Ensuring presidential accuracy & honesty

Ensuring presidential accuracy & honesty

Three recent articles and columns prompted me to write about President Obama’s oft-repeated false promise, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.”

One was my former White House colleague Marc Thiessen’s column, “A Dishonest Presidency.” The second was Ron Fournier’s column: “Lying About Lies: Why Credibility Matters to Obama.” The third was this Wall Street Journal article last Saturday.

In that third article this sentence grabbed my attention:

One former senior administration official said that as the law was being crafted by the White House and lawmakers, some White House policy advisers objected to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s “keep your plan” promise. They were overruled by political aides, the former official said.

Overruled by political aides? On a question of accuracy and honesty?!?

I won’t belabor the substance of the “keep your plan” promise. It is unequivocally and incontrovertibly inaccurate. Glenn Kessler does a good job of walking through it. I instead want to focus on the process point from the WSJ story and compare it to my experience.

In more than six years on the staff of President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, I had the type of conversation described in the WSJ article hundreds of times. As a policy aide one of my core responsibilities was to make sure the President’s policy was accurately communicated and that we could back up every word in the President’s prepared remarks. This was mission critical for us policy aides–I knew that if President Bush said something incorrect on which I had signed off, I was at serious risk of being fired, even if it was just an honest mistake.

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George W. Bush is smarter than you

The new George W. Bush Presidential Center is being dedicated this week. This seems like a good time to bust a longstanding myth about our former President, my former boss.

I teach a class at Stanford Business School titled “Financial Crises in the U.S. and Europe.” During one class session while explaining the events of September 2008, I kept referring to the efforts of the threesome of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, who were joined at the hip in dealing with firm-specific problems as they arose.

One of my students asked “How involved was President Bush with what was going on?” I smiled and responded, “What you really mean is, ‘Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,’ right?”

The class went dead silent. Everyone knew that this was the true meaning of the question. Kudos to that student for asking the hard question and for framing it so politely. I had stripped away that decorum and exposed the raw nerve.

I looked hard at the 60 MBA students and said “President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you.”

More silence.

I could tell they were waiting for me to break the tension, laugh, and admit I was joking.

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A past Suskind error

A past Suskind error

I wish I didn’t have to write this post, but I feel obliged to do so.

Reporter Ron Suskind has a new and quite critical book about the Obama economic team and the Obama White House.  I am not linking to it because I am not recommending it.  While I often differ with the current team’s approach to economic policy, I do not take Mr. Suskind’s reporting seriously because of my own experience.

Mr. Suskind wrote another book about Presidential economic advisors during the Bush Administration, focusing on Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s perspective.  In that book Mr. Suskind describes a meeting of President Bush with his economic advisors in November of 2002.  This was the meeting at which the President’s advisors debated whether the President should propose a new tax cut bill in early 2003 (he did).  (President Bush also fired Secretary O’Neill in December 2002.)

Mr. Suskind gets some of the details right – the meeting was in the Roosevelt Room, he has the correct list of attendees, and he captures some of the substance and flavor of the debate.

He then includes a paragraph-long quote he claims I said to the President.  In that quote (in quotation marks), Mr. Suskind wrote that I argued in favor of doing the tax cut, and that I was therefore rebutting Secretary O’Neill and two other Cabinet-level advisors.

I did favor the tax cut, but the quote Mr. Suskind attributes to me is fabricated.  I didn’t say anything even remotely similar to what he quoted me as saying, and I didn’t make a recommendation in that meeting.  I know this with certainty because this was the first big Presidential meeting in which I had a significant speaking role, and I was, to say the least, nervous.

I was at the time a White House “deputy,” one big notch below the Cabinet officials and senior White House advisors who were debating what the President should do.  My role in that meeting was to be the honest broker staffer who walked the President through the numbers and policy options.  I was entirely focused on that task.

Had I weighed in on one side of the debate, I would have undermined my honest broker role and also undercut my boss, NEC Director Larry Lindsey.  It was my role to present the facts, numbers, and options as neutrally and accurately as possible, and Larry’s role to debate with Secretary O’Neill and others.  Having been in the job only three months, I was also nervous enough that I would not then have challenged a Cabinet Secretary in front of the President, much less several.

It’s a small point, and something that only I would notice.  Neither Mr. Suskind nor anyone else affiliated with the book had contacted me about the quote before publication, and indeed I never interacted with the author until I met him accidentally several years later.

Had the book purported to characterize my view, rather than actually quoting me, I might have shrugged it off.  But when you see a fabricated, unverified quote attributed to you in a book that claims to be a historical description of an important policy meeting with the President, it sticks with you.

Mr. Suskind’s earlier book about the Bush Administration was an inaccurate and unfair depiction of the President and the advisors for whom I worked, and of the White House in which I worked.  It was clearly fed by a disgruntled former Presidential advisor promoting himself and pushing his own agenda.

I will assume the same about his latest.  Amazon should move it to the Fiction category.

(photo credit: Enokson)

Should you be the next Larry Summers?

Should you be the next Larry Summers?

You can read this post here or at Fortune.com / CNN Money.

A close advisor to President Obama calls you. “Larry Summers will soon leave his job as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the White House National Economic Council,” this person says. “I’m calling to see if you have any interest in serving the President in that capacity. If you do, I’ll set up a meeting for you with the President.”

You are savvy enough to know that saying yes to the meeting means you’re committed to taking the job if offered. If you don’t want the job you need to say so before the offer is made.

You have heard frequently that Larry Summers has been the President’s top economic advisor, but you don’t really know anything about the job. Here are five things you should know about the job of White House NEC Director.

1. The President and his team need an economic policy coordinator. In that role you will be expected to be an honest broker.

Dr. Summers heads of one of three White House policy councils. Each council is comprised of Cabinet members and senior White House advisors. Every policy issue that comes to the attention of the President “belongs” to a policy council. Your counterparts will be General Jim Jones at the National Security Council and Melody Barnes at the Domestic Policy Council. Your primary day-to-day job will be to coordinate for the President the economic policy process for every issue in your domain. Within the Administration you will be the official source of the answer “What is the President’s policy on X?” where X is any economic policy issue.

You and your team of about 20 expert staff will identify questions that need a Presidential decision. You’ll get the President the information and advice he needs to make a decision, and you’ll make sure a decision gets made when it’s needed. You’ll communicate the President’s decision to the rest of the President’s team within the White House and the Cabinet, and you’ll coordinate the implementation of that decision to make sure the enormous and unwieldy Executive Branch does what The Boss wants.

You will chair hundreds of economic meetings and run the economic policy process. You will have the pen on the memos and slides the President sees. You will chair/moderate meetings the President has with his economic team. You will be leading a team of 10-20 powerful and strong-willed Presidential advisors, each of whom is convinced that he or she knows what the President should do on this issue. Some of them will have independent channels in to the President. If these advisors think you are using your process control to shut out their views, they can and will undermine your process. That’s bad for the President and makes your job much more difficult.

The way to address this is to build the trust of the President’s advisors that you can and will be an honest broker. This means letting a Cabinet Secretary directly advise the President even when you strongly disagree with his recommendation. You have an obligation to make sure the President gets accurate information, but a good honest broker places paramount importance on the President getting a wide range of advice from different perspectives.

