There were two levee breaks last week: The natural disaster of Katrina ravaged New Orleans and left behind thousands of victims, but there was also a political catastrophe that breached the Bush administration's containment walls and exposed fundamental weaknesses in how this White House makes decisions.
The political damage may be harder to repair than the flooded infrastructure. The management flaws that have been so obvious over the past week go to the heart of how President Bush runs the government.
Early in his first term, it was popular to speak of how this Harvard Business School graduate was operating an "MBA Presidency." He insisted that everyone be on time to meetings; he wanted his aides to be properly dressed; he favored delegation of power, crisp meetings, early bedtimes. But these chief executive officer habits disguised a deeper reality: that Bush's management style was often haphazard and reactive. Like Isaiah Berlin's famous hedgehog, he came to focus on one big thing -- the war against terrorism -- and let many lesser things slide. Loyalty counted for more for this CEO than performance -- an attitude that is deadly in managing any enterprise.
The most pointed criticism of Bush's management I've read over the past week comes from the conservative columnist William Kristol. "Almost every Republican I have spoken with is disappointed" by the administration's response to Katrina, Kristol told The Post's Jim VandeHei. "He is a strong president . . . but he has never really focused on the importance of good execution. I think that is true in many parts of his presidency."
The part of this administration I know best is foreign policy. While I respect some of Bush's decisions, I see an underlying weakness in decision making that is very similar to the post-Katrina fiasco. This White House doesn't move effectively to fix broken bureaucracies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Homeland Security; it doesn't use interagency meetings to force clear decisions and then implement them, as has been clear in continuing policy confusion on Iraq, North Korea and Iran; and it doesn't mobilize the government well to deal with crisis warnings, as the Sept. 11 commission reported.
What accounts for this management failure? Experts cite a number of factors. First, this White House lacks a strong, substantive chief of staff who could act as a kind of deputy president, riding herd on the Cabinet agencies. Bush's chief, Andrew Card, is good at organizing the president's schedule, but he hasn't played the broader, make-the-trains-run role of many of his predecessors. Another problem is Bush's own style: As a key adviser once told me, this president isn't interested in hitting singles and doubles; he wants home runs. This approach almost guarantees that the administration won't do well at crisis prevention -- which succeeds best when nothing dramatic happens at all, thanks to good planning.
Even on the issues Bush has identified as his priorities, there has been a surprising reactive quality. Take the war on terrorism: The two bureaucracies that are crucial for protecting Americans -- the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community -- have been in obvious disarray over the past two years. Yet Bush has not seized the initiative in either case and has let others set the agenda for reorganization. The disorientation today at those two mission-critical bureaucracies is genuinely dangerous for the country.
Iraq, too, has been a policy disconnect. The president insists (admirably, in my view) that America must stay the course, but as the situation there has deteriorated, he has failed to explain clearly what that course is. That's not a new problem: From the beginning, the administration has had difficulty framing a single Iraq strategy and mobilizing all the resources necessary for it to succeed. There hasn't been one Iraq policy but several competing versions.
Managing the government isn't as glamorous as politics, and on the political side it must be said that Bush has been very skillful. His top political adviser, Karl Rove, is one of the most gifted, if also ruthless, people ever to play that role. And this White House is good at reaction and damage control -- at mobilizing the apparatus of government after initial mistakes, as we're finally seeing on the Gulf Coast.
What this White House needs most is the tonic of honest accountability, as illustrated by an anecdote from presidential scholar Fred Greenstein. He recalls a moment in the 1950s when an aide walked out of the Oval Office, congratulating himself for telling President Dwight D. Eisenhower "what he wanted to hear." Ike's national security adviser, Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, overheard the aide and angrily sent him back to tell the president the truth, no matter how unpleasant.