Bush has long concentrated sharply on decision-making as the focus of his style and behavior. He strongly believes that the most important thing he can do is to decide, and thereby chart the course for his team—and the nation—to follow. He’s tough and he sticks to his guns. “He’s made a science out of selling tough partisan proposals with cool rhetoric,” the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann argues.
Having little political capital never slowed him down. He seized on even weak positions as chances to create capital and, once it was created, to broaden his base and deepen his support. Not only does he not shy away from risks—he sees them as opportunities. He has kept to a short, sharp agenda, and insists on absolute discipline among his team members in pursuing it.
As decision maker, Bush has placed great confidence in his own compass. He believes he knows what is right, and he’s determined to follow that course. However, as new and unanticipated problems arise, he’s shown himself to be remarkably adaptable. He’s open to persuasion by his staff about how to pursue any given course of action—but he is a leader who insists on great loyalty when he decides what should be done.
In the debate over war with Iraq, for example, Bush asserted that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and committed his administration to removing Hussein. Some aides argued forcefully that the United States should not wait for other nations to fall in line. Others argued that a go-it-alone approach would not be accepted either by the American people or by important allies. Bush ultimately decided to work with the United Nations in an approach based upon coalition-building. But he did not retreat from his basic conviction that Hussein had weapons that had to go, and he moved the debate from whether to remove those weapons to how best to do so.
Some analysts have argued that Bush, like the nation, was fundamentally changed by September 11. The reality is that Bush, in the aftermath of September 11, was essentially the same as the president sworn in on January 20, 2001—and the man who served as Texas governor. New problems created a far more complex political chessboard on the geopolitical front. But the man and his style remained fundamentally the same, deeply grounded in an MBA approach to decision-making and leadership.
There’s one final, essential point about the Bush style worth noting: He had a long run of incredible luck. “So much of politics and public life is chance and serendipity,” Mann concludes. That is true in spades of George W. Bush. He won the presidency in the courts even though it was likely that thousands of Florida voters who intended to vote for Al Gore voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake. He pushed through his tax cut as a matter of principle, but budget deficits began rising soon afterward. He struggled to get the next stage of his agenda moving, but September 11 intervened with unprecedented challenges—and opportunities—for leadership. His party won the 2002 midterm congressional elections, but only by a few votes in a few congressional districts.
While luck has played a role in the Bush victories, it is obviously not luck alone that has determined his fate. Bush has demonstrated an uncommon knack for cobbling together winning positions from the narrowest of bases. He’s broadened his support by pulling together surprising coalitions. He’s shown a keen judgment for choosing the issues most likely to help him do just that, and for adapting the issues in the heat of battle. Thus, he has certainly helped make his own luck. But he has unquestionably benefited from circumstances that, in turn, provided him with enormous opportunities.