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 Bush for “leadership” was one of the most important challenges that John Kerry failed to overcome in the 2004 election.

But what is leadership, and did Bush really show any remarkable leadership in September, 2001, that should have led us to expect a steady hand and firm response to a catastrophe like what has befallen the Gulf Coast four years later?

I would submit that 9/11 was an easy situation in which to show “leadership.” (Radio Saigon transmitted a similar argument several days ago.) Even I was looking up to him and was downright moved by his speech before Congress a week later, despite the fact that I was in the majority of the public that, according to a poll earlier that summer, believed he was either illegitimate as president or had “won on a technicality.”

It is not hard to exude leadership when you are the Chief of State and the state and nation have just come under surprise attack.

Steven quotes from a NYT news analysis:

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.

But what was that mission? Defend freedom, defeat terror, the Taliban must surrender OBL, etc. Broadly acceptable and rather vague calls for future action, but little in the way of specifics or immediate action beyond the response already taking place at Ground Zero. (This is not a criticism of the speech; as I said, I was moved by it at the time, and it still looks pretty good to me on a re-reading four years later.)

If rallying the nation to a “mission” based on broadly acceptable goals is the definition of leadership in a crisis, what would have been the equivalent here? What is the grand mission that would have earned him “leadership” points with respect to Hurricane Katrina? Delivery of immediate aid—on which FEMA and other government agencies failed in critical hours and days—is a set of actions, not words with broad promises of future action.

And therein lies a critical aspect of what leadership is—and is not. I think we expect too little of our leaders if we define them as providing good leadership because they say the right things after a crisis. True enough, Bush said the right things after 9/11 and stumbled badly after Katrina. But leadership should be judged by great actions at least as much as by great words. And the great actions that would have been required in this crisis would have been immediate and visible, even anticipatory, given that we can forecast storms in a way that we cannot forecast terrorist attacks (or earthquakes or other disasters). If a “new mission” was to be part of the response, it would have required redoubling of efforts to prevent future similar catastrophes (as was indeed a theme of the 9/11 speech, if rather vaguely). And doing so inevitably would have involved calling for significant spending increases in areas that had been cut on this President’s watch.

I will leave to other threads and other blogs the debate about whether this President’s actions, as opposed to reassuring words, in response to 9/11 deserved the high grades for “leadership” that the public gave him. Clearly the public gave him those grades; I am suggesting that the public may employ a form of grade inflation in assessing leadership.

0 thoughts on “Leadership

  1. Indeed, I remember a young professor of mine saying, on several occasions, that one should not pay attention to what persons in power say, but rather what they do.

    I will say, in partial response to your post: part of the difficulty is assessing leadership (versus assessing policy success) is that leadership is often a measurement of perception as much as it is one of policy success, at least in terms of the immediate political implications of leadership.

    Also: it is likely that what seems like leadership in the moment, isn’t in the long run, and vice versa what seemed like poor leadership at the time ends up being true leadership.

    As I ramble on, I think what I am trying to say is that there is the leadership of the moment, which is often symbolic and rhetorical in nature, and then there is the assessment of leadership over the long haul, wherein we look both at the actions of a given person and the way in which those actions actually affected outcomes. (not that any of this contradicts your post–just observations on my part as I think about these things).

    sAnother note: you are right–911 was, in at least one way of looking at it, an “easy” one and the prescriptions were quite vague. Still, I will say that it was wholly possible that Bush could have fumbled all of that as well, and did not. What came next, of course, remains the topic of heated debate.

  2. Yes, I think that is well put. There is “leadership of the moment” and there is “leadership over the long haul.” And Bush did a good job with at least one (I would say only one, but that’s a separate debate) with respect to 9/11, and a bad job (I think, and so does the public) with respect to Katrina.

    Sure, he could have fumbled the “leadership of the moment” four years ago, but that would have been harder to do, given that it was initially mostly words that were called for.

    And I would argue that by November, 2004, voters should no longer have been looking to the moment, but to the long haul. Maybe they would have come to the same decision. But looking at one “moment” that was then more than three years past might not have been the right way to think of “leadership.”

    I would add an aside here that John Kerry played right into the Bush campaign’s hands here by choosing to make almost his entire case for being president on a “leadership of the moment” from long before he entered politics. But, looking at his record in politics, I have a hard time finding any “leadership of the long haul” that he could have emphasized instead.

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