3 Pieces of Advice for Running the White House From Veteran Chiefs of Staff

The early days of any presidential administration are tumultuous. Still, with the failure of the Trump administration's health care repeal effort and the subsequent appointment of a new White House chief of staff, it is fair to say this administration has been more tumultuous than any in recent history.Yet while this administration's circumstances are unique, every administration faces a set of common challenges in its first months. As former chiefs of staff during the first year of new administrations (one of us to President Bill Clinton, the other to President George W. Bush), we have seen and confronted these challenges firsthand. And while every chief of staff must tackle problems in his or her own way, as Gen. John Kelly certainly will, we believe our experience reveals some steps any White House — and any newly minted chief of staff — should take to lay a solid foundation for the future.The first challenge for any new administration is deceptively difficult. The president's team must be carefully chosen and then integrated into a federal government that dwarfs any campaign in size and scope. It is not just the White House senior staff that must be selected with great care. Top officials throughout the Cabinet must have their nominations sent to the Senate for confirmation. Thousands of qualified political appointees must be slotted into positions throughout government in order to implement the vision of the president and his team. Along with its well-publicized staff changes at the highest levels, the current administration faces an unprecedented number of vacancies in key roles. The sooner these are filled, the more stable the administration, and the country, will be.While fully staffing an administration is necessary, however, it is hardly sufficient. A new presidential administration must establish a White House culture of shared purpose if it is to be successful. Some amount of internal politicking is unavoidable, of course, given the stakes and stresses of White House jobs. But if left unchecked, internal squabbles can consume a presidency. The solution for senior White House staff is not to ignore infighting, or worse, to participate in it.Rather than becoming preoccupied by internal challenges, administrations must learn to shift the focus to external ones. The presidents we served had different ideas about which policies would best serve the country at the time. (For Clinton, it was the Bosnian peace accords and a balanced budget; for Bush, it was tax relief and national security.) Both presidents picked a set of top priorities and stuck to it. These clearly defined goals helped lead to early policy victories on signature legislation. These victories, in turn, built credibility and set the stage for significant achievements later on.Of course, legislative setbacks are inevitable. The failure of the latest attempt at health care repeal is not the first time a White House has had to learn from its mistakes. But to move past early hurdles, the president's team must redouble its efforts to rally around a shared strategy that can improve Americans' lives, be successfully implemented, and earn at least some measure of broad popular support.This brings us to our main challenge facing administrations in the early years. The definition of "winning" changes dramatically once a candidate becomes a president. The goal of a campaign is shared, narrow and straightforward: earn more Electoral College votes than your opponents. The goals of a presidency, however, are broader, more numerous and more complex. The stakes, too, are higher; once you have moved from campaign headquarters to the West Wing, it is the country's future, not just a candidate's, that hangs in the balance.This is why, even as incoming administrations seek to keep their election-season promises, they must find ways to broaden their mission to meet the expanded set of goals they face. For Clinton and Bush, this was essential. Clinton was elected with just 43 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race. Bush came into office having lost the popular vote. In both cases, building a governing coalition required a genuine effort to find common ground among uncommon allies. Senior Clinton administration officials began meetings with Republican congressional leaders during the transition period; the Bush administration famously reached across the aisle to work with liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy on education reform.Adapting to this new definition of winning is challenging, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. There is no question that members of President Donald Trump's team will find it difficult to make the necessary shift in thinking and tone. But if they do so, they will find the rewards are considerable. A successful transition from campaigning to governing is part of the reason why Clinton ended his first year with a 58 percent approval rating, dramatically higher than his share of the popular vote, and why Bush moved past the controversy of the Florida recount to achieve a decisive re-election win.We recognize that the gulf between the two parties has only grown since we served in the White House, yet one thing has not changed. No matter the share of the vote he or she received, the commander in chief represents 100 percent of the country. Pursuit of common ground may not always bear fruit, but every president owes it to the American people to try.We do not suggest that following our advice will solve every problem the Trump administration faces. But we do believe that, whether you support or oppose the current administration's policies, our country is better off when presidents successfully pivot from running for office to holding it. When the executive branch functions smoothly, it creates the stability that business leaders need to invest in America, and that allies around the world need to trust our leadership. Just as important, if a genuine external crisis, such as an epidemic or terrorist attack, were to occur, every American has an interest in a federal government that is capable of responding effectively.Trump ran on a promise to score dramatic early victories while shaking things up in Washington. Now, not much more than halfway through his first year in office, he is finding that keeping either promise is far harder than it looks. But it is never too late to course-correct. The sooner he and his staff absorb the lessons all administrations must eventually learn, the more effective they will be.Mack McLarty was chief of staff to Bill Clinton. Website: maglobal.comAndrew Card was chief of staff to George W. Bush.  Continue reading...

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