IMAGE: George W. Bush
Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
President George W. Bush, surrounded on April 18, 2006 by administration members Rob Portman (left) and Susan Schwab (right) told the assembled members of the media, "I'm the decider."
By AP National Writer
updated 4/4/2008 6:02:57 PM ET 2008-04-04T22:02:57
Measure of a Nation

On a wintry morning, in a college town not far from Lake Erie, a coup is brewing. "You're going to take over the country today, brothers and sisters," Werner Lange, an assistant professor of sociology, tells his Contemporary Social Problems class.

On this day, 20 undergraduates at Edinboro State University will take a crack at being the president of the United States and members of the Cabinet, at the whim of a computer game called Democracy. Its box asks them: "Do YOU have what it takes to run a country?"

President Mary Cornwell steps up first. She is brimming with conviction and decisiveness after consulting with her "Cabinet" of fellow students. Next is President Valerie Amick. Her strategy: Confer, listen ... then decide for herself. "You have to listen and negotiate," she acknowledges, "but we're also human beings and we think our decision is going to be the best."

They seem so sure of themselves, these suddenly anointed leaders in ski hats and hooded Steeler sweatshirts and Ugg boots, guzzling 20-ounce Dr Peppers before lunch. Just 26 minutes of power and they're ready to render decisions that would affect an entire nation.

What do you expect, though? To be an American in 2008 is to be born into a heritage of individual decisiveness — of rapid-fire answers and always implied, if hasty, certitude. The instant analysis of the on-air chattering class and the gut-reaction blogosphere demands nothing less.

The students understand this principle instinctively: Decisiveness is the starting premise. Not a single "I'm not sure" in this crowd. Only once does hesitation surface, from the mouth of President Mike Tripp. "One person," he says, "can't be responsible for everyone's decisions."

Sensible, but wishful thinking. Because in America, that's exactly how we cast our president — as the personification of national decision-making. "I'm the decider," George W. Bush famously said in 2006, and he was, in many ways, correct.

Decision 2008
Every four years, Americans by the millions delegate their decision-making upward. When we evaluate candidates, decisiveness is one of the words that bubbles up most frequently. Be it a John McCain, a Hillary Clinton or an Barack Obama, our new leader must render decisions on our behalf that are swift, strong and sure. But when we demand decisiveness in our leaders, what do we mean?

Is it about consistency? Certitude? About pushing the button and not looking back? Or is it about consultation and consensus, about input and weighing options? Can inaction be a strong and viable decision? Is "flip-flopping" just a politicized term used to unfairly denounce evolved thinking? Is there room in America for flexibility?

"You have to be creative and adaptable," says Lee Iacocca, the storied Chrysler chief who secured his place in American culture by projecting an aura of tough, enlightened decisiveness.

"Sometimes, you change your decisions," Iacocca says. "Because the world changes."

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"Once a decision was made," a former U.S. president wrote in his memoirs, "I did not worry about it afterward."

Stoic talk. Yet the guy who said it, Harry Truman, made perhaps the single most momentous decision in American history: to drop an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people.

That, friends, is decisiveness as America defines it. We are a society of decision-makers — or, at least, hungry to believe that we are. To conclude anything else would suggest the unimaginable: that we are a nation of bystanders.

We roll up our sleeves to get the job done and, in the process, often ignore process. We favor "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," and reject "Let me mull it over and I'll get back to you after I weigh the options." We are Lucy — square-jawed, decisive, prickly when challenged — and not good ol' wishy-washy Charlie Brown.

Yet from the very beginning, the United States was constructed to be, well, kinda, sorta indecisive.

A face for decisions
The founding fathers built into our national fabric a separation of powers — the president, Congress, the Supreme Court — to prevent the tyranny that other nations in the 18th century faced. That meant that no one expression of American decisiveness could squash others.

As we know now, it didn't turn out that way. A culture built around the individual requires a face for its decisions. The president, the most visible person in government, became that face.

George Washington refused to be crowned king because of the founders' fears that consolidating decision-making in one man could reproduce the very tyranny they had just shed. But as the decades of the 1800s passed, the presidency evolved into a command center for decisiveness.

One by one, big decisions started coming from the White House. From Thomas Jefferson (the Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (the Monroe Doctrine) and Andrew Jackson (who used the oft-overlooked veto as an executive sledgehammer). Then, after a string of weak forgettables like John Tyler, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, came the man remembered as one of American history's most decisive leaders.

