Everyone who is anyone in Washington is consumed this week with one question: “What can the White House do to fix this?” Because this is Washington, everyone who is anyone has an opinion.
I am anyone, so I have an opinion, too.
First of all, let’s recount the total amount of time I have spent in a senior staff position – or any staff position – in the White House during any Administration over the past 30 years:
That’s just to let you calibrate how much weight you should give my opinion.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is underway which allowed me, in an interview with CNN’s John Roberts, to use a sports metaphor.
I said that basketball coaches will often put a player in the game, sometime during the second half, simply because he hasn’t played much and, therefore, has “fresh legs.”
Putting him into the game doesn’t mean the coach doesn’t have confidence in his top six or seven guys; it simply means he wants someone in for a period of time who can change the tempo because he hasn’t been running up and down the court; starting and stopping; leaping and turning for the previous hour.
It also doesn’t mean his top players are – to use a word zapping its way back and forth between either end of Pennsylvania Avenue like a charmed quark in a particle accelerator – “exhausted.”
The players who started for Bush, and are still in the game are:
Andy Card – White House Chief of Staff;
Joe Hagin and Karl Rove – Deputy Chiefs of Staff; and
Dan Bartlett – Counselor to the President
They have been there since noon, January 20, 2001.
There have been turnovers in most of the other senior jobs – most telling was the departure of Karen Hughes who returned to Texas until her son went off to college. Hughes is back now but at the State Department and not in the minute-by-minute mix of the West Wing.
Anyone who has run an organization which is under constant pressure knows that the potential improvements which changes might produce, must be weighed against the turmoil which ensues just before, during, and for some time after those staff alterations are made.
Think of it like being in a small sail boat: People getting out, people getting in, and the people who are staying shifting around into new positions, all make the boat list and tip and become far less stable than it was before all those changes were made.
If, in the end, if the crew is stronger and the boat sails better, then the disruption will have probably been worth the price.
But you can’t know that until the decision has been made to change the crew and if the resulting distance-made-good isn’t greater than it would have been, it’s too late to go back to the original line-up.
The notion that the entire starting team at the White House is suffering from exhaustion is, like most things, overstated. But, there is clearly something wrong with the way things are going.
As a communicator, I believe the problem lies with the Administration having lost its ability to, in effect, get out on a fast break with the message it is trying to deliver.
As an example, the Fox News poll which was released yesterday afternoon asked this question:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: The United States and the world are safer today without Saddam Hussein in power?
Given what we hear hour-after-hour about the fact that the American people don’t think we should have gone to war in Iraq you might think that question would be largely negative.
Here’s the answer: By 74% to 24% Americans in the sample agreed with that statement. THREE QUARTERS!
Even 58% of Democrats agreed (along with 92% of Republicans and 67% of Independents).
So, one might ask, why hasn’t the White House shifted its message to reflect this sentiment?
Maybe some fresh legs would help.
On a the Secret Decoder Ring page today: A link to the official White House list of senior staff; a link to the Fox News poll; an explanation of a quark and distance-made-good; a baffling Mullfoto; and a Catchy Caption of the Day.