White House Chief of Staff Describes Role, Principles, Concerns

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card visited a packed Aldrich classroom on March 25th as part of the HBS Leadership & Values Initiative’s Distinguished Speaker Series. In his remarks and responses to audience questions, Secretary Card explained many of the key duties of his office, elaborated on principles that underlie his relationship with the President of the United States, and brought to light concerns and temptations he associates with the Chief of Staff position. In the process, Card provided insights and glimpses into President George W. Bush’s responsibilities and daily life.

The position of White House Chief of Staff is considered among the most powerful in Washington, yet its day-to-day specifics are not common knowledge. Drawing on his experience in serving Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and the current President, Secretary Card explained that the Chief’s role, in its broadest terms, encompasses three obligations.

(1) Care and feeding of the President: This must be the top responsibility of the Chief of Staff, and its core is the President’s “eating, sleeping and being merry.” The Chief therefore engages in, among other things, scheduling, planning for events inside and away from the White House, overseeing personal aides, butlers and groundskeepers, and coordinating with various White House offices. Secretary Card explained that there are an “infinite number of people who want to convey an infinite number of ideas to the President, but there are only twenty-four hours in a day.”

Therefore, Card must “pay attention to every minute of every day” and make sure the President has time for such basics as reflecting, calling the First Lady, eating, relaxing, reading a book – even going to the bathroom.

(2) Policy formulation: As someone with a front row seat at critical policy meetings, Secretary Card strives to provide “good, wise and candid counsel.” He stressed the importance of the President having “really smart” and competent advisors who share the President’s overall philosophy but who nonetheless hold diverse views and opinions. With such a team in place, the President is better able to consider an issue’s facets and arrive at optimum decisions. A critical aspect of the decision making process is timing, and Card pointed out that the Chief of Staff must see to it that decisions are made in the proper context and at the right moment.

(3) Marketing and selling: Once a policy choice has been made, it must be communicated adeptly to the American people, Congress, other governments and the various members of the Cabinet (to name a few).

Shaping how decisions are to be conveyed and actively explaining them to Congress and the public does not fall exclusively within the Chief’s purview, but he is an important participant on this front. According to Card, “I have to make sure that the communication of the decision comes in the right way at the right time at the right people.”

Shifting to the bedrock principles of his relationship with President Bush, Secretary Card spoke of truth and trust. He made it clear that in order such a relationship to function properly, each person must consistently engage the other with extreme candor and forthrightness. In addition, the President must trust Card to deliver to him, and interpret, relevant information at the appropriate time – such as in the midst of a visit to a Florida elementary school when Card whispered into the President’s ear that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that America was under attack.

The President must also trust that Secretary Card will exercise sound judgment, foresight and skill in discerning who ought to have access to him, and when. Given endless demand for the President’s precious time, Card explained that he applies a “need versus want” test to those seeking to speak or submit a memorandum to the President: no matter how great the desire for the chief executive’s attention, with Card as “gatekeeper,” no time with the President will be scheduled in the absence of a genuine and sufficient need.

Considering the status and caliber of people who can vie for the President’s attention, and given their areas or responsibility and influence, there can be little doubt that Secretary Card’s role is a delicate one, and that the job entails enormous responsibility to the President and (by extension) the country. For these reasons, and because the White House Chief of Staff serves at the pleasure of the President, Card’s “great fear” is that he will become the President’s friend.

Secretary Card argues that a Chief of Staff who becomes too close to the President he/she serves will, by virtue of that bond, make it more difficult for that President to express displeasure with the Chief’s performance. If poor performance is allowed to continue with no course correction or dismissal of the Chief, that President (and hence the American people) is undermined. Since it must be tempting for many to want to get close to the President, faithfully keeping the distance that Card advocates must not be easy.

A further pitfall that Secretary Card identified for Chiefs of Staff is “the temptation to be prime minister” – in this context, an official who ought not inhabit the American system, and someone rendered ineffective by an exaggerated sense of authority and ability. Card maintains that he is “just a staffer responsible for other staffers,” and implies that hubris poses a serious threat to effectiveness. Indeed, Card repeatedly called his service to three Presidents “not a job or career or occupation,” but a great “privilege” that compels him to work especially hard. In keeping with that general outlook, Card describes the White House, from the President on down, as a disciplined and dedicated place (one, incidentally, where foul language and inappropriate attire are not permitted).

By the end of the evening, the audience in Aldrich gained a rare and impressive inside view of the workings of the executive branch at its highest levels, from one who knows.

April 5, 2004
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