NASHVILLE, TENN. — George Bush's style as President is puzzling. He is cautious, seeks consensus, reveals few strong beliefs and puts his faith in the customary policy-making procedures to produce good results. This style can unify. It can also divide--especially if the President is unclear about his goals or turns over leadership responsibility to the policy-making apparatus in the hope that it will produce a decision that all can accept. But the President is also capable of bold, decisive action that may surprise his advisers and confound his opponents.
How can we reconcile these seemingly opposite strands of leadership style? Or--more aptly--how does President Bush do it?
Both styles are rooted in Bush's need for approval--the central theme of his political career. Bush wants to be a consensus leader, whether he is presiding over negotiations or leading a charge. In seeking consensus, the President fulfills his campaign wish "to be on everybody's side."
But such caution--which approaches timidity at times--leads to charges that he is a "wimp." And in response, the President is combative. Thus he "kicked ass" during the vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, shouted down Dan Rather on the evening news early in the 1988 presidential primary campaign, got even with Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega in his first year in office and now vows to bring down Iraq's Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait. While taking these bold actions, he seeks approval. Indeed, they are calculated to rally support for his leadership.
The common element running through the Bush strategies of caution and of boldness is the avoidance of difficult choices. In one case, he relies on process; in the other, he rallies the troops. Neither strategy is a fully developed form of political leadership, in which difficult choices are made and coalitions constructed.
Bush, then, can be--and is--very good at crisis management when he can rally support against an enemy like Iraq's Hussein. The President was not so good, however, at fashioning a coalition of his lieutenants and congressional leaders on a deficit-reduction plan when the chief requirement for success was that he lead by making clear what he wanted. At that point, Bush backed off from leadership, because difficult choices were required.
Caution and boldness can be appropriate styles of leadership, depending on the circumstances. The problem with Bush's style is that caution may turn to muddle, boldness to rashness.
Perhaps this is because he is not completely sure of himself. He falters or--to avoid uncertainty--overreacts. It is not difficult to find this oscillating pattern in Bush's job history.
In all the executive posts he has held--U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee chairman, ambassador to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president--Bush largely stayed above disputes. He was more the "social leader" than the "task leader." When at the CIA, for example, Bush created a B team of outside advisers in response to conservative criticisms that the CIA was minimizing Soviet threats. As for himself, he never took a stand. Instead, Bush was content to manage appearances.
As President, Bush has been equally sensitive to political pressure. He is a cautious poll watcher when it comes to domestic policy, trying to avoid giving offense. For example, when Congress was torturing itself about whether to rescind new charges that Medicare recipients were to receive as part of a long-term care policy, Bush simply withdrew from the fray, saying it was up to Congress to decide.
But when he joins the fray, the results can produce political turmoil. Earlier this month, he seemingly could not make up his mind on the issue of taxing the wealthy in exchange for a capital-gains-tax break. Back and forth he went, with Congress increasingly mystified at every twist and turn. Washington was filled with charges that Bush was "Carterizing" himself by failing to lead.
It is difficult for Congress to act coherently and boldly on money matters unless the President is also engaged. If he withdraws, all parties run for cover. Bush has been something less than an enthusiastic leader of the deficit-reduction effort, in part because he has been unwilling to alienate anyone. The President's boldness in the '88 campaign that he would not raise taxes, challenging people to "read my lips," helps to explain his timidity now. He has been forced by economic facts to backtrack on his pledge but does not wish to advertise it. The President would take cover behind a consensus--if one would only emerge.