Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Crisis Leadership of the Bush Presidency: Advisory Capacity and Presidential Performance in the Acute Stages of the 9/11 and Katrina Crises

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Crisis Leadership of the Bush Presidency: Advisory Capacity and Presidential Performance in the Acute Stages of the 9/11 and Katrina Crises

Article excerpt

"There is no longer such a thing as strategy; only crisis management," U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sighed after the experience of the Cuban missile crisis. That surely was an exaggeration, but it does drive home the idea that the ability to respond quickly, sensibly, and responsibly to a wide range of major acute emergencies is now a "must have" for government leaders. Responding to emergencies involves the need to make far-reaching decisions quickly in a context of threat and uncertainty. It also involves coping with the collective stress that emergencies generate (Rosenthal, Charles, and 't Hart 1989). Yet crises are not necessarily just "bad news" for incumbent governments: behind the stress and hardship that major emergencies cause looms an often intricate mix of strategic threats, as well as opportunities, that well-prepared and agile leaders are able to discern and exploit. To be able to tackle crises immediately, effectively, and strategically, government leaders need to perform at least three tasks (Boin, t' Hart, and Sundelius 2005):

1. Sense making: Getting a clear and accurate picture of the events, their impact, and significance

2. Decision making/coordinating: Mobilizing, facilitating and, if need be, adjusting the government's preexisting emergency response and recovery system

3. Meaning making: Taming collective stress by authoritatively explaining the crisis, its implications, and the government's responses to the community.

The three tasks are clearly interrelated. Without adequate high-speed sense making, the thrust of the response operation may be tardy, misguided, or disorganized. Furthermore, when the response operation is going badly, leaders lose the credibility they need to be effective at meaning making.

During George W. Bush's two terms as president, the United States was hit suddenly by two national catastrophes: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the levee breaches in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They serve here as illustrative, yet "most different" cases, as the timing, perceived adequacy, and popular support for the Bush administration's crisis response varied greatly across these two episodes. In the immediate aftermath of the two catastrophes, the White House's 9/11 response was widely praised, whereas its Katrina response was severely criticized. Bush's personal approval ratings shot up in the aftermath of the 9/11 crisis, whereas after Katrina, they declined markedly, particularly among voter groups such as African Americans and Hispanics. Bush's first address to Congress after 9/11, coming at the end of moving, dignified, and effective local emergency response operations, secured him strong bipartisan support. There was little criticism from the media--left, right or center (see, e.g., Woodward 2008, 429). In contrast, during and after Katrina, Bush bore the brunt of an increasingly harsh public condemnation of the disaster response in New Orleans, characterized by a bipartisan congressional committee labeling the entire Katrina tragedy as "a failure of initiative" (referring to the pre-crisis preparedness and mitigation policies of federal, state, and local governments), but also singling out the (lack of) leadership and responsibility in the emergency response decisions and actions (Select Bipartisan Committee 2005; Sylves 2006).

The detailed narratives of the 9/11 Commission report (2004, 35-42, 325-38), subsequent memoirs, and journalistic accounts (see, e.g., Woodward 2002, 1-109) demonstrate that after President Bush's initial bewilderment upon learning the news (caught on camera in the Florida classroom), he grasped the enormity of what was happening (sense making), was proactive and involved with the government's response process (decision making/coordination), and was extraordinarily successful in rallying domestic and international support for his administration's "framing" of the crisis and the government's preferred response to it (meaning making). …

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