Quiet loner at civilization's edge
Abraham Lincoln's key decisions to save the Union — leading the North into the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation — claimed so much power that opponents cried tyranny. But, Donald T. Phillips writes in "Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times," "What would have been the consequences had Lincoln not been decisive? We can only shudder at the thought."

In the decades that followed, the glorification of the frontier experience elevated decisiveness even further. The image of the quiet loner at civilization's edge, making decisions on behalf of progress, became a potent one. "Our cultural mythology teaches us to look for decisiveness and people who have been engaged in certain kinds of adventure and conflict, and expects them to produce decisive results," says Richard Slotkin, a frontier historian and author of "Gunfighter Nation."

Video: Roosevelt's grandson on D-Day Not long afterward, Theodore Roosevelt unleashed his progressive policies in his decidedly non-shrinking violet way and created the 20th century image of a decisive president that echoes today. A generation later, his cousin Franklin steered the nation through the Depression and war and claimed policymaking initiatives with a sure-footedness that further cemented the decisive presidency.

Then came JFK. The vigorous vision of space-age leadership his aides sculpted included a smooth, modern, almost glib brand of decisiveness that was tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace and enrobed with youthful optimism.

As John A. Barnes notes in "John F. Kennedy on Leadership," Kennedy extended his direct decision-making power into diplomacy and public relations. Whereas Dwight D. Eisenhower fashioned his presidency on the military bureaucracy he oversaw during World War II, his successor — a junior officer in that war — thought such bureaucracy impeded decisiveness. So Kennedy "moved the White House unquestionably to center stage in American life," Barnes wrote, "making it the center of national executive decision-making."

Hesitancy and the presidency
Then there's George W. Bush.

In the post-9/11 landscape, Bush's shoot-from-the-hip style — call it the imperial presidency, as his opponents have, or the CEO presidency — emphasizes decisiveness itself as a paramount trait, regardless of what the decisions might be. So even while the merits of an Iraq invasion are debated, Bush's stay-the-course message is presented as a position of strength. Any hint of indecisiveness — even the notion of considering multiple opinions before acting — is cast as weakness.

The very appearance of hesitation can sink a presidency, as evidenced by Jimmy Carter, who was perceived as too nice a guy for the White House. And it also can sink a presidential campaign.

Political strategist James Carville, writing in Time magazine in 2005, acknowledged Karl Rove's skill in helping Bush defeat John Kerry in 2004. Rove, Carville asserted, "made the last election one not about policies or positions or even about values or national security — he made it about decisiveness."

"Who else ever won the presidency on a message that basically says, `You may not like what I stand for, but I stand for something,'" Carville wrote.

That doesn't sit well with Kerry.

"In a president, people are looking for strength — strength of character, strength of purpose, strength of belief — and I value that," the Massachusetts senator says. "But unfortunately, it's been trivialized by the system, by the process in regrettable ways that don't do justice to the complexity of some of the choices we face or ... the complexity of the world we live in."

When it comes to decisiveness, Kerry says, "You can be strong and nuanced."

Fair point. Trouble is, as a society we value strength. But nuance? Not so much.

On March 28, 1899, the Los Angeles Times took Mayor Frederick Eaton to task over, of all things, his handling of the city's Library Board. "FLIP-FLOP," the paper trumpeted in capital letters. "The mayor executes another back somersault."

For more than a century, the term "flip-flop" has been deployed derisively in politics to indicate a particularly odious offshoot of indecisiveness. If you change your mind to suit the circumstances, the thinking goes, you're not only indecisive but sullied by the very act of mind-changing.

Presidentially, the act of flip-floppery predates the term. Jefferson opposed executive power; he even wanted to strip the federal government of its ability to borrow money. But he changed his tune when Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory. Nothing gave a president the power to buy land, but Jefferson went ahead anyway. He flip-flopped.

Lincoln, too: In the 1860 campaign, he promised he wouldn't interfere with slavery in states where it existed. We know what happened there. And Ronald Reagan, who ushered in the conservative revolution, was a Democrat for decades and headed one of the country's most prominent unions.

Flip-flops or evolved thinking? History already has made the judgments.

Certainly, flip-flopping can reflect political expedience. Yet the blanket condemnation of changing one's mind remains a major narrative of modern presidential politics.

Video: Miller attacks Kerry In 2004, Republican guns were trained on Kerry to cast his about-faces as character flaws. "His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision and sends a message of confusion," Vice President Dick Cheney said at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Hours later, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat backing Bush, said Kerry would offer up a "yes-no-maybe bowl of mush." "Right now," Miller said, "the world just cannot afford an indecisive America."

