Bush’s style comes from the MBA playbook: focus on the big issues, decide on the major strategy questions, and delegate the details. He’s practiced it more than any president ever has. The style, in turn, has framed the way the rest of the White House staff has worked. Bush created both the aura and the reality of command, built around a strong team.
With that style, however, comes the risk that the top leader can appear disconnected. The president built a team composed of strong people, both as aides and cabinet secretaries. Strong people don’t like to be told what to do. When a leader allows his strong-willed team members to set the agenda and handle the details, there’s a possibility that people will perceive that leader as being isolated from the real action. A top leader’s effort to decide and delegate can appear detached and toothless.
During the summer of 2002, in fact, the roiling debate over the administration’s Iraq policy spilled over onto the front pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Colin Powell’s concerns about building a diplomatic base and a broader coalition for military action found their way into print. Plans for military strategy—suggesting a quick, surgical campaign and prolonged, house-to-house urban warfare—played out in the media. The debate appeared endless, spilling from weeks into months. Observers wondered why the battle was so prolonged, whether Bush was overwhelmed by the details, whether he truly was master of his staff or whether the staff was in fact mastering him.
His forceful UN speech on September 12 put the speculation to rest. Bush clearly was in charge of policy. But for the first time in the two years of the Bush administration, the protracted debate raised serious speculation about who was in charge. At the least, the turmoil created a problem of appearance. At the most, it established the possibility that the appearance might, under the right circumstances, turn into reality: that the staff would become master of the house instead.