To the question, “Why is support for President George W. Bush’s performance declining in the polls?” one might reasonably be expected to respond: “Because people disagree with his policies.” And, of course, this answer would be correct. But like the infomercials say, “But wait! There’s more.” President Bush is struggling to maintain the focus and support of the American people in part because of the limited range of his communications skills.
Unlike Ronald Reagan who could make people cry or wave the flag simply by reading the phone book, and unlike Bill Clinton who possesses not only exceptional speaking skills but also the gift of empathy—“I feel your pain”—President Bush just can’t find the right tone, the right cadence, or the right sound-bite. At least in the public forum and in front of crowds and cameras, a turn-of-phrase just does not come easily to him. Add to this his Texas posture and movement that seem to suggest a cocky swagger (In a light moment of self-deprecating defense Bush said, “In Texas we call it walking”). Add to this his grin and his laugh that appear and sound like a smirk, and you have the recipe for a communications-challenged leader.
In some sense the man can’t help it, and I feel his pain. So what that his walk seems like a strut and his words seemed clipped and strained? Why does it matter that his grin/laugh reminds us of the young fraternity party boy at Yale? Because this is the media age. Because the presidency, the “bully pulpit,” demands gravitas. A pulpit needs a preacher, one who shares the good word par excellence. The leader of the free world must be able to speak the King’s English, an American version to be sure, but nevertheless be able to articulate ideas and decisions and the rationale for both.
At this point in his life, Bush cannot change his grin/laugh, and is highly unlikely to change his stance and manner of walking, but he might be able to do a better job of communicating. It’s not like he’s never risen to the occasion. Remember his speech to both Houses of Congress right after 9-11? Masterful.
How does he improve his communication and, thus, his leadership? One, return to the themes closest to his heart, the ideals that took him to the Oval Office, values he has pondered and shared throughout most of his adult life. This step will not only put him on familiar ground, it will reignite his passion for why he does what he does. The War on Terrorism may be defining his presidency, but it should not be all that defines George W. Bush.
Two, change his venues. Stop speaking almost exclusively on military bases with soldiers as a backdrop. He should take his ideas to the American people by connecting with everyday Americans, not just those who are duty bound to say, “Yes sir.” Three, own his mistakes. Somehow, someway, about something, actually assume responsibility and say “I’m sorry.” The American people are amazingly forgiving—except of those who are too arrogant or ignorant to express contrition (Think, Pete Rose). Four, be himself, be human, not just the invincible Commander-in-Chief. Be someone to whom the American people can relate.
President Bush yet has time to re-energize his leadership before he and the First Lady take that last flight on Marine One around the capital before heading home to Crawford as “just a citizen.” His effectiveness as a leader, and his legacy, are directly tied to whether he can learn to communicate better with those he wants to follow.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2005
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