Leadership sometimes means saying, “No” to the President of the United States.
On Sept. 11, 2001, White House chief of staff Andy Card left Sarasota, Florida, with President George W. Bush following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Card conferred with the Secret Service and the pilot. The verdict was unanimous: Steer clear of Washington, D.C.
Card informed Bush, but the president insisted on returning to the nation's capital.
“Mr. President, I really don’t think you want to make that decision right now,” suggested Card.
The president said that, in fact, he was making that very decision.
Card repeated that Bush should not return to the White House.
Bush added that he was the commander in chief, and his decision was to return.
“He got very angry with me," Card recalled. "But we did not go to Washington, D.C."
Card's story was one of many about decision-making in the Oval Office, and he was joined Denis McDonough and Mack McLarty, chiefs of staff for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively, to share their experiences of presidential leadership and the demand that they themselves, at times, lead the most powerful person in the world.
Leadership, they said, is more nuanced than simply making quick and/or difficult decisions; leaders must inspire a diverse group of other people to follow. McDonough observed that presidents must not only lead the people who elected them but also those who did not.
It’s a balancing act, McLarty noted. “You want someone who is decisive, . . . but it’s important to have the ability to pause, give consideration to issues, and, frankly, to change your mind.”
One aspect of presidential leadership is that of ceremonial leader, noted moderator Ann Compton, a member of the Miller Center's Governing Council who covered the White House over four decades for ABC News. Presidents console the country in times of tragedy, such as 9/11 and the Fort Hood or Newtown shootings. The nation needs its leader to make sense of the senseless and set an attitude and a course of action in response.
After the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, “We went quickly to [firearm] background checks,” McDonough remembered, but the administration couldn’t muster the required 60 votes to move legislation through the Senate. McDonough delivered the bad news to the president. “That nags the president until this day. Being consoler-in-chief isn’t enough.”
Each presidency has its own context and a set of unique personalities, and transitions between administrations are always challenging. Clinton came into office after an upset victory with a healthy appetite for long and detailed policy discussions. “People had given two years of their lives to elect this candidate from a small southern state,” McLarty remembered. “You had to get President Clinton introduced to foreign leaders in the right manner. You had to move your agenda, the economy, but inevitably, foreign policy and security immediately come into play.” Clinton made it easy, McLarty said, because he took criticism and constructive advice easily—as long as it was done in private.
Key quotes from this session
The first aspect of leadership is having the courage to lead, to make decisions. . . and the ability to lead others to follow you . . . not just to manage process or people but to inspire others to say, ‘This is the right thing to do and I’m going to do it.’ —Andy Card
As president you have to lead people who didn’t select you to lead them. That’s a difficult part of the job. —Denis McDonough
This role of the president, of consoling the country at a moment of inexplicable violence, be that 9-11 or the attack at Fort Hood or at Newtown: There’s not only an expectation from the country that they’ll hear from the president but an expectation from the president that he needed to be heard. —Ann Compton
You’ve got to develop enough credibility and standing to say, ‘No, no can do,’ but you can only do that if the White House staff, and particularly the cabinet members, and the members of Congress, too . . . feel like you’re giving them an honest shake. —Mack McLarty
A big part . . . is enforcing a decision, or the time around the decision, over personalities. Sometimes the change is a personnel change. —Denis McDonough
I knew that President George W. Bush wanted to change his policy in Iraq. Things were not going particularly well. I counseled him: if you want to change the policy you should think about changing the personnel. People might not recognize the change in policy if you haven’t changed the personnel. —Andy Card
Rumsfeld ended up leaving; it helped because he had worn out his relationships on Capitol Hill. —Andy Card
What the president wanted more than anything on these big questions that needed to be wrestled to the ground was diversity of opinion. —Denis McDonough