A Gut-Check Warning for the Next President

Former White House advisers say it is hard to predict how a new president will respond under pressure.

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The presidential campaign has entered its harshest phase, with both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama attacking each other as never before, partly over who would best handle adversity in the Oval Office. Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, recently caused a stir when he predicted that America's enemies would test Obama if he became president by precipitating an early foreign-policy crisis. Actually, that may happen to any new commander in chief in today's dangerous world. And the leadership challenges facing the next president won't be just on national security. They will also encompass domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare.

Unfortunately, no one really can know how a new commander in chief will respond in the hot seat, according to four White House chiefs of staff, whose work with presidents spans nearly three decades. All the "chiefs"—who spoke during a recent forum—said the job of president is unique, so that no amount of prior experience can truly prepare anyone for it, and there's no way to predict how a new commander in chief will react in an emergency.

Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's second chief of staff, said "you don't know until they walk into the Oval Office" what kind of leadership qualities presidents will demonstrate. Panetta added that at some point, a president has to "draw the line" on an important issue, and "every president has to decide where that bottom line is."

Tough calls. There are certain attributes that make for successful decision making. Josh Bolten, the current chief of staff, said a strong character and a willingness to make the tough calls are vital. He argued that President Bush demonstrated those traits by overruling key advisers, including some military commanders, and ordering the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Bolten called it "one of the more courageous decisions that a president had to make in modern times" and argued that it has had success. "He felt the bottom line was, it's so important to win," Bush's top aide said.

Any chief of staff becomes a close presidential confidant, with unique insight into the boss. Bolten, for example, once asked Bush to describe his "most moving moment" as president. He expected to hear about how Bush famously rallied firefighters and the nation with strong words and a bullhorn at ground zero three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or his speech at the National Cathedral the same day, or perhaps his subsequent congressional address on September 20.

Instead, Bush described his visit to Yankee Stadium Oct. 30, 2001, when he threw out the first ball at Game 3 of the World Series. For one thing, "he was impressed they were waving with all five fingers," Bolten said with a smile, noting that relatively few New Yorkers voted for him. But Bush remembered feeling "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 that time of crisis. Then, Bush reached back and threw a strike across the plate, Bolten recalled proudly.

Panetta argued that a president needs "a great gut sense" when he makes decisions, because sometimes the information available isn't adequate and the chief executive must simply do what he feels is right.

Mack McLarty, who was President Clinton's first chief of staff, said his boss showed both character and good instincts when he 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 Congress over GOP 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 said, adding that Clinton believed it was worth the risk.

Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's final chief of staff, said it will be imperative for the next president to reach out to the opposition. Duberstein said campaigning is the art of trying to "destroy your adversary" while governing is the art of "making love with your adversary." He noted, "We need much more of making love."