This economic policy coordination role is an inside job. You will be the hub of economic policymaking within the Obama Administration, but you will often rely on others to interact with the outside world. Sure you’ll do some press from the White House lawn and you may even give an occasional big speech. At times you’ll negotiate with Congress, but you will not always be the President’s lead negotiator. You will have your hands more than full running dozens of meetings and conference calls each week. You will make sure the economic Cabinet members and White House staff are all pulling in the same direction, and get decisions from the President when his advisors are divided.

2. The President may also want a key/primary economic advisor.

As an honest broker you are not expected to be devoid of opinion. If the President wants you this close to him he will need to respect you and trust your advice. You will have physical and bureaucratic proximity to the President, and if you’re good at your job he will seek your advice on a wide range of issues. That Presidential respect and trust does not, however, automatically come with the NEC chair. Dr. Summers has it. You will have to earn it.

3. It’s not just stimulus, taxes, and financial reform.

The White House policy council heads have more policy breadth than almost anyone else in government. Your portfolio will include the macroeconomy, the stimulus and tax debates, trade and international investment, and the implementation of the new financial reform law. But you will also run meetings on farm policy and telecom issues, on GSE reform and infrastructure spending, on the underfunded defined benefit pension system and how to lower gas prices when they spike (good luck on that one). You can delegate some of these to your able deputies, but you will spend hundreds of hours wrestling with impossible choices on issues that are both important and low profile. You will be surprised at how many policy decisions get made by the President, and it will be your job to manage many of them.

4. White House staff jobs are not naturally high-public profile positions.

Dr. Summers has garnered far more public attention as NEC Chair than anyone since Bob Rubin, and far more than his counterparts General Jones and Ms. Barnes. The President may want you to be an important economic spokesperson for him, but he also has a press secretary and communications director, a visible Vice President, several economic Cabinet members, and a Council of Economic Advisers chairman who does a lot of press. You’ll do press from the White House lawn, but don’t assume you will be as visible as Dr. Summers has been. If you want to be on TV all the time, ask for a Cabinet job instead. If you want to testify before Congress do the same. White House policy council heads are not Senate-confirmed and don’t testify.

5. While Cabinet Secretaries are the princes of their domains, you’re just staff.

Every morning each Cabinet Secretary arrives at their fiefdom chauffeured in a government car. Each day they are the most important person in their building.

You will drive yourself to work and begin each day at the White House senior staff meeting in a room of two dozen colleagues who are your bureaucratic equals. You will know that you are all trumped by the President, sitting just ten yards away from you in “the Oval.” While you will chair hundreds of meetings and conference calls and coordinate the President’s economic team, the upward-facing component of your job will remind you every day that you are just staff. Your job will not be to run an agency, not to manage a staff of thousands, and not to jet around the world as a diplomat. Your job will be to help the President do his job on your issues. You need to be comfortable in a staff role, because if you take this job it will become your life.

One final thing. Tell your family you love them and will miss them greatly. You won’t see much of them for the next couple of years, and when you’re with them you’ll be on your Blackberry every three minutes.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Roles of the President's White House economic advisors (updated)

Roles of the President's White House economic advisors (updated)

(This is a minor update of a post I wrote six weeks ago when Dr. Christina Romer’s departure was announced. I have updated this version to reflect the recent announcement of Dr. Larry Summers’ departure at the end of this year.)

The President’s Budget Director Peter Orszag left the Administration in late July. Dr. Christina Romer, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, returned to California a few weeks ago. Now Dr. Larry Summers, Assistant to the President and Director of the National Economic Council, has announced that he will leave the Obama Administration near the end of this year.

This means that three of the four top economic slots in the Obama Administration will turn over by the end of 2010.

We know that Jack Lew is the President’s nominee to replace Dr. Orszag at OMB, and I hope the Senate soon confirms him. The President recently promoted CEA member Austan Goolsbee to Chairman. Of the core four only Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner remains.

I think I can add a little value by describing the different positions that make up the President’s economic team, and in particular by explaining the roles of the heads of the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. Dr. Summers will run the NEC for a few more months, while Dr. Romer was and Dr. Goolsbee now is the CEA Chair.

White House staff

Let’s begin with some formal organization that is broader than just the economic team. Within the Executive Branch there is a bureaucratic structure called the White House Office (WHO) and another called the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The White House Office is a subset of the EOP. Most of the names you know and the people you see on TV and in the press labeled as “White House staff” work in the White House Office:

  • Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his two Deputy Chiefs of Staff Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen;
  • Senior Advisors David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and Peter Rouse;
  • Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs;
  • White House counsel Bob Bauer;
  • head of Legislative Affairs, Phil Schiliro;
  • Staff Secretary Lisa Brown;
  • heads of the three White House policy councils:
    • National Security Council (Jim Jones);
    • National Economic Council (Larry Summers);
    • Domestic Policy Council (Melody Barnes);
  • and a handful of others.

Each of these senior White House staffers reports to the President, and each has a title in the form of Assistant to the President for X. Rahm Emanuel is Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff. Phil Schiliro is Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. Larry Summers is Assistant to the President and Director, National Economic Council.

Each Assistant to the President (AP) has a staff of 1-4 Deputies, up to about eight Specials, and also junior staff. The Deputies are formally Deputy Assistants to the President, and the Specials are Special Assistants to the President. Technically, each reports “to the President,” but each does so through their respective AP.

Each AP has an office in the West Wing of the White House where the Oval Office is located. Generally, proximity to the President correlates with power.

Now let’s move outside the bureaucratic structure of the White House Office. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) includes the White House Office. It also includes two large organizations, the Office of Management and Budget and the US Trade Representative, and several smaller ones, including the statutorily created Council of Economic Advisers, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The OMB Director and CEA Chair have offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with many other White House staff, and are informally considered “White House staff.” Importantly, these two attend the daily White House senior staff meetings, which thus makes them a part of the President’s core team just like the head of legislative affairs, the senior advisors, the communications director and press secretary, and the heads of the policy councils. If you want to get formal and technical, the OMB Director and CEA Chair are “EOP staff,” not “White House staff,” but in the real world there is no practical difference, and you should think of them as White House advisors to the President.

The USTR is across the street and has a little more distance from the President and the core team. Also, he or she is often jetting around the world, so the USTR often plays in his or her trade sandbox and is slightly removed from other, non-trade, issues.

The President’s economic team

The formal roles of the economic team members remain roughly constant from one Administration to the next, but the informal roles depend on the President, his management style, and the people on his team.

