As the president’s gatekeeper, the White House chief of staff controls the flow of people and paper that reaches the Oval Office, a responsibility that has led many to call the job the second most important in Washington. Joshua Bolten ’76 served as George W. Bush’s chief of staff from 2006 until 2009, following service as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Currently on campus teaching courses on the federal budget, trade disputes, and international financial regulation, he spoke with PAW about the state of the union.
Do present and former chiefs of staff ever trade war stories?
About a month before the inauguration I hosted a breakfast for my successor [Rahm Emmanuel] and invited all of my predecessors. Thirteen of the 16 living chiefs of staff showed up, and there was terrific camaraderie. I’m glad I held it in the chief of staff’s office, because some of them had served in that same office 20 or 30 years ago and there were some wonderful stories told. Dick Cheney, who was President Ford’s chief of staff, reminisced about how Alan Greenspan used to lie on the floor, because of a bad back, when they would meet.
How does the chief of staff give the president space to think broadly about what he wants to do, as opposed to being consumed by dealing with the crisis of the day?
That may be the most important thing the chief of staff does. You have to take care of the inbox, but you need to preserve a significant part of the president’s time and energy for the initiatives he thinks are important. I took my own role to be, first, to filter matters that required the president’s attention from those that didn’t. If an issue did not require a presidential decision, my job was to promote agreement among the relevant Cabinet officers about how to deal with it. If it required the president’s attention, I tried to ensure that he heard all the competing arguments so he was confronted with the real choices and then could do what presidents are supposed to do, which is make the big decisions.
Are there things about former President Bush that people have misunderstood?
One is that he is extremely bright and curious. Another is that he was very keen to hear disagreeing points of view. He would rarely make a decision until all the key players had had their say. Something that I think is correctly captured in that popular caricature is that President Bush was a decisive decision-maker. Once he made a decision, he stuck to it and took responsibility for it.
Are you concerned about the rancorous tone in Washington?
Yes. It is poisoning our politics, causing people to lose faith in their government, and impeding agreement on issues where agreement is possible. I think President Bush would agree that one of our biggest disappointments was our collective inability to improve the tone of political discourse. But I feel strongly that he was not personally to blame for the deterioration in the tone. He could be tough and occasionally ideological, but he was always civil and courteous toward his adversaries, even though that was not always reciprocated.
What can be done to improve the tone?
We have gotten to a point where most congressional seats are safe for one party or the other. The result has been that the vast majority of members of Congress only have to worry about their extreme flanks, because if they make it through a primary challenge, their seats are safe. That gives them a tendency to feel that they need to appeal to the fringe elements in their party, which leads to more extremism than I think is reflected in the population at large.
What is your opinion of your successor?
Rahm and I had a good working relationship when he was in the House Democratic leadership. I always liked working with him because, even though he is not a gentle soul, he is a straight shooter and very smart. My experience was that it is usually better to have a smart adversary than a less-smart one, because the smart one understands his own positions well enough to know where there is enough confluence of interests to hit common ground.
How is the Obama administration doing so far?
I think they have tried to do too much and, as is often the case, they may have misjudged the meaning of their election victory. Sometimes, even if the public is enthusiastic about a candidate, it is not necessarily equally enthusiastic about all of the candidate’s agenda.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83