Team Bush demonstrated more discipline, focus, and efficiency in its first years than any presidential administration in recent memory. “If there is dissent within the administration, we never hear about it,” one Washington reporter said. When the president makes a public appearance, he has a story to tell and steadfastly refuses to be distracted by other issues, regardless of the questions or agendas of the reporters covering the event.
Bush reviews his options crisply. He decides quickly. Aides tell of being intensely nervous before briefing the president. They knew they had only a minute or two to focus the issue, present the alternatives, and frame the options. It is not, they say, that the president is anti-intellectual. But he is very demanding. As a former White House official explained, “He is very focused on what is and is not ‘presidential level.’ He takes details—demands details—if he sees it at that level.”
Bush is convinced that some predecessors—notably Carter and Clinton—allowed too many decisions about details to rise to the Oval Office. Carter aides proudly kept Carter’s permission slips for the White House tennis courts as souvenirs, and few details were too small for Clinton to oversee. Like effective CEOs, Bush determined to focus his energy on only the top-level decisions. If a microissue did land on his desk, he forced aides to put the smaller pieces into the bigger picture. As a senior official noted, “He sniffs ill-conceived stuff by staff with almost unfailing intuition.”
Other presidents—even his father—agonized far more when making decisions. Clinton and Gore both were famous for voraciously consuming briefing books the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. Bush demanded that his briefings be no longer than a couple of pages. He much prefers exploring details face-to-face.
The process has helped him focus on his agenda and stick religiously to his message. But the approach harbors big risks as well. It depends critically on his staffers’ skill in boiling complex issues down to their essence. If they miss important facts, they risk blinding Bush to things he ought to know. It depends as well on Bush’s instinct for sniffing out holes in the logic or gaps in the data. Aides report he is exceptionally good at it, but like any manager, he isn’t perfect.
The process, then, risks making the president especially vulnerable to what he and his staff don’t know—or don’t know to ask. Complex problems are seldom easy to reduce to briefing books, let alone short memos. A staff as disciplined as Bush’s can develop “groupthink” over time, and not know what they don’t know. No matter how intense Bush’s attention to a subject might be, his instincts for the jugular of some issues might not be as sharp as for others.
This Bush approach risks letting issues get away from the administration. As new, even more complex problems surface, all filled with vast uncertainties, the risks of not knowing what you don’t know becomes magnified. “Reaching out and embracing different perspectives—it’s not a strong enough part of the [administration’s] approach,” said one Washington insider who has worked with administration officials. “They do not reach out enough.” To be sure, broader discussion rob the surprise factor and can take a lot of time. But as the insider noted, “You need to listen, decide, explain. You can get to a different place” and gain broader support by engaging in more debate and opening discussion to broader perspectives.
Missteps can escalate quickly, and unexpected problems can bubble up from unanticipated directions. Discipline and efficiency can sometimes wreak dangerous outcomes. With the unending avalanche of data and issues, it’s a problem that all White Houses must inculcate themselves against.
For the Bush style, the risks are especially great. The problem came to the fore with the 2001 defection of Senator Jim Jeffords from the GOP. By focusing so much on getting his tax cut approved and building broader bipartisan support, Bush’s team missed the risk that Jeffords’s defection would pose. In another case, North Korea’s nuclear saber rattling at the end of 2002 sought to take advantage of the administration while it was pinned down planning an attack on Iraq. A style of leadership determined to reduce everything to its black-and-white essence can pose serious risks in an increasingly gray world.