On Jan. 20, 2009, all of Washington will be out for the festivities surrounding that grandest of Washington celebrations, the presidential inauguration. But two former Bush economic advisers, Lawrence Lindsey and Marc Sumerlin, will not be among the throngs of people.
They’ll be breaking into the Oval Office. Not to steal anything, of course, or to remove any of the keys off the White House computers. They’ll be leaving a copy of their book, “What A President Should Know … but Most Learn Too Late,” on the Oval Office desk.
That, at least, is the plan described in the first chapter of the book, written as a kind of crash course on the presidency and due out Dec. 28.
Lindsey and Sumerlin served President Bush as assistant and deputy assistant to the president for economic policy, respectively; they are now in business together as The Lindsey Group, an economic advisory firm.
Lindsey and Sumerlin’s book shifts between two formats: memorandums to the new president (all dated Jan. 20, 2009) and narrative for the reader (“We thought a 200-plus page memo might be little long,” Sumerlin said). It covers everything from how to decide whether to go to war (“[O]ne word of purely personal advice about going to war: DON’T.”) to how to tackle “big issues” in a way that may actually leave the country a better place.
And while the book focuses on the president, Members of Congress might come away with some tips, too.
If he had to choose one particular chapter to give to the president, though, Sumerlin would go with Chapter 2: “The Corrupting Walls of the West Wing.” This doesn’t mean corrupting in the way that turns someone into a crook, but in the way that creates a kind of alternate reality that can make truly informed decision-making difficult.
“There’s a natural bubble around the West Wing,” Sumerlin said in an interview.
The West Wing originally was created because President Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, was sick of advisers hanging around the residence, the book recounts. Originally, the Oval Office was in the center of the West Wing, connected by doors to the other office to ensure easy access to the president.
But under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Oval Office was moved to limit access. The position of chief of staff was created to centralize the “gatekeeper” role.
Today, gaining access to the president is difficult in the extreme, and not all those who have the president’s ear are experts. Some might be policy experts, while others are “persuaders” who might argue “one side of a case vigorously while ignoring opposing facts,” the book states.
“Generally, to get a memo to the president, you need the signatures of 16 assistants to the president,” Sumerlin said. “When the important decisions are being made, most of the people in the room don’t have expertise; you have a lot of persuaders in the room.”
Sumerlin compared it to going into surgery, only to realize that the doctor has the head of hospital billing in the room.
Much of the book is informed by the authors’ service in the Bush White House — though Lindsey also served under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Based on their experience working with current President Bush during both his first and second terms, Lindsey and Sumerlin write that Bush — like most two-term presidents — has been the victim of the “eight-year cycle.”
This leads to a bit of advice that “is doubtless the least welcome but may be the most important,” Lindsey and Sumerlin write: Don’t stay too long. Retiring after a single term is often better for the party, they write, and better for the president when he’s judged by the history books.
Harry Truman, who was re-elected after a tight race in 1948, and Gerald Ford, who lost his bid for re-election to Jimmy Carter, are generally well-regarded by history despite having been unpopular during their time in office, Lindsey and Sumerlin note. In contrast, presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — both of whom comfortably won re-election — had their reputations tarnished by events in their second terms. In Nixon’s case, of course, the re-election campaign itself was the source of the problem.
In the end, Lindsey and Sumerlin write, presidents will be judged by history based on three questions: “1) Is the country at least as secure today as it was four years ago? 2) Were our essential liberties preserved? 3) Is the nation’s economy and social fabric at least as strong as when you took office?”
The book also has a message for Members of Congress who deal with the White House, Sumerlin said: Be patient, and realistic.
“Members are always saying, ‘Support my bill,” Sumerlin said. “Or they’ll call up and say, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’”
Members’ focus on re-election campaigns, Sumerlin noted, means that often only the most immediate issues can keep their attention. They need to understand that cooperating with the president’s long-term agenda — especially if the president is from their own party — is in their best interest if it can forestall crises later, he said.
“They really need to look down the road,” he said. “Take the housing crisis. We knew as early as 1998 that something like this might happen. But politicians don’t do anything until the crisis is here.”
And Members of Congress — or others — mulling presidential bids of their own need to understand what the presidency really entails, Sumerlin added.
“The book tries to convey how the presidency changes you, ages you, hardens the outer shell,” he said. “It’s not for the meek … hopefully it won’t scare people away, but rather make people think harder about what it’s like, and allow them to go in with eyes open.”
Correction: Dec. 11, 2007
The article misstated the length of Harry Truman’s tenure as president. He took office in 1945 upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt and was re-elected to a second term in 1948.