Grading Bush: The President’s Job Performance as the Chief Crisis Manager of the Nation

Recent events demonstrate all too vividly that the job of the President is the Chief Crisis Officer or Manager of the nation. How a President manages or mismanages the inevitable crises on his or her watch determines largely how or she will be judged.

The prime questions are: “What are the criteria by which one’s crisis performance is evaluated?” and, in terms of these, “How does Bush measure up?”

Let me make it clear at the outset that a major criterion is not the complete prevention of all crises. Complete prevention is patently impossible. Crises such as 9/11 are inevitable, despite all of our best intentions and efforts.

What is legitimate is whether the President and his Administration did everything humanly possible to design and implement plans, policies, and procedures, as well as create and restructure appropriate government agencies, to make crises less likely, less destructive, and more manageable once they have occurred.

I want to evaluate President Bush’s crisis management performance in terms of five major criteria. In my experience, these five constitute the major rules of the game by which one will be brutally evaluated.

By far, the first and most important rule is telling the truth and accepting as much responsibility as possible for any and all crises, whether one is completely responsible for them or not. If there is any hint that one is in any way responsible, then one is well advised to accept it. A key corollary to this is admitting one’s mistakes.

In terms of this criterion, I would give the President a grade of D. The spate of recent best-selling books by previous members of the current Administration, former government officials, prominent journalists, and high ranking members of previous Administrations, not to mention the televised hearings from the 9/11 Commission, all contribute to the overwhelming impression that the President and his advisors lied to the American people with regard to nearly every aspect of the reasons for going to war with Iraq. At best, the American people were seriously misled.

A president can certainly survive one or even a few negative accounts, but when there is a continuing stream of highly damning accounts, then there is serious erosion of credibility over time. A crisis of confidence, believability, trust, and damage to the reputation of the Administration is the ultimate result. The inability or the unwillingness to admit any mistakes only compounds and deepens the crisis.

The foregoing considerations are almost a direct result of one of the prime features of today’s world. For all practical purposes, there are no secrets anymore. Numerous social critics have pointed out that there is no “backstage” in public life anymore. Confidential memos and reports have an uncanny way of making their way onto the front pages of major newspapers and into the lead stories of the national TV news. The only way to conduct oneself is with the presumption of complete openness, as painful and as inconvenient as this is.

This leads to the second criterion: “Thou shall not stand behind bureaucratic rules and procedures.” Doing so only furthers the perception that you have something to hide because you did something wrong. Closely related is the rule, “Beware of saying that you never will do such and such an action.” In the end, you will be forced to do what you denied vehemently that you would never do. However, by then you will have lost even more credibility, and the crisis will have deepened even more.

I am referring, of course, to Ms. Rice’s refusal to testify before the 9/11 Commission. However much sense it made from the standpoint of the bad precedent that it would set, how could the refusal to testify possibly stand up to an event of the magnitude of 9/11? There was no way that it could.

The refusal to testify not only contributed to the perception that the first allegiance of the Administration was to meaningless bureaucratic rules, but it was ultimately insulting to the public’s intelligence. It said, in effect, that you, the general public, should think as I do. It was like saying that “because I work in Washington and deal with the intricacies of the various bureaucracies, you should think in terms of those same boxes on my organization’s chart.” This is one of the biggest mistakes that major leaders commit in managing crises. Because they naturally think and operate in terms of the boxes on their organizations; charts, they presume that everyone else does as well. They do not. For this reason, I give the President a grade of D here as well.

The third criterion is whether early warning signals were picked up, amplified, and transmitted to the right parties in a timely fashion to look for coherent patterns, or whether the signals were ignored and even blocked. Long before they occur, all crises send out a repeated trail of early warning signals. If these signals are attended to properly, then many, if not all, crises can be adverted. For instance, if Secretary Rumsfeld knew that there were strong allegations regarding the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, then the failure to pass on this information and to act upon it are inexcusable. These are grounds for instant dismissal.

Once again, the criterion is not the perfect detection of signals, for instance, prior to 9/11. I accept the Administration’s contentions that this is an impossible standard to which no one should be held. But what is not unreasonable is the undeniable fact that our intelligence agencies are nowhere near as good as they need to be in picking up signals. Indeed, they are an utter failure. They need to be seriously redesigned from top to bottom. They are hopelessly out of date.

In this regard, I give President Bush a mixed grade. I give him an F for not pushing sooner for the redesign of our major intelligence agencies. I give him a B+ in pushing through the Department of Homeland Security. However, once again, I only give him a D in Director Tenet’s forced admission that the FBI needs to be redesigned.

A fourth criterion is the use of meaningless numbers and statistics to justify one’s actions or inactions. For instance, it doesn’t matter whether only 16 words in a State of the Union speech referred to a falsehood (the possession of nuclear materials). What matters is not the number but the falsehood itself.

Closely related is the use of statements (rationalizations) such as, “The actions of a few Americans are not representative of the whole.” Of course they are not. One of the most prominent features of major crises is that statistics go completely out the window. The unthinkable has just occurred, so it is no longer an aberration!

Think of any of the major crises that we have experienced over the past few years. In almost every case, there is a single, dramatic, and vivid image that is forever associated with it: Firestone tires disintegrating and causing Ford Explorers to flip over and kill their occupants; cows suffering from mad cow disease, collapsing and unable to stand or walk; two planes crashing into the Twin Towers with their resulting collapse; the pictures of arrogance of major corporate figures convicted of lying and defrauding the public; the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle. On and on it goes.

Each image is a self-contained moral story. The victims (e.g., Iraqi prisoners) and villains (their American guards) are clear-cut and sharply defined. One does not have to be a genius to get the point. Never mind that the real stories may be more complex. The pictures say it all, for they strike an immediate emotional chord: anger, disgust, and revulsion.

In each case, the images (Iraqi prisoners arranged in pornographic poses) exert a hypnotic, trance-like effect on the viewers. They are just as powerful the tenth showing as they are the first. The images take on a life of their own.
The images not only define the crises, but they are the crisis. The images of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners are President’s Bush’s Rodney King! I give President Bush an F here.

Finally, I give the Bush Administration an F for its uneven and reactive crisis preparations for the Iraqi war. Because of its ideology, its failure to critique its fundamental underlying assumptions, the Administration prepared exceedingly well for war. It was woefully unprepared for peace. This perhaps more than anything else represents the failure of the Administration with regard to crisis management. The inability and the unwillingness to prepare contingency plans in the case that all of one’s critical assumptions are wrong are an unmitigated disaster.

The final grade, at best, is a D.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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