  • Director of the National Economic Council (NEC) – Now held by Dr. Larry Summers. The NEC Director’s job is to coordinate economic policy for the President.
  • Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy – This is now Mona Sutphen. The DCOS’ involvement in economic policy is, I think, very particular to any given White House. In the Bush 43 White House, the DCOS was heavily involved in all policy areas, including economic policy. This person is not only close attuned to the needs of the President and the Chief of Staff, but he or she has “visibility” into other policy areas as well and a better view of the macro policy picture than some members of the economic team. While the DCOS may be less of an economic specialist than most other members of the economic team, he or she is usually “wicked smart.” The DCOS and NEC Director are White House staff and therefore are not Senate-confirmed. Every other position listed below is subject to Senate confirmation.
  • Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) – Until about September 1, this was Dr. Christina Romer. It is now Dr. Austan Goolsbee. The CEA Chair is generally the chief economist in the White House and almost always comes from an academic background.
  • Director, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – Dr. Peter Orszag had this job until last July. Jack Lew is the President’s nominee to replace Dr. Orszag. A Member of the Cabinet, the OMB Director develops, implements, and manages the budget for the President. He or she also is the senior management officer within the executive branch, supervising the regulatory process and other management oversight. Imagine trying to manage implementation of a $2 trillion budget.
  • Secretary of the Treasury – Tim Geithner has this role. The Secretary of the Treasury is generally considered the President’s chief economic spokesman and often is considered the President’s senior economic advisor. The reality depends on the specific issues and the people involved. The Secretary of the Treasury is the primary face of the Administration on the economy and economic policy, and is usually a major power player within the Administration on economic policy, if not the principal player below the President. Formally his turf is narrower than most foreign finance ministers, who usually exercise OMB’s budget function as well. But his policy domain includes taxes and debt management, domestic and international finance, going after terrorist financing, and the U.S. dollar; he often plays a role in many other areas as well. The Secretary of the Treasury is usually particularly highly visible in international economic policy and interactions with financial markets and institutions.
  • Secretary of Commerce – This is now held by Gary Locke. Generally considered the next most important economic Cabinet position, Commerce is sometime thought of as the “industry and trade” slot. During the financial crisis, President Bush had Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson working on financial institutions and markets, and he had Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez as his lead negotiator on auto industry issues. That’s a traditional sectoral division of labor. Less well known is that Commerce also handles things like technology and telecommunications policy, meteorology (through NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), and the Census, along with a bunch of other stuff.
  • U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) – Now held by Ron Kirk. USTR is the President�s lead trade negotiator.
  • The Secretaries of Labor, Energy, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency each handle sectors of the economy with significant economic impact.

White House policy councils

The policy councils are organizational structures centered in the White House that the President uses to help him make policy decisions. The National Security Council was the original policy council, formed by President Truman in 1947. Presidents Johnson and Nixon had domestic policy staffs, which turned into the Office of Policy Development in the White House. President Clinton formalized the creation of a separate National Economic Council and a Domestic Policy Council, making three policy council staffs. President Bush (43) created a fourth, the Homeland Security Council, which has since been folded back into the National Security Council.

Each council is chaired by the President and consists of Cabinet members and, in some cases, White House staff. Everyone listed below on the economic team is a member of the National Economic Council, and there’s an NEC staff of maybe 20ish professionals headed by Larry Summers. While formally the term National Economic Council refers to the set of principals (Cabinet officials and Assistants to the President) who comprise the council, colloquially the term NEC usually refers to the head of the Council (Larry Summers) and his or her staff.

The policy councils divide up all of policy – every policy issue “belongs” to a policy council. Any disputes about which council owns an issue are resolved by the Chief of Staff. The respective policy council staff coordinate that policy issue for the President. The word coordinate is carefully chosen – it does not mean “run” or “decide” or “implement.”

I used to describe it to new NEC staff like this:

A big part of our job is to be the official and definitive source within the Administration for the answer to the question, “What is the President’s policy on X?” where X is anything have to do with economic policy. That can be simple, like “What is the President’s policy on extending the capital gains tax rate?” Or it can be far more complex, like “What is the President’s policy on Senator Grassley’s amendment to tighten the three-entity rule in calculating income limits on certain farm subsidy payments?”

Part of our job is to know and explain the answer to every one of those policy questions, but it’s not our job to decide the President’s policy. Our job is instead to:

  • figure out which policy questions need a Presidential decision;
  • get him the information he needs to make a decision, and make sure it is accurate, complete, useful, and well-presented;
  • make sure he has maximum flexibility and as wide a range of options as possible, and that he understands the merits of the various options;
  • make sure he gets recommendations from his advisors, especially when they disagree; and
  • make sure we get a decision from him in a timely fashion.

Once we get a decision, it is our job to work with the rest of the President’s team in the White House and the Cabinet to make sure that decision is faithfully implemented and accurately and convincingly communicated. Others take the lead on those tasks, while we help them understand the President’s policy so they can do their jobs well.

NEC, CEA, and the policy process

It’s easy to confuse the very different roles of the NEC and the CEA.

The NEC Director (Summers) runs the economic policy process. It’s a process management role. When an economic policy issue needs a Presidential decision, the Director of the NEC manages the process within the White House and the Executive Branch that ultimately results in a Presidential decision. Policy council staff run many meetings and conference calls.

The NEC Director generally has an advisor role and an honest broker role. The advisor role is the high visibility one that everyone thinks is fun: you get to tell the President what you think he should do on every economic policy decision he needs to make.

The honest broker role consumes much of the NEC Director’s time. Each week the NEC Director and his or her staff of about twenty run dozens of meetings and conference calls of senior Administration officials to discuss and debate policy questions, gather recommendations, and ultimately advise the President. In my view, the best NEC Directors were the ones who would not impose their own policy views on this decision-making process, but instead would let the 5-20 other senior advisors to the President slug it out. The NEC Director would make sure the debates were informed by accurate information, solid policy and legal analysis, and rigorous logic and strategy. If a Cabinet Secretary or a senior White House staffer thinks that the NEC Director is going to prevent the President from hearing his or her advice, or that the NEC Director has his thumb on the decision-making scale, then that Cabinet official or White House staffer will often seek a back channel to bypass the decision-making process and provide unfiltered ex parte input to the President. The President has to deal with so many issues and so many decisions that if this NEC-led process breaks down, the wheels eventually come off.

In addition to whatever personal skills and abilities he or she brings to the job, most of the NEC Director’s power comes from his or her proximity to the President (physically, bureaucratically, and sometimes personally), from the breadth of his turf, which covers all economic policy, and most importantly from the reality that he or she runs the meetings and controls the paper. If the NEC Chair is effective and perceived as fair by other members of the President’s economic team, he also gains power from other senior advisors who want to help the NEC policy process succeed, even when they sometimes disagree with the President’s decisions.

The CEA Chair (Goolsbee) is the leader of a team of three Members of the Council of Economic Advisers. One CEA chair described CEA’s role as an internal economics consulting shop within the White House. The CEA Members all have economics PhDs and always come from an academic background, as do most of their senior staff economists. The senior staff economists generally take a one year leave of absence from their academic positions at universities. Junior staff economists are often non-tenured young academics or newly-minted PhDs. Some of the staff economists are detailed from other government agencies.

The CEA chair and staff manage all the economic data statistics for the President and prepare memos for him which explain the data. They analyze the economics of policy options, help design those options, and help critique other options. They spend a lot of time explaining economics and educating the President, other members of the economic team, other Presidential advisors, and the public about the basic economic facts and logic that underlie every policy question.

Therefore NEC does economic policy and decision-making, and CEA does economics. They’re different. CEA staff apply economic theories and data to economic policy, while NEC staff operate at the intersection of economics, policy design, the law, communications, politics, strategy, and the practical aspects and constraints of legislating and managing a bureaucracy.

Simple example: Should the President support a $1 gas tax increase?

This is not just an economic issue. There are effects on energy policy, on environmental policy, on transportation policy, and on the budget. There are legal issues, tax policy and administration issues, and effects on State and local governments. There are political constraints, vote-counting limitations, and interest group pressures and counterpressures. There are communications and electoral effects. For this supposedly simple yes/no question, let’s look at everyone within the Executive Branch who has a legitimate claim to providing advice to the President.

