Greenstein: Bush a 'less sure-footed' leader in Iraq war, despite his post-Sept. 11 growth

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- From one of the closest elections in history to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now the war in Iraq, the presidency of George W. Bush has been defined by extraordinary, tumultuous challenges.

Fred Greenstein
Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, who has examined the leadership qualities of generations of U.S. chief executives, spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about how the 43rd president has handled the many trials of his young administration. An emeritus professor of politics, Greenstein has written or edited eight books on the presidency, including his most recent book, "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton."

You have written and delivered lectures on the improvement in President Bush's leadership after Sept. 11, 2001. How would you assess his performance over the past several months as the focus on Iraq has intensified?

First let me say that I will be speaking about George W. Bush in my professional capacity as a detached analyst of presidential effectiveness, not in my private capacity as a citizen with political convictions who has voted in every presidential election since 1952.

In my mind, the Bush presidency has gone through a number of periods. One is its rather bland first eight months, a period in which Bush seemed strikingly out of his depth in the Oval Office. Another is the first six or so months immediately after 9/11, when I perceived a dramatic increase in competence on his part. I was reminded of Harry Truman, who grew dramatically in office after a gaffe-prone first year and a half.

Then there is the period you ask about. Here he strikes me as more up to speed than he was in the lackluster early months of his presidency, but considerably less sure-footed than he was just after 9/11. Neither he nor his associates made a persuasive case for the necessity of immediate military action against Iraq; more supple diplomacy might well have enabled his administration to get a majority vote in the Security Council. And his demeanor and that of a number of his associates was often abrupt and dismissive. It may have played well with many Americans, but played badly in the rest of the world -- even with such staunch allies as Tony Blair.

Bush has committed to ending the regime of Saddam Hussein despite limited support from the international community. Is this a sign of strong leadership or flawed leadership?

The answer hinges on one's assessment of the merits of Bush's goal. Consider the case of an earlier president, the Princetonian Woodrow Wilson. Even now there is no agreement on the part of historians about the merits of Wilson's staunch -- or was it pig-headed? -- refusal to bend when key senators insisted on modifying the Versailles Treaty. It's strong leadership if you agree with his goals and flawed leadership if you don't.

You evaluate presidential leadership on six qualities: emotional intelligence, cognitive style, political skill, policy vision, organizational capacity and effectiveness as a public communicator. Which would you consider Bush's strongest and weakest qualities?

With the exception of some of his immediate post-9/11 utterances, Bush has seemed to me to be weakest in the all-important teaching and preaching role of the modern president, scarcely in the same universe as such great presidential communicators as FDR, Kennedy and Reagan.

In my view he is at his strongest in the realm of organization. He staffed his White House and much of his cabinet with seasoned professionals, and chose as his vice president one of the most shrewd Washington operators of our times. His national security team is not only strong, but constructively diverse, and he has a natural gift for rallying and energizing subordinates.

I would give him a C in the first of these capacities (com-munication) and an A in the second (organization).

Your most recent book examines presidential leadership from FDR to Clinton. Halfway through his term, do you have a sense for how President Bush might rank within that group in terms of leadership?

I don't believe in ranking presidents -- more often than not rankings tell us about the values of the ranker rather than the strengths and weaknesses of a president. In my view we need to learn from presidents, and their failures and weaknesses are often as instructive as their successes and strengths. It does make sense to compare presidents, however, especially if we consider specific facets of their leadership. Let me run through the qualities you listed earlier.

In the realm of emotional intelligence, Bush seems to me to be solid and stolid -- this despite the fecklessness of his younger years. I see neither a Watergate nor a Monica Lewinsky in the offing. He reminds me a bit of the solid, stolid Gerald Ford.


A capacity crowd gathered March 24 in Dodds Auditorium of Robertson Hall to hear a panel of faculty members discuss the war in Iraq. The event, which was simulcast to other rooms in the building, was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Participating were, from left, Paul Krugman, Deborah Yashar, James Trussell, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Michael Doran. While their opinions differed about the justification for the war, the panelists agreed that it is crucial to look ahead and focus on the consequences. The discussion will be available on the Web at

His cognitive endowments strike me as adequate. I think he was a C student at Yale out of intellectual laziness, not lack of gray matter. And since 9/11, he has shown striking intellectual growth. What has changed is his sense of mission and his immersion in the tasks before him. In the month after 9/11, he met with his National Security Council more than 20 times. Here I would compare him with the president he most resembles in his growth in office -- Harry Truman.

I have already commented on Bush's weaknesses as a political communicator. His stilted manner of reading prepared statements reminds me of Jimmy Carter. I also have commented on the organizational skills of this MBA president. Here I would compare him with Kennedy, who also chose strong subordinates and, after the initial fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, rallied them to good effect. Eisenhower stands at the top in this category and Clinton at the bottom.

I view Bush as very strong when it comes to natural political skill -- wheeling, dealing, ingratiating himself -- rather like his fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. And, like LBJ, his domestic skill doesn't always travel well in global politics.

I have saved policy vision for last because here it is natural to compare him with his own father, who was famously indifferent to what he deprecated as "the vision thing." George W. Bush has been outspoken in faulting his father for failing to enunciate clear goals in his presidency, and failing to use the momentum of the military victory in the Gulf War to rack up domestic accomplishments on which he could run for reelection. The vision thing is the mantra of the younger Bush. In Texas, he campaigned on a clear list of objectives and focused single-mindedly on achieving them once he was in office. He has done the same in the presidency and his present leadership is very much a product of his vision.

Yet therein lies a possible irony. "Bush 41" failed to win a second term in part because he lacked vision. If the war in Iraq or its aftermath go strikingly wrong, "Bush 43" might go to defeat precisely because he has had a particular vision. We'll have to stay tuned.


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