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What Would W Do?

Lessons in disaster recovery from Bush's underappreciated second-term rebound.

His approval ratings are hitting new depths. From the NSA scandal to controversial policies in the Middle East, his foreign policies have undercut his campaign promise to restore America's reputation overseas. His own party is in rebellion over his signature piece of health-care legislation. And now even Yeezus himself is lashing out at President Barack Obama. This week, hip-hop star and noted political philosopher Kanye West, apparently miffed that the president had made a disrespectful comment about the mother of his child, Kim Kardashian, told a Philadelphia radio station, "I'm not gonna mention him no more; I'm past that. That's out of my thoughts. That's lowering my priority of thinking at this point."

There is no question about it. Obama has hit a low point of his presidency. There's even a heated debate among people who get in heated debates about such things as to whether this is the president's "Katrina moment," a reference to the point (at almost the exact same time) in George W. Bush's presidency when his failure to quickly respond to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the New Orleans area raised questions about America's last president's competence to do the job he had just been re-elected to do.

Defenders of Obama say Katrina is a terrible analogy because of the death and despair the hurricane caused. Critics of the president say it's a fitting comparison because the timing is so similar, because it has had a similar if not identical effect on poll results, and because it cuts to the question of whether the man is up for the job.

If Obama wants to rebound, he would do well to listen to the critics and take the challenges of this moment to heart in the way members of the Bush team say Bush did. In fact, the Katrina analogy should offer hope and inspiration for Obama.

In the fall of 2005, in the months immediately after the Katrina disaster, the mood among the president's advisors had at that point, according to a top Bush White House official with whom I spoke this week, reached "a new low." Bush, who had faced several dark nights of the soul in his life dating back to his struggles with alcohol, responded by "making a commitment to change" that ultimately produced a second term rebound that is only now being fully appreciated for its scope and effectiveness.

Given that Bush's first term was marked by the debacle of the Iraq war -- which was also not going well at the time Katrina came ashore -- and its impact on America's relations worldwide, his challenges and arguably his errors were greater than those Obama has to deal with. But within a year, Bush made effective changes to his team, his strategies in the Middle East, and his overall approach to many foreign and domestic issues. And it was those changes that enabled him to complete what is arguably the most striking second-term turnaround in postwar American history.

Doubt it? While President Bill Clinton's second term contained many significant achievements, it was marred by the Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment saga. George H.W. Bush didn't have a second term. Ronald Reagan's second term was diminished both by scandals like Iran-Contra and by what we have subsequently learned was the president's physical decline. Jimmy Carter didn't have a second term. Neither did Gerald Ford. Richard Nixon resigned during his second term. Lyndon B. Johnson had only one elected term in office, and virtually all his accomplishments were overshadowed by the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy did not have a second term. Dwight Eisenhower had one, but it was not seen as superior to the first. And Harry Truman only served one elected term.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush -- whose first term brought the criticisms and controversies associated with the invasion of Iraq, the subsequent struggling military campaigns there, the establishment of the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the passage of the Patriot Act, and simultaneous struggles within the U.S. economy -- managed to rebound during his second term in a number of important ways.

First, and perhaps foremost in terms of lessons that Obama ought to heed from how Bush handled his second term, is how the 43rd president re-engineered his cabinet. He didn't just change who was in top posts, but he changed the way his cabinet worked. This process began prior to Hurricane Katrina as he moved Condoleezza Rice from her post as national security advisor to secretary of state and asked her deputy, Stephen Hadley, to replace her in the national security advisor's corner office in the West Wing. As secretary of state, Colin Powell, like Rice and others, suffered during Bush's first term as a consequence of a national security process that was overly dominated by the close, sometimes process-circumventing collaboration between Vice President Dick Cheney and his former mentor, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rice told the president she was reluctant to accept the new post if it meant that she, like Powell, would end up being locked in permanent fights with Rumsfeld. This helped advance a process of retooling that was supported by having her onetime deputy at the National Security Council (NSC), not just because of the closeness between the two, but because of Hadley's skill as a manager and honest broker who knew the NSC's workings as well as any individual who had ever assumed the role.

In the year after Katrina, other big changes came on both the national security side and the overall White House management side. On April 14, 2006, Bush replaced his capable chief of staff, Andrew Card, with an even stronger successor, Josh Bolten, a brilliant, behind-the-scenes master manager who restored a positive energy to a battered team. Then, that December, after much internal drama and public denials that it would actually happen, Rumsfeld stepped down and was replaced by the man who would later stay on to become Obama's first secretary of defense, former CIA Director Robert Gates. With Rumsfeld gone and wounded by the scandal involving his top aide, Scooter Libby (which resulted in Libby's indictment just two months after Katrina), Cheney's centrality in the national security process began to ebb somewhat, which helped produce what many insiders saw as a more balanced dialogue among principals.