  • NEC would host the meetings.
  • CEA would attend and explain the economics of a gas tax increase – what would happen to fuel consumption, how would supply and demand shift, what would be the effect on driving and on oil imports. CEA would often tap into other expert economists inside and outside government for this information and analysis.
  • Treasury would attend because it’s a tax issue. They would be the lead in expressing views on the tax policy, design, and administration issues, as well as on the broader economic effects.
  • OMB would attend and be happy that the deficit would be lower. In an R Administration, OMB would sometimes oppose this policy because of the tax increase. But then somebody (probably Transportation or EPA) would argue we should spend the money and OMB would push back hard. OMB would also explain how gas taxes interact with the Highway Trust Fund.
  • Commerce would attend because of the broad economic impact across a range of industries.
  • Transportation would attend because it involves, duh, transportation.
  • EPA would attend and be excited that emissions would be lower. They would also snipe with Transportation over who had jurisdiction.
  • Energy would attend because it’s an energy issue, even though the Department of Energy really doesn’t do fuel taxes or vehicles.
  • Interior might want in because they do oil and gas production.
  • Agriculture would want to be included because of the significant effects on farmers, both for their farm equipment and the cost of shipping their goods.
  • Since this is principally a domestic economic issue, you probably don’t need State or USTR there.

In the Bush Administration, we would also include the Chief of Staff or someone from his office, White House Counsel (always good to have a lawyer in the room), White House legislative affairs (to tell us where the votes were, which Member would scream loudest, whether we had a chance of enacting it, and if so, how best to do it); White House political affairs (usually to discuss expected support and opposition from outside interest, far more than the raw politics of the issue), White House Communications and the Press Secretary, and someone from the VP’s staff. For a gas tax increase we’d also include the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

If you have two from NEC (running the meeting) and the Chief’s office, and only one from each other shop (don’t forget the other senior White House Advisors listed above), that’s at least 18 people in the room. At least. Each has a legitimate claim to be there, and each has a view on whether the President should support a $1 gas tax increase.

I would guess that in the Obama White House they would also include Carol Browner, who has a new role as an Assistant to the President for Energy & Environment Issues (one of the new czars), as well as Valerie Jarrett, who among other things handles State and local issues for the President. If the Feds raise gas taxes, that makes it harder for the States to do the same.

On a straightforward question like a gas tax increase for which the substantive analysis is easy, there would probably be three meetings: one of mid-level White House and Agency staff chaired by the NEC Deputy or the NEC Special who handles energy issues, a principals meeting of Cabinet-level officials and senior White House advisors chaired by the NEC Director, and then a meeting with the President. I’d guess that maybe 200-300 man-hours (of very senior people) would precede a 45-minute decision meeting with the President.

Can it be a smaller meeting? Absolutely, and sometimes it is. You can always have fewer people involved, but at a minimum it’s important that the President understand all the dimensions of the decision. Of course, if you cut people out, especially from access to the President, it’s harder to get them to play as part of the President’s team.

NEC’s primary role (Summers) is to manage this circus for issues within his broad scope, keep it moving forward, and make sure the result of that process is useful to the President. CEA’s primary role (Romer) is to participate in that process as the lead economist.

I hope this explanation shows why CEA is almost always run by an academic PhD economist, and NEC is often run by someone without an academic economics background but instead with a policy or management background. Dr. Laura Tyson, Dr. Larry Lindsey, and Dr. Larry Summers are all PhD economists who ran the NEC. Bob Rubin, Gene Sperling, Steve Friedman, Al Hubbard and I were not PhDs or academic economists.

It can be particularly tricky when the head of NEC is a brilliant and well-regarded economist in his or her own right. Why should the President look to the CEA Chair for the formal economics, when he already has a brilliant economist as his NEC Director? Why does he even need the CEA Chair in the room? At the same time, are academic economic training and credentials the right skill set to manage a policy process, be an honest broker, and balance the economics with all the other factors that go into a Presidential decision?

I can see at least three obvious structural differences between the way the Obama economic team operates and the way we did during the Bush 43 tenure:

  • President Obama meets with a few of his principal economic advisors daily. Gut reaction: this is both a blessing and a curse. President Bush met with different configurations of his advisors as needed, rather than with the same group each morning. During normal times this averaged 2-3 meetings with the President per week. During the financial crisis it was almost every day, and sometimes more than once on a busy day.
  • The proliferation of White House czars means that economic policy processes and decision-making are more dispersed in the Obama White House. As best I can tell, NEC did not run the health policy process for President Obama in 2009-2010, nor the cap-and-trade policy process, as it did during the Bush era. You can decide whether that’s good or bad.
  • The current NEC Director has previously served as Treasury Secretary and is a leading academic economist in his own right and would be extremely well qualified to chair the CEA. This makes him at least a potential threat to both Secretary Geithner and the CEA Chair, and it means that everyone needs to work extra hard to make sure their roles are understood and that they can function together as a team.

I hope this contributes to a better understanding of both the roles the President’s White House economic advisors play and how the Presidential policymaking process works.

"I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you!"

"I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you!"

Nine years ago today President Bush visited Ground Zero in New York City. One lasting image is of the President, standing on a pile of rubble with his hand on the shoulder of a firefighter named Bob Beckwith, talking to the rescue workers with a bullhorn.

Over the weekend I realized I know most of the people who were with the President at that moment.

Eric Draper was the President’s chief White House photographer for all eight years. He led an incredible team of photographers who captured key moments in the Presidency. Eric is a phenomenal photographer, a good man, and I am proud to have worked with him.

I’d like to share Eric’s photo and comments from Eric and others who were on the scene when it was taken.

(Updated with an addition by Karl Rove)

You can click on the photo for a higher resolution version.

 From left to right:

  • (partial white shirt) unnamed NYPD;
  • (black helmet, in back) unnamed rescue worker;
  • (white helmet on head and in hands) Assistant NYFD Chief ?
  • (light blue helmet) Al Concordia, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Presidential Protection Division, US Secret Service;
  • President Bush;
  • retired firefighter Bob Beckwith;
  • (blue coat) Carl Truscott, Special Agent in Charge, Presidential Protection Division, US Secret Service; and
  • Governor George Pataki.

(I would greatly appreciate help in identifying those whose names I don’t know.)

I describe Administration officials below with the job titles they had at the time.

Eric Draper, White House Photographer:

I remember standing at the site which still smoldered from the terrorist attack three days earlier. President Bush had just finished touring Ground Zero and embracing and talking with hundreds of firefighters. As the White House Photographer, I focused on capturing the strong emotion there. I had to press my way through the crowd to stay with the President, who was being guided to a spot to speak. I was close enough to the President to touch his legs if I tried, so I had to use my widest camera lens. When he said, “I can hear you,” I knew it was going to be a powerful, historic moment. I watched my President lead the country through its shock and grief.

Eric reports that the photo was taken with a Nikon N90 camera, 17-35 zoom lens on Fujichrome 400 film. Shutter speed 500/2.8.

(My plug for Eric: Eric now runs his own photography business and I highly recommend him.)

Joe Hagin, Deputy Chief of Staff:

Most don’t realize it but he is actually standing on a crushed fire engine – the highest part of what was a huge fire pumper, reduced to about four or five feet high. The firefighter standing with him was actually a retired member of the department who grabbed his old helmet and headed to Ground Zero when he saw what had happened on TV.

