Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: "Decision Points", by George W. Bush

When Decision Points, President Bush's autobiography of the eight years of his administration, was released, I admit I was a bit nostalgic--I compared him very favorably with the person currently occupying his office.  Coming to my senses a bit, I remembered that W and I had had some disagreements over the years, and I became conflicted about the administration all over again.  That's when I decided to really go through his book--so I can attempt to understand what went into the decisions of the Bush 43 administration.  I wasn't expecting to get my mind changed, but I was willing to leave it open.  All in all, I think Dubya may have won me back.
Have you ever watched a politician's press conference or speech and wondered: What in the world was he thinking?  In Decision Points, we get just that.  Instead of giving us a straight, eight-year timeline, recounting the events of his administration as he remembered them, Bush picks fourteen specific topics and details the decision-making process he went through and what the results of the decision were, as well as if he would have made the same decision again, knowing what he knows now.  The topics he picked are wide-ranging: from social issues (the debate over federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and the battle against HIV/AIDS in Africa), to national security (the War on Terror), to domestic catastrophes (9/11 and Katrina), and economic issues (Medicare Part D and the financial crisis), very few things are left untouched in this book.
One thing I loved about the book--Bush made me feel right at home with his straight-out-of-MBA-school decision-making process.  He doesn't use the acronym SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based) for the goals he put out for himself, but he may as well have.  The decisions in the book follow a pattern familiar to anyone who is in business: 1) Define the problem (as opposed to the symptoms of the problem); 2) Identify possible solutions; 3) Weigh pros and cons of all solutions; 4) Pick solution which offers best balance of goals achieved; 5) Implement solution; 6) Follow up: identify what went right, what went wrong, and what can we do better next time.  Bush was the first MBA president, and it definitely shows in this book.
In the book, Bush details some decisions that were unpopular, but he says he would do again if necessary.  Examples include the War on Terror (most of it, at any rate), the troop surge, and the TARP Act/Wall St. bailout.  The problems he faced in implementing his programs he attributes to his own bad communication skills (you know it, sir) and bad PR.  This was especially the case in the disastrous 2005 effort to reform Social Security--he found out that they call entitlements the third rail for a reason.
In a similar vein, he explains what went into the decisions that passed in Congress with no problems, but had (and still has) the conservative base up in arms about how a Republican administration could have overseen such a huge expansion of the power of the federal government.   Medicare Part DTARP, and No Child Left Behind are now roundly criticized by the left (they don't do enough for the average American) and the right (they are way too intrusive and give too much power and money to Washington), but at the time at least, they seemed to be middle-of-the-road compromises which made everyone happy.  For example, Medicare Part D (or, as he calls it, the "Medicare Modernization Act") was actually intended to (try not to laugh) save money in the long run: after all, it is cheaper to pay $500 a year for ulcer pills than $28,000 for ulcer surgery.  In addition, the original idea was that only Medicare Advantage participants (who already had private insurance) would have been eligible for covered prescriptions.  But, then Congress got involved, and that was the end of that.  NCLB was a compromise between issuing vouchers for private or religious schools (never gonna happen) and spending even more taxpayer money on failing public schools.  And TARP, well, THE WORLD WAS ABOUT TO END FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!! DID YOU HAVE ANY BETTER IDEAS?!?!?!?!?  Well, not really, but close.
A few notes in general about the book.  Understandably, the following phrase appears a lot: "My opponents on the left accused me of.... This was ridiculous.  Why would I have done...?"  There were a lot of ridiculous accusations being directed at Bush all eight years.  Also, when calling out senators and congressmen who made disparaging remarks about him or his administration, he usually leaves their names out, I guess in an effort to be classy.  For example: "One New York senator denounced the [] ad [about General Petraeus] but said Petraeus's report required the 'willing suspension of disbelief.'"  That would be then-Senator Hillary Clinton, for those of you who didn't remember.  The classiness is a theme throughout the book--he has nothing but compliments for President Obama and President Clinton, as well as most of the world leaders he met during his time in office.
Finally, it seemed to me that, more often than not, Bush would end up going with his initial leaning, even after going through his whole decision-making process.  This may be why Bush was often accused of leading with his gut as opposed to his head.  In addition, Bush is very religious, so the religious view often seemed to take root first in his mind and never let go.  I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, but it does explain a lot about some of the decisions that he made while in office.
Overall, I really enjoyed Decision Points.  To a certain extent, I am already waiting for President Obama's autobiography of his (hopefully single) term in the White House, just to see the contrast in styles, which I am sure will be epic.  In the meantime, this is a highly recommended read for everyone interested in politics or business management: love him or hate him, George Bush made some everlasting decisions which you owe it to yourself to educate yourself about.

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