George W. Bush unquestionably has a clear style. Unlike Kennedy’s, it is not built on blazing intellect, and unlike Johnson’s, it is not built on unrelenting personal pressure. It shares some of the same amiable qualities of Reagan’s approach to government, but it also has surprising elements of the shrewd style that Eisenhower brought to the White House. Unpacking his presidency to discover that style takes some doing, because what we see on television often does not match the way Bush works in the Oval Office. It requires understanding his family, his political roots, and the subtle way they shape his approach to the job.
As much as anything, though, Bush is the prototype of the MBA executive who took over the biggest organization in the world. The question is whether the organization is a good fit for his MBA skills. Henry Mintzberg and Joseph Lampel, two management experts who have studied why CEOs fail, warn that they tend to do so in similar ways: “They ran their businesses according to a formula, regardless of the people involved or the dynamics of the industry in question.” In fact, they warn, there’s a connection with the MBA degree. “The MBA tends to be heavy on the ‘B’ and light on the ‘A,’ teaching business functions, yet not developing the practice of administering.” MBAs are strong on making decisions and framing policy. They sometimes tend to be weak on “the messy reality in which decisions are executed.”
Does Bush have what it takes not only to frame strategy but to produce results? If he is a true MBA manager, is he light on the “A”—the administration—side? That can be a drawback of MBA training, Mintzberg and Lampel warn, because the programs teach through the case method: “Students with little or no management experience are presented with 20 pages on a company they do not know and told to pronounce on its strategy the next day.”
What about a president, especially one without substantial experience in many domestic policy problems and little experience in most international ones, who works off one-page briefing memos, reaches sharp judgments, and frames them in terms like “Wanted: Dead or Alive”?
In part, the answers to these tough questions grow from his roots. He is the first son of an American president to be elected in 175 years. He also brings political experience from a successful Texas governorship. Together they combine to frame a distinctive style that has framed his presidency.