A Bush Chief of Staff Offers Advice for Obama

What's the best way to play good cop? Get a really hard-core bad cop. That's precisely what Barack Obama did Thursday in his first move as president-elect, selecting notoriously pugnacious Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel to serve as his chief of staff. "No one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel," Obama said in announcing his pick.

That's one way of putting it. Emanuel, 48, has developed a reputation as a fierce taskmaster since his days as a Clinton White House operative, so much so that even his mother reportedly calls him "Rahmbo." He once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who rubbed him the wrong way, and he seems to delight in wagging his partially lopped-off middle finger at rivals (the result of a teenage meat-slicing mishap). "He's got this big old pair of brass balls, and you can just hear 'em clanking when he walks down the halls of Congress," Paul Begala told Rolling Stone back in 2005, after serving with Emanuel on Clinton's staff.

Given the challenges ahead, he'll need all the fortitude he can muster. But can he forge a consensus, as well as crack the whip? NEWSWEEK caught up with President Bush's first White House chief of staff, Andy Card—who might be characterized as Emanuel's temperamental opposite—to get his insights into the trials and tribulations of the job. Card took his share of lumps, but he lasted longer than all but one other White House chief of staff.

NEWSWEEK: Does the chief of staff need to have the thickest skin in Washington?
Andy Card: Yes. You have to have a steely resolve, thick skin, a velvet glove, a listening ear—and you have to be decisive. There will be scores of people clamoring for your attention on any given day; probably about 20 to 30 in the White House, another 20 to 30 members of Congress. And in terms of the media—well, they're insatiable, so I would take my direction from the press secretary. Probably about 10 percent of the cabinet on any given day is scratching at your door. Develop some priorities and delegate, because it's a grueling job, a 24/7 job. I think [current chief of staff] Josh Bolten does a better job at it than I did.

What's the single most important aspect of the job to get right?
Earn and keep the trust of the president. Those are two different statements. Don't talk about things you shouldn't be talking about, beyond what the president tells you. Remember that you're serving the president and the First Lady, not a constituency. You're not only there to help the president do his job, but you are also responsible for protecting the institution of the presidency—and sometimes, those will appear to be in conflict. Also, the White House is very good about paying attention to structure and organization, but I think the chief of staff also needs to pay attention to the psychology, emotions and needs of the president beyond policy. That could include contemplation time, time to call a friend or time to read a book. The chief of staff needs to be focused on the president's 24-hour experience, not just his time in the Oval Office.

Any tips for how to balance all the competing needs from different people within executive branch?
You have to have excellent peripheral vision, recognizing that a lot of other people in the White House will have tunnel vision. People who are experts on policy might come breathlessly into your office declaring that they're ready to get something done, but the truth is the decision may be disconnected from the reality of connecting with Congress, or the United Nations, or even the American people. Just because the policy wonks are ready doesn't mean the climate is receptive to the debate.

Did you have a favorite technique for turning down requests from people who just won't get the message?
No, I just tried to be polite, to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and to set priorities and keep to them. I imposed the same test on everyone: the test of needs versus wants. You have to make sure you address needs, but you can't address wants, because they'll crowd out the time for the needs. It's a tremendous management challenge. I used to manage by walking around and talking to people, rather than waiting for them to come to me. But you have to make decisions. If you are not decisive, the White House will not function very well.

What about when there are disagreements among top figures? That's a lot of ego for one person to manage.
Disagreements among staff members are actually the norm rather than the exception. Most people who work in the White House are type-A personalities, so even when they agree they don't want to admit it. Contrary to the myth, there is no monolithic thinking in the White House. It's more important to make sure the arguments are civil and respectful than to try to make them disappear. You actually want a healthy tension and contrarian views expressed.

What about dealing with us fine folks in the media? I believe it was James Baker who wrote in his book that he liked to be the anonymous source, because he felt he could better control the flow of information.
I took my direction on the press from the people who are paid to do that. I didn't try to manage the press, because I'm sure I would never be able to manage it well—and I'm sure that caused me some problems.

If you were to go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I probably would've left a year and a half earlier.