Bush Is Becoming An Increasingly Dangerous President
By JOHN W. DEAN
April 21, 2006
President George W. Bush's presidency is a disaster - one that's still unfolding. In a mid-2004 column, I argued that, at that point, Bush had already demonstrated that he possessed the least attractive and most troubling traits among those that political scientist James Dave Barber has cataloged in his study of Presidents' personality types.
Now, in early 2006, Bush has continued to sink lower in his public approval ratings, as the result of a series of events that have sapped the public of confidence in its President, and for which he is directly responsible. This Administration goes through scandals like a compulsive eater does candy bars; the wrapper is barely off one before we've moved on to another.
Currently, President Bush is busy reshuffling his staff to reinvigorate his presidency. But if Dr. Barber's work holds true for this president -- as it has for others - the hiring and firing of subordinates will not touch the core problems that have plagued Bush's tenure.
That is because the problems belong to the President - not his staff. And they are problems that go to character, not to strategy.
Barber's Analysis of Presidential Character
As I discussed in my prior column, Barber, after analyzing all the presidents through Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, found repeating patterns of common elements relating to character, worldview, style, approach to dealing with power, and expectations. Based on these findings, Barber concluded that presidents fell into clusters of characteristics.
He also found in this data Presidential work patterns which he described as "active" or "passive." For example, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were highly active; Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan were highly passive.
Barber further analyzed the emotional relationship of presidents toward their work - dividing them into presidents who found their work an emotionally satisfying experience, and thus "positive," and those who found the job emotionally taxing, and thus "negative." Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, for example, were presidents who enjoyed their work; Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon had "negative" feeling toward it.
From these measurements, Barber developed four repeating categories into which he was able to place all presidents: those like FDR who actively pursued their work and had positive feelings about their efforts (active/positives); those like Nixon who actively pursued the job but had negative feelings about it (active/negatives); those like Reagan who were passive about the job but enjoyed it (passive/positives); and, finally, those who followed the pattern of Thomas Jefferson -- who both was passive and did not enjoy the work (passive/negatives).
Interestingly, the category of presidents who proved troublesome under Barber's analysis is that of those who turned out to be active/negatives. Barber placed Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in this class.
In my prior column, I found that the evidence is overwhelming that George W. Bush is another active/negative president, and the past two years, since making that initial finding, have only further confirmed my conclusion.
Because active/negative presidencies do not end well, it is instructive to look at where Bush's may be heading.
Bush's "Active/Negative" Presidency
Recent events provide an especially good illustration of Bush's fateful - perhaps fatal - approach. Six generals who have served under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have called for his resignation - making a strong substantive case as to why he should resign. And they are not alone: Editorialists have also persuasively attacked Rumsfeld on the merits.
Yet Bush's defense of Rumsfeld was entirely substance-free. Bush simply told reporters in the Rose Garden that Rumsfeld would stay because "I'm the decider and I decide what's best." He sounded much like a parent telling children how things would be: "I'm the Daddy, that's why."
This, indeed, is how Bush sees the presidency, and it is a point of view that will cause him trouble.
Bush has never understood what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt discovered many years ago: In a democracy, the only real power the presidency commands is the power to persuade. Presidents have their bully pulpit, and the full attention of the news media, 24/7. In addition, they are given the benefit of the doubt when they go to the American people to ask for their support. But as effective as this power can be, it can be equally devastating when it languishes unused - or when a president pretends not to need to use it, as Bush has done.
Apparently, Bush does not realize that to lead he must continually renew his approval with the public. He is not, as he thinks, the decider. The public is the decider.
Bush is following the classic mistaken pattern of active/negative presidents: As Barber explained, they issue order after order, without public support, until they eventually dissipate the real powers they have -- until "nothing [is] left but the shell of the office." Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all followed this pattern.
Active/negative presidents are risk-takers. (Consider the colossal risk Bush took with the Iraq invasion). And once they have taken a position, they lock on to failed courses of action and insist on rigidly holding steady, even when new facts indicate that flexibility is required.
The source of their rigidity is that they've become emotionally attached to their own positions; to change them, in their minds, would be to change their personal identity, their very essence. That, they are not willing to do at any cost.
Wilson rode his unpopular League of Nations proposal to his ruin; Hoover refused to let the federal government intervene to prevent or lessen a fiscal depression; Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam while misleading Americans (thereby making himself unelectable); and Nixon went down with his bogus defense of Watergate.
George Bush has misled America into a preemptive war in Iraq; he is using terrorism to claim that as Commander-in-Chief, he is above the law; and he refuses to acknowledge that American law prohibits torturing our enemies and warrantlessly wiretapping Americans.
