Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I was thinking on the way into work today, has there ever been a President who has been so poorly served by those around him?

Let's start with Cheney. Remember back in 2000, Cheney was viewed as the experienced, wise and mature presence on the ticket, with more than a few liberal media outlets lamenting that Cheney wasn't the one running for President. Pundits fawned over his performance in the Vice-Presidential debate with Lieberman. Cheney was thought to be a steadying influence on Bush, someone who could hopefully rein in the reckless cowboy. And since then, Cheney has managed to squander just about 100% of that goodwill. He's p***ed off just about everybody, with the exception of a real small band of loyal supporters. He is seen as secretive, power-hungry, obsessed with getting his way. Notwithstanding the merits of the positions he has taken, he has done an absolutely terrible job of carrying his message to the American people.

And there was Colin Powell. Probably picked as Secretary of State in a lame attempt to curry favor among blacks and the Powell-infatuated media, Powell shared few of Bush's pre-9/11 positions and was an outright obstacle to Bush post 9/11. Powell did his best to keep Bush from going after Hussein (remember, the mess Bush is in now has more to do with Powell's 'you break it, you fix it' mantra than it signifies there was anything wrong with invading to eliminate Hussein's WMDs and get rid of Hussein). Powell did an absolutely terrible job of rallying our so-called international allies to our side. He did absolutely nothing to push our positions at the UN. He, along with his loyal deputy, Richard Armitage, engaged in some serious backstabbing in order to denigrate and undercut those in the Administration who viewed things differently than he did. He (like most Secretary of States, including the incompetent present one) did about everything he could to undercut Israel and pressure it into making concessions to terrorists (a position completely at odds with Bush doctrine about not negotiating with terrorists). And he (again, like most Secretary of States) believed his role was to represent the interests of other countries, and not to represent the interests of the United States.

Not far behind Powell on the list of those doing damage to Bush is Condi Rice, his former National Security Adviser and current Secretary of State. 9/11 happened on her watch, with it turning out that she had given counter-terrorism remarkably little
attention. She was ineffective at pulling together the dueling intelligence and defense departments and agencies. Yet she was rewarded with a promotion, where she unsurprisingly has managed to accomplish nothing. She helped pressure Bush to pressure Israel to temper its retaliatory attack on Hezbollah, a move that has backfired across the board. And she seems more interested in making the fashion pages or meeting Tiger Woods than she does in getting anything of substance accomplished.

Donald Rumsfeld is another example of someone who blew a lot of pre-war goodwill. Originally viewed as a straight talking, no-nonsence reformer, he let the generals undercut him. He handled poorly those who criticized him. And by aligning himself so tightly with Bush's 'let's plow ahead, ignoring all evidence that things aren't working', he lost whatever credibility he once had with the American people.

And there is Alberto Gonzales. Need I say anything more than his incompetence as White House counsel has been exceeded by his incompetence as Attorney General? I'd link to stories detailing his incompetence, but there are simply too many examples for me to choose from. And let's not overlook Gonzales's successor as White House counsel, the bland and incompetent Harriet Miers.

Let's not forget George Tenet, the former head of the CIA. True, he was a Clinton holdover, but Bush kept him on so Bush gets the blame for all the bad things that took place while Tenet was around. The CIA engaged in open warfare against the Bush White House, leaking one negative piece after another. They totally screwed things up as far as the infamous '16 words' in Bush's SOTU address. They botched their assessment of Hussein's WMDs, pronouncing evidence of it as a 'slam dunk', rather than tempering expectations a bit.

Almost as bad as Tenet were the two clowns Bush picked to run Homeland Security, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. Not only, as has been reported, are a whole lot of senior positions unfilled, there has been absolutely no evidence that our nation is any better prepared to fight terrorists than we would have been had things been left as they were. And by the way, Chertoff comes in for some extra derision for his getting involved in the immigration battle, where he stupidly claimed that our nation would be worse off if the bill didn't pass.

Then there were the sequence of unimpressive Treasury Secretaries, O'Neil, Snow and Paulson. Can you name a single memorable positive contribution any of them has made?

I have a special place for his incompetent Press Secretaries, Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan and Tony Snow. While McClellan was by far the worst, none of them were any good at defending the Administration by offering soundbites that would resonate with the American people. All three of them refused to treat the White House press corps as the hostiles they are. All three were slow to take on the rumors and falsehoods being peddled by the press; by failing to do so, they allowed these falsehoods to sink in with the public.

And last, but certainly not least, is Michael Brown, who as head of FEMA presided over the debacle of a federal response to Katrina. Setting aside the question of whether Brown did anything substantively wrong, his statements and presence in the prelude and aftermath of Katrina could not have been more pathetic. Two key requisites of any manager is to appear in control and to shield the boss from criticism. Brown did neither, and as some have claimed, Bush's poll numbers started diving in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Heck of a job, Brownie.

Now, perhaps Bush is so incompetent and stubborn that it wouldn't have mattered if he did have different people working for him, or if the above group of clowns hadn't been so pathetically incompetent. But... perhaps if he had a Vice President who didn't seem to eager to go out of his way to court controversy (or who did a better job of arguing his case), an Attorney General who wasn't widely viewed as a lapdog, Secretaries of State who forcefully advocated positions that advanced our interests, and so on, then Bush's ratings wouldn't be in the toilet (and guys, being only slightly less disliked than Congress is nothing to brag about).

Then again, I've long felt that the staff reflects the priorities, interests and skills of the manager. Competent managers don't accept incompetent staffs. Incompetent managers are, because of their incompetence, unable to distinguish good from the bad. That is why, for example, Bush could praise Brown or the others while it was so obvious to us that they were doing an absolutely terrible job.

So while one might dream and think things would have been different, the fact that Bush is Bush pretty much precluded any of that from happening. Because Bush was incompetent, unfocused and oblivious, he ended up with a staff that was incompetent, unfocused and oblivious. While his staff certainly did him no favors, he has only himself to blame. As it should be, for managers get the credit when the staff produces... and they take the blame when their staffs screw up.