There's no way to predict how a prospective president will respond to crisis until that person actually takes office and deals with an emergency or a very tough decision, according to White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and three of his predecessors.
The four made their comments Monday night during a Smithsonian Institution-sponsored panel discussion about their experiences at the White House. All the chiefs of staff on the panel—including Ken Duberstein, who served Ronald Reagan, and Leon Panetta and Mack McLarty, who both worked for Bill Clinton—said the job of president is unique, and no amount of preparation or prior experience can truly prepare someone for it.
Bolten said a strong character and a willingness to make the tough calls are vital. He argued that President George W. Bush demonstrated those traits by overruling key advisers and ordering the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq—a policy that now appears to have greatly reduced the violence there.
Panetta said a president also needs "a great gut sense" to make correct decisions based on instinct and judgment, because sometimes the information available isn't adequate and the chief executive must simply do what feels is right.
McLarty said President Clinton showed both character and good instincts when he successfully won congressional approval for a controversial budget plan during his first term. Clinton believed the plan would be a boon to the economy and he gambled that he could get it through over Republican opposition. After a huge struggle, he narrowly won. Failure would have been devastating politically and would have harmed Clinton's ability to accomplish anything else of significance, McLarty noted.
Duberstein said it will be imperative for the next president, whether it's Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama, to reach out to the opposition and emphasize governing over politics. Duberstein said campaigning is the art of destroying an opponent while governing is the art of making love to an adversary. "We need much more of making love," Duberstein said.
Assessing the historic moments of the past eight years, Bolten said he was discussing that subject with Bush recently, and the president returned to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Bush wasn't referring to his now-famous speech at the National Cathedral or his dramatic visit to Ground Zero where he stood on a pile of debris with a bullhorn and rallied the first responders and the nation, Bolten said. Instead, Bush talked about an incident that October 30, when he threw out the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Bush remembered feeling the "electricity" in the massive, cheering crowd as he walked to the pitcher's mound, and he took it as a sign that Americans were united behind their commander in chief at a time of crisis—which greatly inspired him. Then Bush proceeded to throw "a strike" across the plate, Bolten said.
The four agreed that the next president will need to name his White House staff as soon as possible after the November election to insure a smooth transition to power.
The main goal should be to immediately appoint key West Wing advisers rather than Cabinet members, they noted. All agreed that the White House staff members are more important to getting a new president off to a good start because they work closest with him, have a wide purview, and can help him choose the proper Cabinet members later.
Among the key advisers whom the panelists agreed should be chosen in the first round of appointments are chief of staff, national security adviser, congressional liaison, communications director, and press secretary.
Bolten, noting that the nation is still at war, pledged to make a special effort to ensure a smooth transition for the new commander in chief's national-security team.