Greenstein: Bush a 'less sure-footed' leader, despite post-Sept. 11 growth

From one of the closest elections in history to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now the war in Iraq, the presidency of George W. Bush has been defined by extraordinary, tumultuous challenges.

Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, who has examined the leadership qualities of generations of U.S. chief executives, spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about how the 43rd president has handled the many trials of his young administration. An emeritus professor of politics, Greenstein has written or edited eight books on the presidency, including his most recent book, "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton." An excerpt from the interview follows:

You have written and delivered lectures on the improvement in President Bush's leadership after Sept. 11, 2001. How would you assess his performance over the past several months as the focus on Iraq has intensified?

First, let me say that I will be speaking about George W. Bush in my professional capacity as a detached analyst of presidential effectiveness, not in my private capacity as a citizen with political convictions who has voted in every presidential election since 1952.

In my mind, the Bush presidency has gone through a number of periods. One is its rather bland first eight months, a period in which Bush seemed strikingly out of his depth in the Oval Office. Another is the first six or so months immediately after 9/11, when I perceived a dramatic increase in competence on his part. I was reminded of Harry Truman, who grew dramatically in office after a gaffe-prone first year and a half.

Then there is the period you ask about. Here he strikes me as more up to speed than he was in the lackluster early months of his presidency, but considerably less sure-footed than he was just after 9/11. Neither he nor his associates made a persuasive case for the necessity of immediate military action against Iraq; more supple diplomacy might well have enabled his administration to get a majority vote in the Security Council. And his demeanor and that of a number of his associates was often abrupt and dismissive. It may have played well with many Americans, but played badly in the rest of the world -- even with such staunch allies as Tony Blair.

Bush has committed to ending the regime of Saddam Hussein despite limited support from the international community. Is this a sign of strong leadership or flawed leadership?

The answer hinges on one's assessment of the merits of Bush's goal. Consider the case of an earlier president, the Princetonian Woodrow Wilson. Even now there is no agreement on the part of historians about the merits of Wilson's staunch -- or was it pig-headed? -- refusal to bend when key senators insisted on modifying the Versailles Treaty. It's strong leadership if you agree with his goals and flawed leadership if you don't.

The full interview is available in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Evelyn Tu (609) 258-3601