Leading Questions 

Has W. grown into the job?

Has W. grown into the job?

Republicans were quick to cite President George W. Bush’s popularity and campaign energy for their Nov. 5 midterm election gains. Many dispirited Democrats agreed, pointing to the president’s high approval ratings and aggressive campaign performance to explain their congressional losses. But just what kind of credit does Bush deserve? Is it merely the tactical sophistication of a staff and cabinet filled with accomplished political operatives? Or could it be the case, after two years of terrorism, threats of war and economic turbulence in the context of divided government, that Bush has actually grown into the leadership demands of his job?

Bush’s detractors have cast him from the start as a policy lightweight whose approach to economic and social issues is borrowed intact from the playbook of the Republican party’s conservative wing. On international affairs, Bush seemed at best vaguely aware of the world’s geopolitical contours. One presumed that the tutors he selected for key national security and defense posts would manage a Bush foreign policy. As it happened, of course, world affairs quickly overran his agenda, and Bush had no choice but to remake himself into a globally adroit president.

Now, halfway into his term, Bush is increasingly tagged with the L word (leader, not liberal)—and those saying it are not all Republicans. The decidedly non-Republican columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recently described the president as “a natural leader who is unafraid to use political capital.” Slate’s chief political writer William Saletan chalked up Nov. 5 to the fact that “Republicans had a clear leader and a clear message; Democrats didn’t.” Al Gore told The Washington Post that “President Bush did a magnificent job in the immediate aftermath of the [Sept. 11] attack.... I think he really came into his own as a president.”

Popularity doesn’t define leadership, but it is a piece of the puzzle, and W. has it right now in spades. The latest Gallup poll numbers show 68 percent of Americans approving of the job Bush is doing as president. Although down from the stratospheric high of 90 percent after Sept. 11, 2001, that beefy 68 percent figure is up 5 points since the election and roughly about where it’s been for the last few months. By way of comparison, George Bush the elder’s approval rating following midterm elections in 1990 was 58 percent; for both Bill Clinton (1992) and Ronald Reagan (1982), the number was 43 percent.

This doesn’t mean that two-thirds of Americans think Bush is a great leader; approval polls merely ask whether respondents like the job he’s doing. But Democrats inclined to dismiss the numbers as a soft and shallow endorsement of a marginally competent wartime president are deceiving themselves. Predictably, almost 60 percent approve of Bush’s handling of foreign policy, but the surprise is that almost as many—55 percent (and rising)—are comfortable with his handling of a stubbornly sluggish economy. Sixty-four percent think that Bush “understands complex issues,” and 66 percent say that Bush shares their values. These formidable numbers are the backdrop against which Democrats must regroup and compete over the next two years.

But do the numbers reveal the Bush presidency as merely a nimble exercise in Zeitgeist, or are there genuine leadership qualities in evidence? Former labor secretary Robert Reich said last week that “if you want to be a true leader, you define the Center. You don’t rely on pollsters to tell you where the Center is, because you can’t lead people to where they already are.” He was writing from the left about the Democrats’ post-election dilemma, but he was also (inadvertently) explaining Bush’s route to popularity. Putting aside the merits of policy on any given issue, Bush has been impressively consistent in pushing his ideology in the face of often withering criticism. Tactically, he routinely insists that his positions are widely shared, even when they’re not. The result is the sort of redefinition of the “Center” that Robert Reich seeks from his fellow Democrats.

Critics may assume that Bush merely fronts his backers and advisers, but it’s apparent that he’s made some tough calls to reconcile competing positions in his administration. On Iraq, most notably, Bush surrounded himself with the hawks Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who saw U.N. consultation as a dispensable luxury. But as Bob Woodward’s new book Bush at War documents, Bush had to weigh the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld against Secretary of State Colin Powell’s fervent pitch for multilateralism, which the president eventually embraced. Within the U.N. process, the administration’s diplomacy was patient and flexible, ultimately accepting a two-step approach to weapons inspections preferred by skeptical members of the Security Council.

The late 2002 edition of George W. Bush is evidently more focused and polished than the early 2001 inauguration model. But authentic leadership transcends persistence and strategic gloss; it transforms the body politic through substantive social progress. Bush falls short here: We have a president who is eager to wage war, but unimpressed with civil liberties, indifferent to corporate corruption, unconcerned with millions who lack basic health insurance, unmoved by environmental degradation and unwilling to view education through anything more sophisticated than a lens of standardized testing. Honest liberals will grant that Bush has overachieved, yes, but such is the inevitable dividend of low expectations.


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