August 29, 2000

August 29, 2000 | News Releases on Political Thought

Former Officials Offer Next President Formula for Success

WASHINGTON, Aug. 19, 2000--When the next president takes office, he will assume control of the world's largest corporation, with a budget ($1.8 trillion) that dwarfs the combined revenue of the 25 largest Fortune 500 companies, a giant global workforce (2.5 million), an independent-minded and potentially hostile Board of Directors (Congress), and a wide-ranging and often under-performing line of products and services.

Yet, even under such circumstances, there's no reason he can't be extremely successful, say nearly three dozen former White House officials-representing every administration since John F. Kennedy's-in a new Heritage Foundation book.

Their message to the future president: Start planning your transition to the White House "yesterday." Hire wisely. Prioritize your agenda. Stay focused. Make every effort to work with Congress. Sell your program at every opportunity. Do these things well, and you will likely be successful; do them poorly and your presidency could falter.

Part of an ongoing series of "advice" books published by The Heritage Foundation every four years (with one exception) since 1980, the new book, "The Keys to a Successful Presidency," is based on roundtable discussions with some five dozen political scientists, presidential scholars, former administration officials, and veteran political journalists. It is the first in Heritage's "Mandate for Leadership" series to focus entirely on the organization, management and operation of the White House.

"This book is about success and failure, not policy or politics," writes editor and presidential scholar Alvin S. Felzenberg, a former Princeton University faculty member. "We hope the wisdom gleaned from the experience of those who have walked the Pennsylvania Avenue walk will help the next U.S. president avoid the kinds of unnecessary mistakes that have plagued past administrations."

The Transition

The Heritage Foundation book emphasizes the importance of the transition to a new presidency. "The decisions and public statements made during this period can have lasting effects on the new administration as presidents-elect give form and substance to their administrations," Felzenberg writes. "Although the transition is said to begin immediately after the election, it actually begins before the election and runs well into the first year of a presidency." The book notes that many successful presidents began planning for the transfer of power months before their election.

The book advises transition managers to focus intensely on personnel matters during this time, identifying men and women for Cabinet, sub-cabinet and key White House positions and getting them "cleared" for appointment even before deciding which positions they'll fill. Be practical, the book says: An individual qualified to serve in a top National Security Council position also could serve at the State Department, the Pentagon and several other agencies. Rather than trying to match potential appointees with particular jobs, transition managers should recruit a large talent pool for a variety of top positions, the book says.

The transition "is a complicated process involving a small army of people and months of advanced planning; the sooner this planning begins, the better," Felzenberg says. "Getting started early is not a sign of overconfidence; it's a sign of good management."

History shows that all Americans benefit when presidential transitions go smoothly, Felzenberg writes. "When a new president is able to articulate clearly his vision for America; when the White House and Congress establish a good working relationship, even if they disagree on legislative and policy details; when the right people are selected for the right administration jobs; and when the president's team understands his priorities and has a plan for doing 'first things first,' then every American will benefit."

Additional Advice

The transition activities discussed in the book are just one key to a successful presidency. The chief executive also can improve his chances of success, project participants agreed, by:

  • Appointing a White House chief of staff who imposes discipline, makes good use of the president's time, and supervises the orderly flow of people, paper and information in and out of the Oval Office;

  • Selecting cabinet members who understand that the president is the boss and who work from his agenda, rather than from their own or from those being pushed by various outside constituencies;

  • Devising a strategy for turning the campaign agenda into administration policy. One of the keys here, Felzenberg says, is "fusing the White House staff and key appointees into an effective fighting unit" capable of moving the agenda forward.

  • Selecting a National Security Advisor who can brief the president on the major foreign policy decisions to be made and outline any disagreements between cabinet members such as the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense.

  • Setting legislative priorities. "You simply can't do everything at once and do it well," Felzenberg says. "It seems like only common sense that the president's team will pursue the most important items on the president's agenda first, and then move on to less-important things. History shows, however, that too many presidents have tried to do too much too soon with predictable results."

  • Making clear to Congress who on the White House staff is empowered to negotiate on the president's behalf.

  • Using the civil service effectively. "Too many chief executives have paid little or no attention to the permanent government or have seen it as the enemy," Felzenberg says. "The really effective president does his level best to make the civil service feel it is his 'partner' in the bold experiment that lies ahead."

  • Crafting, delivering and repeating a consistent message as a means of building public support for the president's program. To be effective in this area, project participants agreed, those responsible for policy, speech writing, "press" and other communications activities must work as closely together as possible.

Phillip N. Truluck, The Heritage Foundation's executive vice president, said the new book was prompted by Heritage's belief that "all Americans, regardless of their party affiliation or political views, gain when the White House operates smoothly, when relations between the White House and Congress are at least civil, and when the Congress, the media and the American people clearly understand the president's vision and program." Similarly, he said, "all Americans lose when the presidency is in disarray."

Two additional "Mandate for Leadership" books will be published after the election, Truluck said. These volumes will deal with policy and budget priorities for the new government.

"The Keys to a Successful Presidency" is being released on the eve of the annual American Political Science Association convention here.

Project Participants

Among the dozens of presidential experts who participated in the Heritage Foundation seminars and roundtable discussions were two former White House chiefs of staff, three former counsels to the president, and five former White House personnel directors. (A complete list of participants is attached.)

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