Bob Beckwith, the firefighter standing with the President (in a Time magazine story five years ago):

I got home and I told my wife, ‘I’m going down,’ ” he said, referring to the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers.

At first, his family dissuaded him from going to Ground Zero, but after Beckwith discovered that one of his colleague’s sons was one of the hundreds of firefighters missing, he put on his old uniform, strapped on his helmet and went to join the rescue efforts.

Beckwith had to finagle his way into Ground Zero when he approached the heavily guarded perimeter.

“I said, ‘Come on, guys. You know I got to get in there.’ I showed them my identification card from the fire department and so a couple of guys let me through,” Beckwith said.

Once inside the perimeter, Beckwith got a firsthand look at the charred remains of the World Trade Center and immediately began working to find survivors.

“And the president came and he is shaking hands with all the ironworkers and all the cops and all the firemen that were down there … and I figure he’s going over to the microphones, but he makes a quick right, and he puts his arm up and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ “

After helping the president onto the truck, Beckwith begins to crawl down, but Bush stops him.

“He says, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Uh, I was told to get down.’ He said, ‘No, no, you stay right here.’ “

“Do you remember the TIME magazine where the president is holding up the flag? He wanted me to have that flag. I still have it,” Beckwith told CNN.

Logan Walters, personal aide to the President:

Driving to the event there was a real emotional tension, we all knew we were going to a place of epic tragedy in our Nation’s history but the reason for our visit was to provide strength and support to those who were there, and the Americans who would be watching on television. Not a lot of conversation, and because the event had little planning there was little to discuss on the way. We knew there would be unscripted moments that would be seen around the world. The wreckage on the site was terrible, there were several places where smoke was still rising from the ruins of the towers. Beams, wires, concrete and other skeletal remains were visible among the ash. Although many families and friends were still hopeful of finding loved ones, it was apparent upon seeing what was left of the towers that it would take no less than God’s hand to pull a survivor from what was left there. It was a heartbreaking sight. None of us at the White House had slept much since the attack, but we had showered and grabbed a meal or two and some rest. It seemed like no one at Ground Zero had stopped working since they were allowed into the site, and by talking to the people in charge we learned that was generally true. People were literally working to total exhaustion, multiple days without any real rest or food, and were still pushing themselves. No one wanted to give up. We talked to numerous emergency responders as the President walked the site. Most looked exhausted, had ash on their clothes and faces, and were emotionally drained. As the President talked to them, expressing gratitude, consoling some, and encouraging all, you could feel the strength and energy rising. He stepped up on the ruins of the fire engine, was handed the bullhorn, and began to speak. From the other side of Ground Zero, where a large number of the emergency responders had gathered, someone yelled “We can’t hear you!” The President’s response was from his heart, totally unscripted, and everyone felt he power of his words. The site literally erupted with cheers, it was incredible and energized and lifted those working at Ground Zero and those of us traveling with the President. In the end, all of us, I think the President included, left with a renewed energy and strength. Those men and women inspired all of us to work hard and do all that we could to support the President as he worked to protect our Nation. What we came to provide to them, they actually gave to us.

Karen Hughes, Counselor to the President:

I traveled to New York with President Bush on September 14, and will never forget the raw emotions, the incredible sadness, yet, in the end, the enduring inspiration of that day. Although I had seen the images on television, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when our motorcade turned the corner and we saw the still smoldering pile of twisted steel at Ground Zero — it was so horrifying that my hands instinctively covered my face. The rescue workers had been working non-stop for three days. They were exhausted, angry, full of emotion — and they wanted to hear from their President. We had not planned for him to speak, as earlier that day he had delivered a moving address at a national prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. But we realized that the rescue workers at Ground Zero needed to hear from their President, and our terrific advance staffer, Nina Bishop, went to find a bullhorn. She had the President climb up on a ruined fire truck so people could see him and he kept fire fighter Bob Beckwith up with him — the crowd was shouting they couldn’t hear him — and when he turned and said, “I hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear from all of us soon,” it summed up the determination of our nation. The President’s remarks were a response to the rescue workers — totally unscripted, perfect for the situation, and standing there, I knew immediately this was an historic moment. I turned to my friend, Joe Allbaugh, the director of FEMA who had been Governor Bush’s chief of staff in Texas, and said, “That’s the person we know, and that’s going to be in his presidential library someday.” It was a day of incredible emotion and sadness — there was literally a hole in the heart of Manhattan — yet in the end, it became a day of inspiration as our motorcade left the city and thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets shouting “Thank you” to the volunteers and “God Bless America!”

Greg Jenkins, advance team:

I was shepherding the pool that day, having arrived with a small team from DC the night before, and was standing next to Draper when he took the photo. Nina Bishop — another advance person — was the one who is responsible for the bullhorn. As the President was shaking hands with first responders it became increasingly clear that he had to say something. Thinking fast, Nina found a bullhorn and when the President stood atop the rubble she simply handed it up to him and he did the rest. Completely unplanned. Totally authentic moment. But the untold story is how the video came to be.

When people recall the television imagery of the President making those remarks atop the rubble, what they don’t know is how that happened. Twice.

The press pool consisted of some print reporters, some still photographers, and one television crew (correspondent, producer and cameraman). Since we were in the middle of Ground Zero, the television camera wasn’t connected to an uplink truck, therefore it was not live. What we didn’t know was that another network some blocks away had a camera on top of a building pointed at Ground Zero. From their vantage point, and as far as they could zoom in, all they could make out was a small cluster of people at Ground Zero (that was us). The producer in our press pool was on his cell phone giving live color commentary to all the networks who were in the pool. The networks also had access to the live shot from the other network from the building some blocks away. When the producer said that the President was about to make some remarks, he held up his phone to get the President’s voice. The networks put the voice of the President broadcast from a cell phone over the live video from the other network, and voila!

The closeup video that we recall of the President’s remarks atop the rubble was actually broadcast later in the day when the pool cameraman was able to feed his closeup video.

President George W. Bush at Ground Zero, September 14, 2001

Karl Rove, Senior Advisor to the President, from his book Courage and Consequence (reprinted with permission):

We tumbled out of the vehicles into an ocean of noise. The president’s arrival set the crowd off. Standing on rescue equipment and piles of debris, these huge and powerful ironworkers, steelworkers, and rescue personnel were screaming “U.S.A! U.S.A!” The president made his way around a horseshoe of chanting workers to shake hands and thank them. …

Bush was hearing and seeing the rescue workers up close. They were not shy about sharing their feelings. These men were working on adrenaline and passion and, after three days and increasingly less frequent good news about survivors, they were nearly spent. Pataki was right; the presidential visit was energizing for many of the people we met. …

I watched this from a short distance off. Behind me a few yards to the east were about twenty religious leaders, led by Cardinal Edward Egan. They too had joined in the chanting, many waving small American flags. Most were weeping. I could not glance at them for more than an instant: I felt I too would succumb if I looked too closely or too long at them.

There was a tug on my sleeve. It was Nina Bishop, a White House advance woman working the event. She pointed to the chanting workers and said, “They want to hear from their president.” No one had prepared remarks, but she was exactly right. …

… I asked her if there was a microphone available. She shook her head no. Could she get a bullhorn? She scurried of to grab one from some of the workers milling around. I looked for a place the president could speak from. The SUVs in the motorcade had wide running boards, but if he stood one one, he would still not be seen by all the people who had clambered up on piles of rubble and vehicles all around us.