Americans, increasingly, are not buying his justifications for any of these positions. Yet Bush has made no effort to persuade them that his actions are sound, prudent or productive; rather, he takes offense when anyone questions his unilateral powers. He responds as if personally insulted.
And this may be his only option: With Bush's limited rhetorical skills, it would be all but impossible for him to persuade any others than his most loyal supporters of his positions. His single salient virtue - as a campaigner - was the ability to stay on-message. He effectively (though inaccurately) portrayed both Al Gore and John Kerry as wafflers, whereas he found consistency in (over)simplifying the issues. But now, he cannot absorb the fact that his message is not one Americans want to hear - that he is being questioned, severely, and that staying on-message will be his downfall.
Other Presidents - other leaders, generally - have been able to listen to critics relatively impassively, believing that there is nothing personal about a debate about how best to achieve shared goals. Some have even turned detractors into supporters - something it's virtually impossible to imagine Bush doing. But not active/negative presidents. And not likely Bush.
The Danger of the "Active/Negative" President Facing A Congressional Rout
Active/negative presidents -- Barber tells us, and history shows -- are driven, persistent, and emphatic. Barber says their pervasive feeling is "I must."
Barber's collective portrait of Wilson, Hoover, Johnson and Nixon now fits George W. Bush too: "He sees himself as having begun with a high purpose, but as being continually forced to compromise in order to achieve the end state he vaguely envisions," Barber writes. He continues, "Battered from all sides . . . he begins to feel his integrity slipping away from him . . . [and] after enduring all this for longer than any mortal should, he rebels and stands his ground. Masking his decision in whatever rhetoric is necessary, he rides the tiger to the end."
Bush's policies have incorporated risk from the outset. A few examples make that clear.
He took the risk that he could capture Osama bin Laden with a small group of CIA operatives and U.S. Army Special forces - and he failed. He took the risk that he could invade Iraq and control the country with fewer troops and less planning than the generals and State Department told him would be possible - and he failed. He took the risk that he could ignore the criminal laws prohibiting torture and the warrantless wiretapping of Americans without being caught - he failed. And he's taken the risk that he can cut the taxes for the rich and run up huge financial deficits without hurting the economy. This, too, will fail, though the consequences will likely fall on future presidents and generations who must repay Bush's debts.
What We Can Expect From Bush in the Future, Based on Barber's Model
As the 2006 midterm elections approach, this active/negative president can be expected to take further risks. If anyone doubts that Bush, Cheney, Rove and their confidants are planning an "October Surprise" to prevent the Republicans from losing control of Congress, then he or she has not been observing this presidency very closely.
What will that surprise be? It's the most closely held secret of the Administration.
How risky will it be? Bush is a whatever-it-takes risk-taker, the consequences be damned.
One possibility is that Dick Cheney will resign as Vice President for "health reasons," and become a senior counselor to the president. And Bush will name a new vice president - a choice geared to increase his popularity, as well as someone electable in 2008. It would give his sinking administration a new face, and new life.
The immensely popular Rudy Giuliani seems the most likely pick, if Giuliani is willing. (A better option for Giuliani might be to hold off, and tacitly position himself as the Republican anti-Bush in 2008.) But Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, Bill Frist, and more are possibilities.
Bush's second and more likely, surprise could be in the area of national security: If he could achieve a Great Powers coalition (of Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and so on) presenting a united-front "no nukes" stance to Iran, it would be his first diplomatic coup and a political triumph.
But more likely, Bush may mount a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities - hoping to rev up his popularity. (It's a risky strategy: A unilateral hit on Iran may both trigger devastating Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks in Iraq, with high death tolls, and increase international dislike of Bush for his bypass of the U.N. But as an active/negative President, Bush hardly shies away from risk.) Another rabbit-out-of-the-hat possibility: the capture of Osama bin Laden.
If there is no "October Surprise," I would be shocked. And if it is not a high-risk undertaking, it would be a first. Without such a gambit, and the public always falls for them, Bush is going to lose control of Congress. Should that happen, his presidency will have effectively ended, and he will spend the last two years of it defending all the mistakes he has made during the first six, and covering up the errors of his ways.
There is, however, the possibility of another terrorist attack, and if one occurred, Americans would again rally around the president - wrongly so, since this is a presidency that lives on fear-mongering about terror, but does little to truly address it. The possibility that we might both suffer an attack, and see a boost to Bush come from it, is truly a terrifying thought.
John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.