The Contemporary Presidency: The Changing Leadership of George W. Bush: A Pre- and Post-9/11 Comparison. (Features)

By Greenstein, Fred I. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Changing Leadership of George W. Bush: A Pre- and Post-9/11 Comparison. (Features)


Greenstein, Fred I., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The American presidency is said to be an office in which some incumbents grow and others swell. If ever a president has fallen in the first of these categories, it is George W. Bush. Before the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001, even a number of Bush's strong supporters were not persuaded that he was fully up to his responsibilities. Since then, even many of his critics grant that he has become strikingly more presidential. A Gallup poll completed a day before the bombing of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon found that only 51 percent of the public expressed approval of his presidential performance. Three days after the attacks, Gallup fielded the first of an extended run of polls in which Bush registered approval levels in excess of 85 percent.

Bush has not only played well with the public. It is widely viewed in the political community that there has been an impressive increase in his political competence, a perception that extends beyond the United States. Five weeks after the terror attacks, a front-page column in the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine likened George W. Bush to Harry S Truman. Noting that the unassuming Truman had risen to the challenge of the cold war presidency, the writer declared that Bush had grown "before our eyes," becoming "more profound and more sure-footed." (1)

In what follows, I present my own comparison of the pre- and post-9/11 political leadership style of George W. Bush, bringing up to date an assessment of Bush's strengths and weaknesses that I completed in the spring of 2001 for the paperback edition of The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton. My remarks fall under the six headings I employ in that work to identify presidential leadership qualities: emotional intelligence, cognitive style, political skill, policy vision, organizational capacity, and effectiveness as a public communicator. (2)

I introduce my comparison with a review of Bush's background, political emergence, and prepresidential political performance.

Formative Years

George W. Bush was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, where his war hero father was a Yale undergraduate. In contrast to George H. W. Bush, whose claim to be a Texan was belied by his Eastern accent and diffident manner, George W. Bush is very much a product of the Lone Star State. Whereas the senior Bush attended a private day school in the wealthy New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, the younger Bush went to public school in the West Texas town of Midland, where oil was the dominant economic force and the ambience was that of tract houses, little league baseball, and easy informality. Acknowledging the difference between his Connecticut-bred father and himself, Bush has commented that while his father was mild-mannered and avoided confrontation, he has the brashness and directness of a typical Texan. (3)

In 1953, the Bush family was devastated by the death of George's three-year-old sister from leukemia. The seven-year-old George, who had no idea that his sister was gravely ill, was stunned when he was taken out of school and told that Robin had died. His mother sank into a depression. His father was at a career stage in which he was frequently away from home on business, and he sought to be his mother's consoler. He did so by playing the clown, developing the bantering manner that is one of his adult hallmarks. (4)

Bush attended the Midland public schools for all but one of his elementary school years. He then followed in his father's footsteps and attended two intellectually ratified schools in the Northeast: Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Yale University. He had unhappy experiences at both. At Andover, he wrote a composition about the wrenching experience of learning of his sister's death but used an inappropriate word to refer to the tears he shed. He was deeply hurt when the instructor ignored the content of the paper and berated him for the way it was written. …

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