WASHINGTON — In an unsure, complicated, and scary world, George W. Bush seems a rock of certainty. You can pose a lot of different questions to him on a variety of topics - education, the economy, terrorism - and he'll have a solution for you, most often the simple, straightforward variety.
In the middle of a bumpy patch, this is President Bush's electoral strength. There's not a lot of good news for the president in the poll numbers right now. Some surveys have his opponent John Kerry ahead. People are doubting the course in Iraq and questioning his handling of the economy.
But the administration believes individual poll numbers mean little, particularly in April. And they can point to one solid finding in almost every survey: Mr. Bush is seen as a strong leader. He's decisive and knows what he wants.
Even his opponents concede this point. This is the president's ace as the election nears, and he's clearly counting on it. In ads and in interviews with supporters, it is the message the White House is pushing.
This is not a small point. There's something to be said for certainty and clarity of purpose. After all, leader of the free world isn't exactly a Magic 8-Ball kind of job. It helps to have some idea of what exactly you want to do when you get the keys to the Oval Office.
And the president has seldom wavered. If the question has to do with the economy, the answer is almost certainly tax cuts. On public education, a question that has bedeviled this country for years, the president believes in testing to measure results and then forcing changes in failing schools. On the "war on terror," the president has shown he will use force, going it alone if necessary, to remove harmful elements.
Yet, Bush's image as a "strong leader" may miss the point. The real question voters face this November is not whether Mr. Bush is decisive, rather it is whether his decisiveness and single-minded approach to problems misses important subtleties.
The White House likes to portray the president as the can-do CEO of a large efficient corporation or as a plain-spoken cowboy trying to bring a little common sense to a double-talking town. The best metaphor, however, is more 21st century. What we have in Washington today is the nation's first digital presidency with Bush as our CPU (central processing unit) in chief. And that presents real perils for his reelection and his presidency.
Like all computers, the president moves quickly and crisply, but the very thing that allows him to move so fast, a preprogrammed set of assumptions on most issues, can lead (and has led) to poor choices. This administration sees the world in binary code (good/evil, right/wrong). A series of if/then statements determines the course of action. And once the decision has been made, there's no questioning it. Examples abound.
If we cut taxes, then the economy will improve. This is a fact in the president's mind. You say the evidence hasn't borne this out so far? You say the cuts have led to massive deficits? That's irrelevant. Don't you know the if/then sequence?
If we make schools accountable, then they'll fix their problems. This is obviously true, because it's true in business, the Education secretary has said. You believe there is a fundamental difference between what the schools do and what, say, Ford does? You think there are a bunch of ingrained societal problems that drag some schools down? You simply don't understand.
But the most glaring mistake so far, and the one getting the most attention now, is Iraq. If we invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein, then we will be embraced as liberators and able to establish a democracy there. The simplicity here is breathtaking. It is as though no one at the White House ever considered the possibility that the Iraqis may hate Hussein and still not love the US.
Now, faced with revolts around Iraq, the administration says not to worry, because it's just a small minority and most of the Iraqis like what the US is doing there. Maybe, but do they like the US plan for the future and are they willing to fight for it? Are they really ready for a democracy? Are they really ready for us to turn over power at the end of June? And to whom will we turn it over, exactly?
Somewhere at the White House there probably are clear, strong-leader, if/then answers to those questions. At some point, the administration may even share them. But when you hear them, listen carefully. Simple, definitive answers can be comforting - but in a complicated world, they often don't compute.
If they don't compute by November, voters will be looking to reboot the political system - and the president, strong leader and all, will likely find himself booted from office.