Right next to me was a giant wrecked fire truck. The pumper had been smashed by falling debris. Its crumpled door read 76 ENGINE COMPANY. Its tires had blown out, and its body was crushed, but three men were standing on top o fit and the entire crowd could see the president if he joined them. I looked up at the workers, and as I did one jumped off the truck. I got the attention of the remaining two and asked them if it was safe. The younger of the two replied it was, while the older man, wearing a fireman’s hat from New York Fire Department Company 154, nodded in agreement. I was unconvinced, so I asked them to jump up and down. They looked quizzically at the strange guy in a suit and tie, and I repeated my request. They hesitatedly jumped up and down; the truck looked steady enough for Bush to clamber up. I told the two men, “Stay there — someone might need your help to get up.” Before going to look for Andy, I reached for a piece of paving block that had jiggled when the rescue workers jumped up and down. A policeman grabbed my wrist and stopped me, saying there might be a body part underneath. I felt sick.

I found Andy Card and shared Nina’s suggestion; he immediate agreed that it was a good idea and asked where the president could speak. I pointed at the battered fire truck. Andy made a beeline to the president. Nina had commandeered a bullhorn from a man who worked for Con Ed and met me at the fire truck with it. The bullhorn’s batteries weren’t that good, but it was all we had. Nina gave it to Logan Walters. As she turned away, I grabbed a small American flag sticking out of Nina’s courier bag and handed it up to the thin, older rescue worker who was now the last man standing on the truck. His companion had disappeared off the back of the pumper and out of history.

The president took the bullhorn and reached his hand up to the rescue worker, a retired sixty-nine-year-old New York firefighter named Bob Beckwith. Beckwith looked down into the scrum below him, saw the outstretched hand, grasped, and pulled. In an instant, Bush was sharing the top of the truck with Beckwith, who suddenly realized he’d helped up the president of the United States. Beckwith tried to crawl down but the president asked, “Where are you going?” Bob said he was getting down. Bush said, “No, no, you stay right here.”

The cheers and chanting subsided and the president started to speak into the bullhorn. With the National Cathedral prayer service still fresh on his mind, Bush began by saying, “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.” Someone yelled, “Go get ‘em, George!” Someone else yelled, “George, we can’t hear you!” and others echoed this complaint. Bush paused and then responded in a voice now fully magnified by the bullhorn, “I can hear you.” The crowd went nuts–and he knew what to do from there. “The rest of the world hears you,” he went on, “and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd broke into defiant, even bitter, chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Bush handed the bullhorn off and he climbed down.

In an iconic moment, George W. Bush was very much alone with an enormous responsibility. The nation wanted reassurance; it wanted to know it had a leader who understood the mission America now faced. No speechwriters, no aides, no advisors were involved in Bush’s response. It was an authentic moment that connected with the public in a strong, deep way. Without assistance and in an instant, George W. Bush gave voice to America’s desires.

Seeing President Bush hop up on that busted truck and stand shoulder to shoulder with a weary firefighter is a sight forever etched in my mind, and for many it remains one of the most inspiring scenes from the terrible events of 9/11. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley’s assessment of Bush’s visit to Ground Zero was prophetic: “We can’t judge him as President Bush anymore, but we’re soon to be judging him as commander in chief.”

I’d love to add to this post the recollections of any first responders on the scene when the President spoke, or any of those in the press pool mentioned by Greg.

Thanks once again to President George W. Bush for his leadership during this time of national tragedy and crisis.

And thank you to all those who worked so tirelessly at Ground Zero nine years ago.

Is Team Obama contingency planning for a Republican House?

Is Team Obama contingency planning for a Republican House?

Yesterday I endorsed the President’s nominee for OMB Director, Jack Lew. Far more importantly, I see that Budget Committee Ranking Minority Members Paul Ryan (House) and Judd Gregg (Senate) endorsed Mr. Lew. This tells me his eventual confirmation is a slam dunk.

In a follow-up email conversation a well-connected Republican friend stressed the intensity of internecine warfare among DC Democrats right now. To this insider, Democratic House and Senate Leaders appear to be at each other’s throats, largely over Leader Reid’s inability to pass bills that in the past have been routine (like extenders + UI), as well as a belief among some House Democrats that the White House uses them as “cannon fodder.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ comment this weekend that Republicans might take the House created a dustup with House Democrats that continues to swirl. I then read Dana Perino’s post about the Pelosi-Gibbs spat and what it may tell us about White House thinking. Key quote:

Democrats know they’ll lose seats in November – I think what surprised people is that their internal polling at the White House must be such that they really think they could be dealing with a Republican House majority for the next two years.

My friend and I surmised that this Democrat-on-Democrat violence results in large part from their fear of losing seats or even the majority, driven by the combination of a weak economy, huge budget deficits, and no apparently effective policy solution to either. In my experience it’s very hard to keep a partisan majority working together as a team when that majority is threatened — individuals are less willing to “take one for the team” and worry far more about what they need to do to keep their own seat.

Combining Republican support for Mr. Lew, with Democratic intraparty squabbling, with Dana’s hypothesis about the White House’s view about the fall elections leads me to a hypothesis.

Of the candidates publicly discussed for OMB, Mr. Lew is the one most likely to draw praise from Republicans, and the President’s team is smart enough to know that. There are plenty of reasons why Mr. Lew will make a good budget director, and I detailed them yesterday.

At the same time, I wonder if the President’s selection of Mr. Lew in part reflects a view among Team Obama that they may be dealing with a Republican House Majority next year. At a minimum it’s an added bonus and smart contingency planning on the part of the White House, albeit at the expense (once again) of their House Democratic allies.

Put it this way: as President if you somehow knew you would face a Republican House majority next year, you’d want a budget director who could work with them while ardently defending your policy views. Jack Lew would be that guy. Team Obama cannot possibly know this, but I wonder if Dana is right — maybe they think they could be dealing with a Republican House majority for the next two years, and maybe they’re starting to play for that possibility.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

Avoiding a Constitutional conflict

Avoiding a Constitutional conflict

While you were preparing for your big New Year’s Eve party, the President’s Executive Clerk was deftly avoiding a Constitutional conflict. The effect isn’t earth-shattering, but I think it’s a fascinating example of how our Constitution works in practice. Consider this a lesson in your graduate course of How a Bill Really Becomes a Law (or doesn’t, in this case).

On December 30th President Obama vetoed his first bill. Before the annual appropriations bill to fund the Department of Defense was enacted into law, Congress had passed a “Continuing Resolution” (CR) to provide funding for continued Pentagon operations. Once the Defense approps bill had become law, the CR was no longer needed. So the President prevented it from becoming law by vetoing it. To my knowledge there was no policy dispute about the need to do this – everyone agreed that the CR was superfluous.

But how the President vetoed it is interesting, if you care about the details of how the Constitution works in practice.

To understand the conflict and how it was avoided, you need to understand how a “normal” veto and a pocket veto work.