Flip-flopper or opportunist?
Is that entirely fair, though? The message seems simplistic: that changing one's mind is an effective indicator of being unfit to lead.

While flip-flopping is often framed as indecisiveness, the word masks uglier innuendoes. Implied in the charge is that a flip-flopper doesn't know what he believes or, worse, is an opportunist.

"This actually gets at something that is fairly distinctively American — the peculiarly moral language of our politics," says Bruce Schulman, a Boston University history professor who studies decisiveness and the "flip-flop" in modern American politics. "It's not so much decisiveness that is prized as it is commitment to principle. That's what we think we like. Flip-flop is bad, such a danger for candidates today, because it's seen as evidence of a lack of principle."

Video: Romney tries to prove he's authentic That made it easy earlier this year for Mike Huckabee to highlight Mitt Romney's change of position on abortion as not only indecisive but amoral. "I think you can't just have a change of opinion on fundamental issues over and over and wait until you're running for president to do it," Huckabee said.

Indecision 2008
By that point, Romney had been defending himself for weeks. "I think people respect someone that acknowledges mistakes," he said. "And instead of trying to defend wrong decisions year after year after year, I'm a guy that's learned from my mistakes."

But if the electorate can't deal with even a whiff of "Indecision 2008," as Jon Stewart frames it on "The Daily Show," where does that leave our discourse? Fine to be a nation of action, but a continuous appearance of decisiveness, demanded to the nth degree in a live-news-conference, sound-bite world, undermines evolving thinking — and, indeed, permits very little thinking at all.

"The sense of `I know what needs to be done and I'm ready to go do it' is very important to voters," says Natalie Davis, a 1996 U.S. Senate candidate who is a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

"I don't think a candidate for president can say, `I haven't thought about that' or `We need to study that more,'" she says. "I don't think you can come before the voters and say, `You know, I don't know.'"

In other words, the appearance of decisiveness — no matter what the actual decision may be — always trumps saying nothing. "And," says Davis, "it is killing our politics."

We live today in an instantaneous culture that demands instantaneous decisions.

Americans cherish certainty and distinct outcomes. And if certainty is the goal, decisiveness is the prime tool and the president the prime mover.

"We think of ourselves as always being in a kind of crisis requiring decision," says Slotkin, the frontier historian. "Because we're the pre-eminent world power, every situation presents us with a choice to do something about it or to leave it alone."

That still doesn't quite explain why the affinity for decisive leadership is so deeply woven into our cultural fabric. Some possibilities:

  • Order from chaos. Is it any wonder that, as Americans negotiate the jumble of a modern democracy, we crave strong decisions to make sense of the muddiness that is life? Bush's message of staying the course worked in part because, in ages of challenge, we look for decisive guidance.
  • Ego. A love of strong decisions reflects our history as a society that believed, from the 17th-century days of the shining city on the hill, that it was mandated by God. When Manifest Destiny gives you the heaven-sent right to expand, strong decision-making seems a natural side effect.
  • Backlash. Maybe democracy is inherently indecisive. We were founded on the fear that excessive power, consolidated in one man, produces tyranny. Is that why decisiveness is so vaunted — because we need, in our pluralism, suggestions of an absolute power that one person must never have?

Context and experience and thoughtfulness
We began with the premise that American decisiveness is a diffuse notion, difficult to define and even harder to identify in a leader. But what if it doesn't exist at all? Perhaps, as with so much else in American life, style and substance have merged. What if, when we evaluate a potential leader, it's really the appearance of decisiveness that we prize?

Anyone who stops to think for a moment (if that's still possible) realizes that "decisiveness" doesn't exist on its own because the right decisions don't emerge from thin air. As management courses teach today, any daily diet of sound decisions comes from context and experience and thoughtfulness. Nuance, even. When we elect a president, we choose not only for the decisions that lie ahead but for the wisdom of the ones the leader already has made, perhaps long ago.

The American narrative of frontier and individualism and destiny would have us believe that "decisiveness" is a product of the moment; in fact, it's almost all cumulative. And in the end, our perpetual tension between liberty and tyranny, between control and chaos, is effectively a two-century discussion on the nature of decision-making in America — one that renews itself every four years when the time to choose a president is at hand.

But with an assertion that big, that sprawling, it's tough to be sure. Let us mull it over; we'll get back to you after we weigh the options.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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