Key moments in a key year
When presidents first take office, they usually find that winning the election isn't the hard part
George H. W. Bush had Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall. Bill Clinton faced a World Trade Center explosion, a standoff in Waco, and Somalia. George W. Bush confronted the impact and aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Barack Obama entered office in the midst of a generational financial and economic crisis. For Donald Trump, the challenge of his first months came from his own radical confrontation with accepted political norms. It has now become axiomatic that each presidency, especially at its beginning, will be about dealing with the unexpected and overcoming the unforeseen.
As President Joe Biden embarks on his presidential journey, Miller Center senior fellows Mary Kate Cary, a veteran of the George H. W. Bush administration, and Chris Lu, who played key roles for President Obama, offer memories and lessons from their first year.
What was an early challenge the administration faced?
Cary: When the Democratic Senate rejected the nomination of Sen. John Tower for Secretary of Defense, he became the first Cabinet nominee rejected in nearly 30 years, and only the ninth in American history. In response, Bush successfully nominated Congressman Dick Cheney, changing his career forever. Both National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker backed Cheney’s nomination, which led to the three of them collaborating to a remarkable degree over the next four years, a huge factor in the foreign policy success of the administration.
What surprised you most in the first year of the new administration?
Lu: The unrelenting pace and intensity. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and frustrating. Every day felt like a week, and no matter what you thought your day was going to look like when it started, a new crisis inevitably came up. It wasn’t just the number of things on your plate; it was also the weightiness of the policy decisions. There were never any easy decisions.
Cary: I’m going with a funny hand-written sign that was posted over the phone in the White House Office of Media Relations that read: When a reporter calls, first ask them what they want and THEN say no.
What was the biggest domestic policy challenge the administration faced and how did it respond?
Cary: The Savings and Loan crisis really took off in early 1989 after the collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Because S&Ls typically deal in mortgage, auto, and other consumer loans, many Americans were financially affected by the collapse of these types of banks.
In response, President Bush introduced a bailout plan for troubled S&Ls through sale of $50 billion in government bonds and established the FDIC as the regulatory institution over S&Ls. By August, he’d signed legislation that was a compromise with Congress on additional aid and established the new Resolution Trust Company to oversee troubled banks.
The S&L crisis had the potential to wreak massive damage to the economy, but instead the Administration was able to move quickly and stop the hemorrhaging.
Lu: When President Obama took office in January 2009, the country was facing the biggest economic downtown since the Great Depression. To turn around the economy, we needed to stabilize the financial and housing sectors, provide relief to the auto industry, prevent layoffs in state and local governments, and create private sector jobs. A critical part of the economic recovery was the successful implementation of the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was overseen by Vice President Joe Biden.
What was the biggest mistake the new administration made?
Cary: Bush and Scowcroft declared a “strategic pause” while they reviewed all aspects of US foreign policy immediately after the inaugural. This also allowed the Soviets to look like they were driving the agenda, especially when James Baker and Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze met in Vienna in March of 1989.
This led to criticism in the media that the new administration lacked “vision,” and seemed to annoy both our allies and our adversaries. In Doro Bush’s book, My Father, My President, Mikhail Gorbachev tells the author, “I still believe that we would have been better off without it, for relations between our two countries were already on a firm foundation, which George Bush had helped to create.”
What is the most important advice you would give to the incoming Biden administration?
Lu: Tap into the expertise of career federal employees. Whatever the issue—whether it’s the pandemic, the economy, or climate change—there are dedicated public servants in the federal agencies who are eager to roll up their sleeves and help address these challenges. We also need to do more to encourage the best and brightest to consider government service.
Cary: Get back to your roots—don’t forget the days of Amtrak Joe and being the party of working Americans. Be aware that the more than 70 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump have good-faith concerns about the future of our country. Our elected leaders need to start addressing the real concerns of working Americans and their distrust of our political system.
I remember President Bush 41 occasionally used to answer the phone in the Oval Office with a smile, saying, “President of all the people. How can I help you?” President Biden would be smart to govern as president of all the people, not just the ones who got him elected.