Former President George W. Bush recently gave a speech before a business group meeting in Houston, Texas. In the speech, he explained how he came to endorse bailouts for financial companies, auto companies, etc., toward the end of his term. He said that his personal inclination was to avoid bailouts – that if people or companies do imprudent things they need to suffer the consequences – including bankruptcy. He felt our system depended on that.
Yet he saw it as a matter of business management. His two primary financial advisors, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, secretary of Treasury, met with President Bush in the midst of the financial freeze-up and told him that he was on the verge of presiding over a new Great Depression. They said that the only hope of avoiding such a depression was to proceed with bailouts.
To the president, the issue was clear because his advisors were unanimous and credible: Bernanke, the Princeton professor, who had done his thesis on the causes of the Great Depression, and Paulson, the practical businessperson, former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs.
As President Bush, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, explained it in his speech, good management requires you to select advisors whose advice you trust – and, when that advice is unanimous, take that advice. After all, if you don’t, it means those people weren’t respected or trusted enough and had no business being your advisers to begin with.
So George W. Bush saw it as an easy call – on one hand, a new Great Depression; on the other hand, no new depression. As he said, the choice was clear and, despite his inclinations toward free enterprise, he explained, “I chose no depression.”
One can criticize President’s Bush’s application of management theory to politics. For one thing, his theory seems to equate “trusting” an advisor with “agreeing” with an advisor – yet it would also seem important to bring in a diversity of opinions among those one relies on for advice.
It also implies a very technocratic view of the president, a kind of tie-breaker-in-chief approach to issues without a rooted philosophy of government. A famous anecdote – perhaps apocryphal – about Abraham Lincoln suggests an alternative view of the way the presidency should operate:
When he brought in the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln polled his Cabinet. The Secretary of State stood and uttered his "Nay" unmistakably. The Secretary of the Interior followed suit. The Treasury Secretary and so forth: all against. Lincoln heard them each in turn. Then Lincoln raised his hand and said “Seven nay, one aye” ... "The ayes have it."
Ronald Reagan also seemed to operate with a more principled perspective. Ken Adelman, who was a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director during the Reagan administration, explained how President Reagan worked, in a piece written after Reagan’s passing:
I remember Ronald Reagan with nothing but fondness and admiration.
My first epiphany came early in his administration, when we gathered in a formal National Security Council meeting in the Cabinet Room. Secretary of State Alexander Haig opened by lamenting that the Law of the Sea Treaty was something we didn't like but had to accept, since it had emerged over the previous decade through a 150-nation negotiation.
Mr. Haig then proceeded to recite 13 or so options for modifying the treaty -- some with several sub-options.
Such detail, to put it mildly, was not the president's strong suit. He looked increasingly puzzled and finally interrupted. "Uh, Al," he asked quietly, "isn't this what the whole thing was all about?"
"Huh?" The secretary of state couldn't fathom what the president meant. None of us could. So Mr. Haig asked him.
Well, Mr. Reagan shrugged, wasn't not going along with something that is "really stupid" just because 150 nations had done so what the whole thing was all about -- our running, our winning, our governing? A stunned Mr. Haig folded up his briefing book and promised to find out how to stop the treaty altogether.
That set the tone for the first Reagan administration.