“Blink and you may miss it,” Chatterbox wrote on Jan. 6 about George W. Bush’s genius moment. Three weeks later, though, the opinion-maker consensus remains that George W. Bush bestrides the Beltway like a colossus. (Opinion-maker consensus is not to be confused with public opinion, which has Bush’s approval ratings dropping.) Bill Keller pronounced in the Jan. 26 New York Times Magazine that Bush is “far from being the lightweight opportunist of liberal caricature” and “stands a good chance of advancing a radical agenda that Reagan himself could only carry so far.” And yesterday Chatterbox retrieved from his mailbox Donald Kettl’s Team Bush: Leadership Lessons From the Bush White House, due to be published in March. Kettl is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin whom Chatterbox has observed to be a fairly serious person. But his book is not appreciably less silly than The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush: 10 Commonsense Lessons From the Commander-in-Chief, a self-help book published last month by business consultants James Ware and Carolyn Thompson. Like Leadership Genius, Team Bush redefines the president’s vices as virtues and urges private enterprise to emulate them. Did Bush sit in the back row (“the Sky Deck”) at Harvard Business School? That just shows he wanted to focus on the “big picture.” (Tell us, Professor Kettl, do your best students sit in the back row?) Has Bush gotten little done? That shows he’s “focused laser-like on a small agenda.” Did Bush duck the California energy crisis? That shows how “deft” he is at avoiding battles he can’t win. Does Bush avoid press conferences, holding 36 in his first 21 months, compared with 73 for Clinton and 61 for Bush père? That shows his magnificent discipline over controlling the message.
Dubya’s image as political maestro is an unintentional conspiracy between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives peddle it because it’s degrading to acknowledge that your party leader may be in over his head. Liberals peddle it because, as they learned all too painfully during the Reagan years, a president whose mastery of issues and events is in question can’t easily be held accountable when things go awry. But the argument that Bush is a strong “instinctual” leader who is “comfortable in his own skin” is self-evidently condescending, and the image of Bush as a quietly diabolical schemer is absurd.
For a more dispassionate assessment of Bush’s managerial competence, Chatterbox recommends Results.gov, an online scorecard of how well federal agencies are implementing Bush’s management agenda. The site is run by the Bushies themselves. As of Sept. 30, it showed the current status of “human capital,” “competitive sourcing,” “financial management,” “e-government,” and “budget/performance” to be mostly “unsatisfactory.” The silver lining on this cloud might be stated as Chatterbox’s First Rule for Presidential Management: “A leader must understand that adulatory assessments from the press and academics are likely to be utter nonsense.”