Bush has always been easy to underestimate. He was a C student at Yale better known for partying than studying. His first political race, a run for Congress, ended in defeat. His penchant for malapropisms became well known, with Web sites devoted to cataloguing his misuse of words. Crispin Miller’s The Bush Dyslexicon is a treasure trove of Bush favorites, and NBC’s Saturday Night Live celebrated his “strategery.” Bush himself made fun of his own fractured syntax in the 2002 HBO documentary Journeys with George.
Bush has made playing the expectations game into an art form. He started with expectations very low indeed. One Republican pollster, Whit Ayres, was pleased with that. “It makes it all the easier for President Bush to succeed,” he said in January 2001. Democrats realized the trap. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle worried, “I think we underestimate this man at our own peril.”
The cycle of underestimating Bush only to have him exceed expectations ought to be a clich by now, but he continues to surprise his critics and amaze his friends. Bush understands that one of his greatest strengths is that his public, easygoing, frat-boy style encourages people to underestimate his leadership. Most people don’t see him as a focused behind-the-scenes, hard-driving, decision-oriented executive. Leadership always revolves around expectations. Success depends on beating them.
In fact, Bush’s core strategy has been to encourage low expectations and then exceed them. Especially in his first weeks in office, he constantly reminded everyone that expectations were low, and he repeated his determination that his administration succeed. During a discussion about his tax cut program at a March 2001 press conference, he said: “Those who think that they can say we’re only going to have a stimulus package, but let’s forget tax relief, misunderestimate—excuse me, underestimate … [laughter] … just making sure you were paying attention. [Laughter.] You were. [Laughter.] Underestimate our administration’s resolve to get this done. Bush repeated the phrase “low expectations” scores of times in his first two years in office, and especially during the first weeks. It was a call to action for his allies and a challenge to his opponents.
This central element of Bush’s style continued to work over and over again. It was all the more remarkable because, like a batter facing a pitcher with the bases loaded, everyone knew that a fastball was coming. The strategy is battle-tested and keeps working.