President Bush’s initial, halting response to the Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe, followed within days by strong expressions of concern and decisive action, spotlighted a governing style that sometimes finds its stride only after stumbling at the gate.
This seems especially true when Bush is confronted with a cataclysmic event and must improvise quickly -- as with the Dec. 26 tsunami or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The pattern we tend to see is an administration that quite often ends up doing the right thing, even though their initial judgments and first reactions are often wrong and short-sighted,” said Charles Cook, a Washington-based political analyst and publisher of the Cook Political Report.
Slow to speak out, Bush first offered $15 million in financial aid, then $35 million. But now, having upped the aid package to $350 million and dispatched both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to survey relief efforts, the president may capitalize on an opportunity to provide world leadership and improve his image among Muslims opposed to the Iraq war. Many of the tsunami victims are Muslim.
The president’s decision to send his brother to the region was “about as strong a signal of personal concern and intent to help as Bush could send without going himself,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas historian.
The first U.S. president with a graduate business degree, Bush sees himself as an unflinching leader who sticks to his guns. Yet on numerous occasions he has shown an ability to bend to the public will -- to the point of executing U-turns.
Administration officials have defended Bush’s response to the Asian crisis by saying his primary focus was to ensure, out of the spotlight, a swift and coordinated U.S. relief effort. Bush also is known to deeply dislike providing running commentary on an ongoing major event, “grandstanding,” as he might say.
Appearing Sunday on several talk shows, Powell contended that the administration had “responded appropriately.”
“We have diverted food aid,” Powell said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “We have put disaster teams on the ground. The president announced the creation of a core group that allowed us to pull the contributing nations of the region together to work with the United Nations. We pulled together an international coalition that is working well now.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Powell noted that other nations had also started slowly, then increased their giving and involvement as the extent of the disaster became apparent. Japan, he noted, had started out with a much lower amount than its current $500-million donation, “as did so many other nations.”
“I want the American people to understand that their government and our society have responded appropriately,” Powell said. “I will tell you who is not churlish or disappointed in our response, and that’s the nations who are receiving aid.”
The first White House reaction came the day of the disaster, in a statement issued by Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy aboard Air Force One as the president flew to Texas to begin an eight-day vacation. The five-sentence statement expressed Bush’s “sincere condolences for the terrible loss of life and suffering” and said that the U.S. “stands ready to offer all appropriate assistance” to the affected nations.
But even as the dimensions of the catastrophe began to become clear, the president was not heard from until Wednesday -- the morning after a news briefing at which Duffy was barraged with questions about Bush’s silence.
On Thursday, Bush named Powell and the Florida governor to lead a delegation to the region. A day later, he increased the U.S. contribution tenfold. And on Saturday, Bush ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff at American installations around the world in honor of the tsunami victims.
The president’s delayed efforts could tarnish Bush’s image despite the escalation, but perhaps only in the short term, analysts said.
“Bush’s default mechanism continues to be the laid-back quality that marked his Texas governorship, in which he had a short work day, a long midday break and delegated very extensively,” said Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton presidential scholar.
Yet Cook predicted that the flap would quickly blow over. “These things tend to be short-lived, inconsequential in the long run,” he said.
A case in point is the president’s conduct after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In the hours immediately after the assaults, Bush jetted around the country and delivered two brief statements before television cameras. Many observers believe that he did not project total confidence. Yet they also say he quickly recovered to guide the national healing process -- and take the nation to war in Afghanistan, which had harbored the mastermind of the attacks.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, as Congress moved to create a Department of Homeland Security, Bush basically opposed the move. But he reversed himself when such a governmental reorganization became all but inevitable.
Similarly, Bush opposed the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the intelligence failures prior to the terrorist attacks. But he reversed himself amid high-profile lobbying by relatives of those who died on Sept. 11.
The president also had fought legislative efforts to change the campaign finance system, but he acquiesced rather than veto the reform bill that finally emerged from Congress. His imposition of steel tariffs in 2002 collided with his tough language during the 2000 campaign inveighing against protectionism. Bush cast his decision as a response to unfair practices by U.S. trade partners.
Greenstein described the president and his advisors as “expert on damage control and pragmatic about adapting to circumstances -- and shameless about denying that he and they have had to make corrections.”
A less substantive but telling glimpse of how the Bush White House operates came on the night of June 5. The president was in France and had gone to bed when news reached Paris that -- as had been rumored for hours -- former President Ronald Reagan had died.
White House aides told reporters to expect only a written statement eulogizing Reagan, but eventually thought better of it and woke the president. After getting dressed, Bush delivered a two-minute statement before television cameras and then went back to bed.
Greenstein surmised that Bush perhaps implicitly sends a “don’t bother me” signal to subordinates.
Such an attitude, Cook warned, may prove damaging to Bush.
“They may have won the election, but he has let that precious political capital slip through his fingers by appearing distant and uncaring,” he said.
James L. Lindsay, director of research for the Council on Foreign Relations and a former National Security Council official, said Bush last week missed “a great opportunity to put a spotlight on Americans’ generosity and compassion.”
Buchanan, the historian, agreed, but only to a point: “To be sure, a slow response from an out-of-touch president on vacation in Texas reinforces Mr. Bush’s already diminished international reputation.
“That said, it’s not too late to recover, and they have been pretty good at rebounding from such mistakes in the past.”