong supporters sometimes worry that his curiosity and patience seem limited, while detractors see him as intellectually lazy and dependent on ideology and sloganeering instead of realism and clear thinking. Because he has a relatively small set of advisers, dissenting voices are effectively muffled.

Whatever the merits of his approach, after 10 years in executive office in Texas and Washington, Bush has clearly found a managerial style that meets his needs and serves as a spur for his associates.

Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist and authority on presidential leadership styles, said Bush's clarity of purpose reduces the tendency in government to let matters drift, but too often "results in a vision that may be simplistic or insufficiently examined or something that undermines itself."

Admirers and critics differ on the consequences of Bush's leadership. Supporters see strengths that have served the nation well in times of international conflict and domestic challenge -- notably after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Bush did not hesitate to put the country on a war footing and begin to move against al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan. Opponents say Bush's way has led to a bloody stalemate in Iraq and a weak economic performance at home.

Sticking With Decisions

One thing is clear: This is not a president who is inclined to second-guess himself. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice described Bush as the anchor of the White House team, a man who recognizes that big, strategic decisions will bring with them good times and bad times and who is not distracted by news coverage that can fluctuate by the day or even by the hour. "If you had a president who was doing that" -- watching the polls and the daily headlines -- "the country would be in deep trouble," she said.

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Bush's first budget director and now the GOP candidate for Indiana governor, remembered presenting Bush with a variety of spending choices, usually depicted with the elaborate charts and graphs the president seemed to like.

"He would pick the basic trajectory, and he was pretty resolute then about sticking with the policies it required," Daniels said. "He never thought about reversing course."

But even some admirers believe Bush's approach has its pitfalls. Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who was Environmental Protection Agency administrator until June 2003, said she found that Bush's aides closed out information, even from the Cabinet. "There is a palace guard, and they want to run interference for him," she said. "My feeling was that the president would like to have had more opportunities to hear directly from the Cabinet, but there are always people who don't want to overburden him."

A former White House official who worked for Bush for more than two years -- and left in disappointment at the neglect of domestic policy -- said the president had a "workmanlike" approach to governing that brought "no curiosity, no policy fire."

"With argument comes refinement, and there was none of that," said the official, who declined to be named to avoid ending his contacts with Bush's inner circle. "It's fine to say he's a big-picture leader and doesn't get bogged down in the details. But that's another way of saying he's lazy -- not physically lazy, but intellectually lazy."

Former administration officials argue that the vagueness sometimes serves a strategic purpose. They said Bush frequently urges aides to "protect his flexibility" to amend or even reverse his bold statements, so his announcements are frequently hazy about how a big goal will be accomplished.

When Bush announced his support for a national intelligence director, the most important recommendation of the commission that looked into the Sept. 11 attacks, he hinted at narrower budgetary and hiring parameters than the commission had wanted, but he did not say so exactly. When commission members rebelled and Congress made plain it was contemplating a more powerful portfolio for the intelligence director, Bush's staff began working on a version of the job that would be more politically salable.

The harshest indictment of Bush's decision-making from a high-level insider came from former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill. In comments to biographer Ron Suskind, O'Neill described his first meeting with Bush -- an hour-long discussion of tax and economic policy during which "the president said nothing."

"I wondered, from the first, if the president didn't know the questions to ask," O'Neill recalled, "or did he know and just not want to know the answers?"

Others in the administration say that O'Neill's experience was totally different from their own and that it suggested Bush had no confidence in O'Neill's advice. But when the president shook up his economic policy team, firing O'Neill and accepting the resignation of economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey, he did not change his support for tax cuts in the face of rising deficits. Today, that economic policy ranks with Iraq as the main question mark over Bush's reelection.

Guided by Instincts

Bush, who holds an MBA from Harvard, has definite ideas about how to run things. When he was Texas governor, he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," that he does not like "long pre-programmed meetings" and that when state agency directors would come in with fat briefing books, "I've been known to ask the directors to close the book and tell me in their own words what is really important, what they recommend and why."

A golfing companion who was in Bush's foursome in Santa Fe, N.M., last year told reporters he had asked the president to describe his management style. "I'm not afraid to make decisions, and I hire good people and then listen to them," the friend quoted Bush as saying.

Bush has said he has "been fairly accused of being impatient" and has described himself as "not very analytical." Bush told Bob Woodward for the book "Bush at War" that he is "a gut player" who relies largely on his instinctive reactions to crises.

Bush contends that he welcomes unvarnished opinions and abhors "yes men," and current and former aides said his inner circle will sometimes debate issues in front of him. Often he decides later. One official said that is partly so people do not feel that they have "been shot down by the president."

