The contemporary presidency: communications operations in the White House of President George W. Bush: making news on his terms.

Author:Kumar, Martha Joynt
Position:Features
 
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White House operations reflect the president whom the staff serve. His strengths are theirs and his weaknesses are mirrored in the organization. "Whether it's communications, whether it's campaigning, whether it's domestic policy, no matter what it is," said former chief of staff James A. Baker III. "The staff is always going to reflect the president's strengths and weaknesses because everything is derivative from him. There is no power that is not derivative from him." (1)

To understand the communications operations in the George W. Bush administration, one has to begin with the president's management approach because his style is reflected throughout all White House operations. Reduced to their essence, the Bush management style consists of three points of concentration: (1) set the goals; (2) bring together the staff and provide them with clear direction on how they should accomplish the stated goals, including methods and philosophy; and (3) define limits within which individual staff members may operate.

In the communications area, the direction of the president's goals and results orientation can be summarized in the words of one of those assigned to carry out their plans. At the heart of their communications operation is a management precept that the president "makes news on his terms," an observation made by Jim Wilkinson, the director for planning in the Office of Communications. (2) Making news on the president's terms requires an organization focused on planning and getting ahead

of events. Good communications requires organization supporting the president's own communications abilities. "Communicating is communicating," said Mary Matalin in response to a question about the differences between communications in campaigning and governing. (3) "It has to be clear, it has to be repetitive, it has to be coherent, it can't be internally or intellectually inconsistent." In addition, "you have to have a receptive zone," she said. "You've got to make people want to hear what you're saying. It has to have relevance. So you have different tactics for different places." Hitting all of those zones requires a well-tuned organization. As a result, the president and senior advisers set in place a staff operation with the following core elements, all of which have proved important to his communications operations:

* a presidential management system with three central features: set the goals, establish how to get from point A to point B, and assign specific tasks and responsibilities to staff members;

* a compartmentalized White House operation where each communications unit and staff member has specific responsibilities;

* a three-tier communications operation focused on strategy, operations, and implementation;

* four and later two additional units carrying out tasks associated with publicity operations; and

* White House control over the appointment of departmental public affairs officers and regular coordination with those officers.

A final factor needs to be taken into account when assessing the Bush communications operation:

* Democrats provided little effective opposition to the president and his programs, which allowed the president and his administration to present their viewpoint most often without a united Democratic opposition voice.

Translating the management focus of goals, plans, and assigned staff responsibilities into an effective communications operation has involved creating an organizational structure with three levels of staff and a set of institutions that includes preexisting White House units as well as new offices and titles associated with those at the strategic level. In the combined area of communications offices, there are three levels of operations: strategy, operations, and implementation. It is a system with delineations of people and tasks accompanied by a well-recognized and accepted chain of command starting off with those who develop the plans, then the staff who translate the plans into events and appearances, and finally the people who carry them out. Four basic White House communications units whose functions have existed since the Nixon administration currently carry out core publicity responsibilities. They are the Press Office, the Office of Communications, the Office of Media Affairs, and Speechwriting. Additional offices, the Coalition Information Centers and the Office of Global Communications, were added on to the existing structure to handle the exigencies related to the war on terrorism.

The President's Management Style and the Communications Process

As the first president to come into office with a master's degree in business administration and with decades of experience in business management, George W. Bush employed management principles when he organized his administration. Two men who have known and worked with him in earlier days and throughout his political career are agreed on what constitutes the Bush management style. Both Clay Johnson, who came into the White House as personnel director and deputy to the chief of staff, and Karl Rove, senior adviser to the president, discuss the deliberate way he sets about making decisions and the information he is seeking to come to a determination of what course of action to take. The approach that served him well in his earlier years forms the basis of how he works as president. "This is a very goal-oriented group. It starts with the fact that the president when he was governor was very goal oriented," commented Johnson, who served as chief of staff for Governor Bush. (4) Rove fleshes out the core principles. "This whole management style," goes back to management analyst Peter Drucker, said Rove. (5) "Set the goal, bring everybody together, focus them on the goal, let people find how to get from point A to point B; be clear about methods; be clear about philosophy; be clear about the goal." The people who are to work with the goals operate under a set of boundaries and expectations. Rove defined the Bush approach to staff boundaries: "define limits within which people can operate but make them wide and expansive."

The type of information the president seeks is similar no matter what the issue. The people involved are not necessarily the same, but the method used to reach a decision is. Clay Johnson describes what information the president is interested in gathering before coming to a determination of his course of action.

In every case, though, it strikes me from one-on-one meetings with the president on presidential personnel or in the few general discussions I have been a part of on homeland security, for instance, again it starts like it did before when the subject was education. (6) The questions the president wants answered are similar whether it is a domestic or a war related issue.

What are we trying to accomplish here? And from a communications standpoint, a policy standpoint, flow of money, what are we trying to encourage or whether we trying to discourage here? What do we want to motivate people to do or what do we want to stop people from doing? And it really gets down to sort of real tangible things we want to have happen and then figure out legislatively what needs to happen and budget fairly and so forth there. In the communications area, it is no different. These principles of organization are just as important to the structure of the communications operation as they are to the functioning of the White House staff as a whole. Setting goals, discussing methods to get there and how to operationalize them, and assigning tasks to particular people occurs in the communications area just as it does in the other areas of White House staffing. Karen Hughes discussed what the president wants to know. "He'll want to know the plan. What's the plan? How are we rolling this out?" (7) On a day early in June 2002, Hughes spoke with the president that morning about the September 11 anniversary and how to handle it.

My recommendation to him was that I think, for him, less is more. Obviously he needs to mark the occasion. He needs to do so in an appropriate way but not in an overdone way because there's going to be a big frenzy out there. We talked about the fall. We talked about sort of the themes for the fall. Working on the goals and the themes is a feature of the regular session with the president. Mary Matalin spoke of the process of working with President Bush. "He throws out big projects, big goals, and then, you come back with pieces of it," she said. (8) "It's more meeting and talking, but tasks are given out, assignments are made."

In putting together his White House structure, the president had "an amazing talent to understand the wire diagram," Karl Rove commented about the president's understanding of what needs to be done in a White House and how it should be set up. (9) "He has a clarity about how he wants it structured and he has a pretty precise understanding of what he wants in particular slots." In putting together his White House staff, the president was concerned about the backgrounds people would bring to their positions, making certain to mix those with experience in a White House and in the Washington community with those who knew him and his campaign as well as its goals and pledges. (10) Said Rove,

I think he was looking constantly for a balance between skill sets that had Washington experience and skill sets that didn't. I think, for example, the president's decision to pick Andy Card was in large measure motivated by his saying I have a sense that I need somebody who has been there before. In my presidential personnel, in my senior adviser, in my counselor, in my general counsel, in my staff secretary, in my domestic policy, I have people who are coming with me. In my OMB [Office of Management and Budget] director, in my NEC [National Economic Council] director, in my legislative guy, I have people who have been there. Having a management approach does not mean the president and...

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