His polling is among the worst of any president. He was used as a whipping post by all sides in the recent presidential election. And there are innumerable people, websites, and Facebook groups devoted to counting down his last days in office.
In spite of all of this, in his final days as President of the United States, George W. Bush seems to be re-embracing and re-inhabiting some of the charm and sincerity that ingratiated him to millions of Americans in 2000 and 2004.
Bush was sold to America as the candidate, “you’d like to have a beer with.” In both races there was a certain sincerity and likability that Bush radiated that lead him to victory over an impressive and experienced candidate and against impressive odds. Now, the degree to which one is inclined to “like” a particular person is no barometer of how good and competent a president that person is likely to wind up being. But, then again, likability isn’t entirely devoid of predictive value, either.
Likability is a measure of politician’s ability to connect with voters on a personal level: does she/he seem sincere? can I/we trust him/her? does she/he understand what I’m going through? will he/she do what is in my best interests? These are all vital questions for voters when choosing a president and they aren’t all thumb-twiddling.
The President of the United States is one of the most powerful individuals that voters elect to make decisions on their behalf. It only makes sense, then, that those voters would look for someone they think is sincere, that they can trust, who understands and relates to them, and who will make decisions in their best interests. In this regard, when compared to both Al Gore and John Kerry, it is no wonder that the world has seen eight years of George W. Bush.
Of course, the Bush administration has made some decisions that range from reckless and ill-informed to out-and-out disastrous.
From the violation of civil liberties, to condoning the use of coercive torture techniques, to the behemoth decision to invade Iraq, Bush’s legacy is rife with reasons for his low job approval rating. But as Scott McClellan points out time and time again in his dissenting opus What Happened, perhaps Bush’s biggest failure was his inability to live up to the reasons for his election and level with the American people about what he was doing and why.
Now, in his dying days in office, with the spectacle of Iraq slightly faded and the criticisms of Katrina and Miers and Plame dulled, that upfront candor and every-man accessibility seem to be sneaking back into Bush’s modus operandi. Reading the quotes and watching the videos from Bush’s recent interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley one is, perhaps, struck by the openness of dialogue that Bush offers.
His answers seem distinctly unscripted, his reactions truly genuine, and the thoughts Bush expresses are not so very different from the thoughts in the minds of many Americans sitting around the nation’s kitchen tables. Here, once again, when the pressure has eased, is the person to whom millions of people entrusted their futures and their lives. And it is, indeed, hard not to want to sit down and have a near beer with Bush in order to pick his brain and hear his thoughts on a variety of topics.
Bush exudes a subtle confidence, clarity, intelligence and warmth that is the hallmark of so many great men — his vision, when he has the space in which to communicate it, is compelling.
Sadly, while those qualities may be a necessary prerequisite for a great president, they are not sufficient to ensure a great president. Yes, George W. Bush is highly likable, and that gave him the potential to be a pivotal president. But at the end of the day, great presidents bring likability and a great deal more to the table. Bush’s presidency was pivotal, that much is true, but in, perhaps, many of the wrong ways.