One point on which supporters and critics agree is that Bush takes a minimalist, big-picture approach to learning about an issue, in a marked departure from the endless curiosity of former president Bill Clinton. Whitman said Bush liked his briefings "orally and short and sweet -- he didn't want a lot of paper."

Whitman described a president who disliked extensive give-and- take in meetings: "I never had the feeling that I couldn't raise questions before him with another Cabinet member, but I don't think everyone felt that way. My feeling was that if an issue was important enough to have a principals meeting, the point was to have some real back-and-forth. Otherwise, the staff always tried to engineer a consensus."

Although his aides like to portray Bush as a quick decider, the reality can vary from issue to issue. Aides recalled that after Bush decided the administration should take a stand in an affirmative-action case challenging University of Michigan admissions policies that gave preference to black and Hispanic students for its undergraduate and law schools, it took the president only three or four meetings to resolve conflicting advice from his advisers.

He started by calling in White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who had been a Bush appointee to the Texas Supreme Court; Rice; a former provost of Stanford University who had tutored Bush on foreign policy during the campaign; and Jay Lefkowitz, who at the time was his domestic policy adviser. Practically alone, their views, and those of his Justice Department, shaped Bush's decision to oppose the policies as quota systems that were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court later upheld the university in part in an endorsement of affirmative action.

In other cases, though, Bush has allowed crises to fester. Bush has never resolved deep disagreements within his war cabinet about how to deal with North Korea, with the result that the isolated nation, which had appeared close to a missile deal with the Clinton administration, has quadrupled its stockpile of nuclear weapons, from two to eight, during Bush's tenure.

On North Korea, Bush has been torn between the engagement recommended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the no-compromise stance taken by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Often, insiders say, diplomatic initiatives are decided at the last minute, apparently on the basis of the position of the person who gets in the last word. The shifting script, foreign diplomats involved in the talks say, has often left other countries confused about the administration's approach -- and the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program unresolved.

Wants Pared Information

One of the most persistent criticisms of Bush is that he operates in a largely closed loop with little input from outside experts, relying on longtime confidants, many of whom came with him from Texas. Just as Bush has claimed to read mostly newspaper stories selected by his staff, he also relies on just a few people for most of his ideas about the world.

Again and again, people who know Bush refer to the filter around him. John M. Bridgeland, who was the first director of Bush's Domestic Policy Council and then ran USA Freedom Corps, the president's national-service initiative, said Bush "wants only the highly relevant information he needs to make an informed judgment."

"He trusts his closest advisers to synthesize the information he needs," Bridgeland said.

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, Bush's best friend, said the president forces people to boil things down "to discipline the system so that people don't abuse the taxpayers' time of the president."

"He doesn't need the underbrush or nitty-gritty of how the processes worked," Evans said.

But critics say that Iraq illustrates the risks of an approach that narrows the definition of a problem and fails to look at the ramifications of a proposed solution. Accounts of Bush's decision-making about Saddam Hussein describe repeated and detailed briefings on plans for the military assault on Iraq. But no such attention appears to have been directed toward the ethnic and religious differences within that country or on plans for pacification after the hoped-for military victory. In recent interviews, Bush has acknowledged that he misjudged the political and social climate of Iraq and therefore was unprepared for the resistance that has cost so many American lives.

Some administration officials complained that one problem with Bush's reliance on his gut instincts is that often officials who have to sell or implement a policy are unsure how he arrived at it. The president told Woodward in "Bush at War": "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel I owe anybody an explanation."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, compared Bush's leadership style to that of Ronald Reagan, saying they share "a tendency to focus on really big decisions." Gingrich said he sees something very stubborn about Bush, "stubborn in the sense that having thought it through, having prayed on it, having thought about what he believes history requires of him, he is ready to take any risk."

A variety of academic researchers have conducted in-depth studies of Bush's decision-making style, and several of them have found that greater curiosity about the nitty-gritty details of policy substance, and less hasty decision-making, could have saved him considerable grief.

Greenstein, for one, said: "People no longer think he's dumb or not capable, but he clearly does not consider downsides and alternatives. Decisiveness is a good thing, unless you're leaping to the gun."

Alexander L. George, a Stanford University professor emeritus of political science and author of a text about presidential decisions, said Bush "does not look for complexity."

"He doesn't appear to have second thoughts about anything, which is worrisome when things aren't going so well," George said.

Several of Bush's friends said that, consistent with a risk taker given to occasionally apocalyptic rhetoric, he would rather lose his race than change his modus operandi. Taking questions from pupils at Crawford Elementary School back in 2001, he said that "decisions come pretty easy" for those who know what they believe.

"I know who I am. I know what I believe in," Bush said. "The good thing about democracy, if people like the decisions you make, they'll let you stay. If they don't, they'll send me back to Crawford. Isn't all that bad a deal, by the way."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company