First you need to understand how a “normal” veto works, usually called a return veto:

  • The bill is passed by both Houses in identical form. This is the engrossed bill.
  • The engrossed bill is then enrolled: the House (or Senate) Clerk assembles the actual parchment copy, which is then signed by the Speaker of the House (Pelosi) and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (Byrd). For this example let’s assume the House Clerk.
  • The House clerk then sends the enrolled bill to the President. Someone from the House Clerk’s office gets in a car and drives the bill to the White House and gives it to the Executive Clerk who works for the President. The technical term is that the bill is presented to the President. (“Presented” is in Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution.)
  • The President decides to veto it.
  • He instructs his Executive Clerk to return the bill to the originating House of Congress (in this case, the House of Representatives) “with his objections.” In this case the Executive Clerk returns it to the House Clerk, with a Memorandum of Disapproval from the President.
  • The Congress can then try to override his veto (if they so choose). To do so they need 2/3 of the House and 2/3 of the Senate to override the veto.

The cool part of a return veto is that the President doesn’t ever have to see or touch the actual bill papers. There’s no veto stamp, and he doesn’t sign the memorandum of disapproval. He can do it all by phone. His Executive Clerk can handle the paperwork without the President’s signature.

This contrasts with the traditional process for signing a bill into law, for which the President must physically have the bill in front of him. This sometimes involves putting a staffer onto a plane to transport the bill to him (say, to Hawaii) before the 10-day deadline expires.

OK, let’s turn to a pocket veto. Here’s the relevant sentence, again from Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution:

If any bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the same shall be a law, in like manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their adjournment prevent its return, in which case it shall not be a law.

So the President doesn’t (normally) even have to sign a bill for it to become law, although he almost always does. The tricky part comes when Congress had adjourned. Let’s use the CR as our example:

  • The House passed the CR (House Joint Resolution 64) by voice vote on Wednesday, December 16th. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Saturday, December 19th.
  • On Saturday, December 19th, the House Clerk enrolled the CR and presented it to the President.
  • The House adjourned for the year on December 23, and the Senate on December 24th.
  • The 10-day clock expires on December 31st, since you don’t count Sundays. If the House is adjourned then to “prevent its return,” then the bill does not become law and we say the President has “pocket vetoed” the bill.

Now that we understand both a return veto and a pocket veto, let’s look at the Constitutional conflict. Please note that when I say “Congress” below, I am talking about the institutions of the Legislative Branch – the House and the Senate. Partisanship is in this case irrelevant. This conflict is about tension between the Legislative and Executive Branches of government, not between Republicans and Democrats.

Here’s the sentence again, which the relevant section in bold:

If any bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the same shall be a law, in like manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their adjournment prevent its return, in which case it shall not be a law.

Q: If the House of Representatives adjourns but leaves the House Clerk in town, does this “prevent the return” of a bill and mean the President cannot pocket veto it?

When the Constitution was young, there were long periods when Congress was not in session, so there was no one to receive a returned bill and convene Congress for a veto override vote. This was the birth of the pocket veto.

The Legislative Branch view is that the House of Representatives has appointed the Clerk of the House to act as its agent to receive Presidential messages. Since the House Clerk and Secretary of the Senate are always around, there is always a way for the President to return a bill with a resolution of disapproval, even if Congress has adjourned. Thus the Legislative Branch view is that a pocket veto is no longer possible. There’s an exception to this for when Congress adjourns sine die, meaning at the end of a Congress, which happens late in every even-numbered year. But the Legislative Branch view is that intrasession pocket vetoes are no longer possible, since the President can return a bill even when Congress has adjourned for several weeks (say, during August recess or at the end of an odd-numbered year).

The Executive Branch view is that even if the House of Representatives appoints its Clerk as its agent to receive an objected bill, the House Clerk is not the House, and the Constitution requires the bill to be returned to the House, not to an agent of the House. If the House has adjourned, then Congress has by their adjournment prevented the return of the bill, and the pocket veto is operable.

These different views create a risk that an intrasession Presidential pocket veto might be challenged by the Congress in court. Congress might argue in court that the CR (for example) became law after 10 days, even though the President did not sign it. That would be a silly policy outcome, but the Constitutional dispute can and should be separated from the policy question of what the bill would do.

The Executive Branch would rather not provoke this fight, so they use a belt-and-suspenders approach. The President pocket vetoes the bill and he return vetoes it. The President pocket vetoes the bill and does not sign it into law during the 10 days allowed him by the Constitution. He also returns it to the originating body of Congress (in this case the House) with a statement of his reasons for disapproving it “a return veto.” The President’s statement says that he is pocket vetoing it (the Executive Branch view), and he takes all the steps necessary to return veto it. The term of art is a pocket veto with protective return.

MEMORANDUM OF DISAPPROVAL

The enactment of H.R. 3326 (Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010, Public Law 111-118), which was signed into law on December 19, 2009, has rendered the enactment of H.J.Res. 64 (Continuing Appropriations, FY 2010) unnecessary. Accordingly, I am withholding my approval from the bill. (The Pocket Veto Case, 279 U.S. 655 (1929)).

To leave no doubt that the bill is being vetoed as unnecessary legislation, in addition to withholding my signature, I am also returning H.J.Res. 64 to the Clerk of the House of Representatives, along with this Memorandum of Disapproval.

BARACK OBAMA
THE WHITE HOUSE,
December 30, 2009.

The result: the Legislative and Executive Branches agree that the bill has been vetoed, but for different reasons. The Congress says the bill has been return vetoed. The Executive Branch says the bill has been pocket vetoed. Since both agree the bill has been vetoed, there’s no opportunity for a court challenge.

Conflict avoided.

Kudos to the President’s Executive Clerk Tim Saunders for his many years of service to six Presidents. Kudos to the New York Times’ Peter Baker, the only MSM reporter I can find who wrote about this. And thanks to Brent McIntosh, former White House Deputy Staff Secretary, for once again teaching me how the Constitution works in practice. Thanks also go to another former colleague for his help.

If you found this post interesting, here is a description of how vetoes work here when things get fouled up: A messy end to a bad farm bill.

Happy New Year.

(photo credit: Bill Walsh)

The Real West Wing Tour Guide

The Real West Wing Tour Guide

Here is a small Christmas gift for you: The Real West Wing Tour Guide (circa 2007).

While the general public can often get a White House East Wing tour through the office of their Member of Congress, West Wing tours can only be given by White House staff.

Through most of President Bush’s time in office, staff were allowed to give tours Tuesday through Friday evenings, and also on weekends.

One summer (I think it was 2003) my West Wing colleague Krista Ritacco and I thought it would be helpful and fun to create a written tour guide for staff. We could improve the quality and accuracy of information and generally help make tours better for both the visitors and the tour guides.

We recruited Krista’s intern, then-Duke University student Sarah Hawkins, to research and write the first version. We then produced simple decks of index cards which we distributed to friends and colleagues on the White House staff. They quickly became an underground hit and were frequently used on tours.

The project went through several iterations, the last quasi-public version of which was developed by Ashley Hickey.

Karen Evans came up with the idea of upgrading it from index cards to a more professional appearance. This is the version you see below, produced by Karen Evans, Tony Summerlin, and the Touchstone Consulting Group on a volunteer basis without using taxpayer dollars. We never distributed this version broadly, even to other White House staff. The contents are identical to the last “public” version, but this version looks even better.

I am distributing this under a Creative Commons License – you can distribute, share, and display this, but you must attribute it, you may not edit it, and you may not use it for commercial purposes.