The changes resulted in a freer hand for Rice to focus on restoring American ties with allies worldwide; international initiatives that put U.S. relations with large emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil atop U.S. priorities; successful execution of important aid programs that made Bush policies in Africa the high-water mark for U.S. efforts on that continent (Millennium Challenge Corporation, PEPFAR, etc.); and perhaps most importantly from a public-perception viewpoint a major strategy review of Iraq that resulted in Bush's January 2007 speech announcing the "surge" in Iraq. At the time it was a controversial call. But coming as it did with major personnel changes, including the naming of Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, it led to a turning point in the Iraq conflict that not only won popular support and was later continued by Obama, but ultimately set the stage for America's withdrawal from Iraq.

These changes also led behind the scenes to changing U.S. priorities that, as David Sanger has noted in his excellent book, Confront and Conceal, included the development of "light footprint" strategies for combating terrorism that ultimately became the centerpiece of Obama's own approach to the problem.

One other change that was of vital importance to Bush's own second-term "surge" was the appointment of Henry Paulson as Treasury secretary in January 2006. Paulson, who reportedly pushed back on accepting the job several times before ultimately taking it, did so (according to confidants) in part because he felt the U.S. economy might be facing a real markets crisis and because he felt he could make a contribution in fighting it. Paulson's instinct that he could play a central role proved prescient, and a Bush administration that was bookended by great crises responded to the second one -- the financial crash of 2008 -- far more effectively than it had to the first, 9/11. Given that the potential negative consequences of the financial crisis were so much greater for so many people than those associated with the 2001 attacks, and given that the actions required by Bush and his team were so much less popular at the time than lashing back at suspected terrorists and enemies of the United States had been in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, it's more likely that the Bush team's handling of the crisis will ultimately be appreciated by history as one of its signal accomplishments.

Bush's cool during the crisis, his repeated efforts to raise the spirits of his team members and his willingness to make and actively advocate for tough, politically unpopular actions like the unprecedented interventions of Treasury in U.S. markets, already hold up well when compared with the responses of other countries like those of Europe. (The cooperation of Bush and Obama on the transition on this and related issues further reflects well to the credit of both.)

No one, least of all anyone in an Obama administration that came into office promising a president who was the "un-Bush," is likely to accept at this point that somehow George W. Bush was a great success as a president. But no one of a fair mind can deny that he was willing to undertake major personnel and policy changes in the wake of his faltering performance after his re-election or that those changes produced some positive results. Obama should take comfort in the fact that despite predictions that Bush was "done" in the aftermath of Katrina, his most productive years as president -- including his most productive years on the foreign-policy front -- were still yet to come.

But of course, the secret to Bush's rebound was the degree to which he was able to do two things that Obama appears reluctant to do. One was a much greater willingness to not only change the group of people around him but to seek out and actually embrace different perspectives. The other was his commitment to being an activist player coach among the members of his team -- whether that meant weekly calls with those leading his team on the ground in Iraq until the problems got solved, immersing himself in the details of what was going on to a degree that defies popular misconceptions, or it simply meant encouraging them at a human level during the darkest moments of the financial crisis. Bush, flawed as he may have been as a president, accepted the lessons of his missteps and acted on them in a way that Obama has yet to do thus far.

This is not, it must be noted, about "rebranding" or "tweaking the message." Two parallel examples in recent weeks illustrate this. Because the president and his team had failed to pre-sell the Iran deal to our Israeli and Gulf Allies prior to nearly concluding it a couple weeks ago, there was a backlash from them that helped fan U.S. Congressional opposition and threatened to derail the talks. Because they failed to reach out and pre-sell the president's insurance "fix" to Obamacare prior to the president's speech on that subject, within days there was backlash, several states rejected the fix and matters were made worse not better. Similar breakdowns in policy development processes whether on Syria or Egypt or fiscal issues on the Hill have all shown that processes are flawed, management is missing, and blocking and tackling is not being done. 

Obama, not burdened with the baggage of a disaster like Iraq, presumably can rebound too, perhaps to a greater degree. But not if he is unwilling to accept that he has something to rebound from, and not if he is unwilling to make far greater changes in his core team than he has made to date. He must puncture the bubble he has created around him and be willing to hear what useful criticism he is receiving, and he must empower those around him who do likewise. Only he has the power to determine whether this being his "Katrina" moment means it is a crisis of competency and a nadir in the polls or whether it means this moment is the beginning of the turnaround that he should embrace and that the country and world would welcome.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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