I invite others to mirror the 10 MB PDF so my host isn’t overloaded. Please provide a link to this page if you do.

I expect that today’s West Wing is somewhat different, especially in the displayed artwork and decor. Nevertheless, I hope you find this interesting and enjoyable.

Merry Christmas. Please click on the cover below to see the Guide. If you get an error message, please update your version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. And thanks to those submitting errata in the comments.

Working in the West Wing: Doing a TV news interview on the North Lawn

Working in the West Wing:  Doing a TV news interview on the North Lawn

This is the second in a series of occasional posts about the nitty gritty of working in the West Wing of the White House. I am describing things as they were in the Bush Administration. YMMV in the Obama Administration. Again, it seems a bit silly to write about such trivial details, but given the positive feedback on the first post in this series, here goes.

I did my first TV interview at the beginning of 2008 shortly after being promoted. At first it was stressful, and it took me a while to get used to it. Now that I’m on the outside, I do an occasional interview on CNBC, Fox, or CNN. Today I’d like to describe the mechanics of doing a TV news interview from the North Lawn of the White House. Even though I had worked in the White House for more than five years before my first on-camera interview, I did not know any of this until I actually had to do it.

Today is Jobs Day: the first Friday of the month, when the Labor Department releases the monthly employment report. The employment report is generally the most important economic data point of the month, and the business news channels (CNBC, Bloomberg, and Fox Business) always cover it. They always ask for someone from the Administration to comment on the data and what it means for the economy and the policy agenda. I see the Vice President’s economic advisor, Jared Bernstein, is doing CNBC now. In 2008, CEA Chairman Dr. Ed Lazear and I typically did this duty.

The jobs report is released at 8:30 AM on Friday. As with all economic data releases, Administration officials are embargoed from talking about it publicly for one hour after the release. This gives the markets time to process the data without the Administration’s viewpoint.

For each show broadcasting at 9:30 AM, a network producer negotiates with a staffer in the White House press shop. For us it was Eryn Witcher, a top-notch professional with prior experience in TV news who now works as the communications director at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. Eryn would negotiate with the producers and set Ed and/or me up with interviews.

Ed and I would talk the night before about the upcoming data and what we might say about it on the air. We were among a handful of officials who got the data reports before they were released, so that we could advise the President. Ed and his staff also used that data to prepare the daily “economic data memos” that the President received each morning.

We would generally watch the CNBC commentary immediately after the data release (at 8:30 AM sharp) to see if we had missed anything, and to take a temperature check on the initial market reaction and expert analysis. We would generally be prepped by Ed’s chief of staff, Pierce Scranton, who had an uncanny ability to predict what questions we would be asked, and coached us on how to give a short effective answer. If he wasn’t fighting other fires, Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto would also sit in the prep session.

A little after 9 AM someone would do my makeup in my office. Around 9:15 Eryn and I (or Eryn and Ed) would walk out to the North Lawn. You need a good TV tie (no busy patterns), straight collar (I was often scolded for button down collars), and American flag pin. After a while I got my own earpiece that I would bring out with me, so I wouldn’t have to use the common one that everyone else uses. It’s also nice to know you won’t lose the earpiece during the interview.

Each network has a TV camera set up in an area on the North Lawn next to the driveway from Pennsylvania Avenue to the West Wing entrance. The networks semi-permanently set up shop there in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the gravel-filled area became known as Pebble Beach. It was refurbished during the Bush Administration with slate and the cameras and tripods are covered with heavy green canvas when they’re not being used. It is now referred to as Stonehenge, to which it bears a vague resemblance.

The cameras are in a long line next to each other. Each is set up so that the person on air has the north entrance to the White House residence in the background. Because of the different camera positions, each has a slightly different angle on the White House. On the night of a big Presidential speech from the White House, try quickly switching channels and you can see the different angles.

Here’s a diagram for CNBC (roughly). As always, you can click on the picture for a larger view.

north_lawn_stonehenge

The West Wing is the square building in the lower-left (southwest) corner. The residence is in the lower-right corner, and that’s Pennsylvania Avenue up top.

The blue box surrounds Stonehenge with all the TV cameras. When you’re on CNBC you stand at the red dot, facing the camera at the orange dot. The yellow line shows the camera angle, extended to capture the north entrance to the Residence in the background.

If you look closely, to the right (east) of the blue box you can see the driveway that heads south from the Northwest Appointment Gate to the West Wing entrance. Visitors with appointments in the West Wing walk up this driveway, and you can occasionally see them passing behind someone being interviewed on TV (especially on the evening news broadcasts). If they’re walking from left to right on your screen, they’re arriving at the West Wing. Right to left, they’re leaving.

About 9:15 AM Eryn and I would walk out to Stonehenge. We would greet the cameraman and a producer, and I’d get miked up. All the producers I met were friendly and professional, and the cameraman are universally great. I would stand at the red dot facing the camera. My earpiece cord would clip to the back of my jacket collar. The cameraman would connect an audio cable to that cord, and there’s a small box at about waist high with a volume dial. He attaches a tiny microphone to my lapel and I’m all set.

The cameraman then adjusts the camera for the shot. I’m generally looking at myself on a monitor below the camera: tie is straight, flag pin is upright. (Left and right are reversed from what you’re used to in a mirror. That takes getting used to.)Around 9:25, I’ll hear audio of the show in my earpiece, and then a voice:

Voice 1: Mr. Hennessey, this is [Bob] at CNBC headquarters. Can you hear me?

Me: Yes I can, Bob.

Voice 1: And you can hear the program?

Me: Yes.

Voice 1: Great. Can you count to ten for me, please, so we can do an audio check?

Me: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,…

Voice 1: That’s perfect. Thank you.

After another minute, another voice, the producer for my segment of the show.

Voice 2: Mr. Hennessey, this is [Tom]. We’re going to a commercial break, and will be going to you in about 2 minutes. You’ll be interviewed by [Erin / Mark / Erin & Mark].

Me: Sounds great. Thank you.

During my first few interviews, the substance wasn’t that difficult for me. I had been prepping principals for interviews and writing talking points for more than 13 years, now I just had to do the talking. The hard parts were the nerves and the physical mechanics:

  • Look at the camera lens. Don’t let your eyes wander.
  • Smile.
  • Try not to “um” and “you know” too much.
  • Slow down.
  • Relax.

Also, TV moves very quickly. Long answers don’t work, so I had to train myself to make my point in one or two sentences, rather than four or five. (That’s difficult for me.) If you go on too long, you’ll start hearing the anchor trying to jump in and move things along. And before you know it, you’re done.

After the interview, you unmike, thank the cameraman and producer, and you’re done. If you have another interview, you move down the line and repeat. If not, head inside, take off the makeup, and get feedback from your colleagues and friends who email that they saw you on TV.

I only did a few in-studio interviews, and guest hosted CNBC’s Squawk Box once. I was blown away by the ability of the anchors to multitask, and how quickly they think and react. While one of them is talking on camera, another is checking market news or data on their screen, or scanning email. Their producers are talking to them in their earpieces, and they are talking on camera with each other and the guests. The coordination, reaction times, ability to adapt and improvise, and teamwork among the anchors and their producers are amazing. Beginning that day, and ever since I have developed tremendous respect for those business news anchors hosting live fast-moving discussions. I have enough trouble doing a single five minute segment, and they do it for 2-3 hours five days a week.

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