WASHINGTON – The next president will be more successful if he or she has a smaller White House staff, according to a history professor.
Phillip Zelikow, a history professor at the University of Virginia and former counselor at the State Department, said a smaller staff would increase the president’s influence on decisions. Zelikow spoke Thursday at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“A larger White House staff does not increase the power of the president. It increases the power of the White House staff,” Zelikow said.
Zelikow and six other experts, Republicans and Democrats, engaged in a discussion based on the success and failures of former presidents. They offered strategic suggestions for the next president.
Jane Harman, a former member of Congress and president of the Wilson Center, disagreed with Zelikow.
“Reducing the White House staff will not increase the power of the president,” Harman said. “Planning and having the right team is important, but you have to have a personal compass. You have to have a set of beliefs.”
Harman agreed with Zelikow that the next president should build policy partnerships with Congress, even before the inauguration.
“Any president will do better with Congress as a partner,” Harman said. “I can list lots of presidents who’ve squandered the opportunity — this one hasn’t done very well and there are others as well,” Harman said speaking about President Barack Obama.
Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, said the next president will have to prepare for office by learning from the experiences of his or her predecessors and making sure his or her team shares the same visions and priorities.
“No matter how determined the next president is to focus on the domestic agenda and the compelling economic issues that were likely central to his or her electoral success, national security challenges and crises will inevitably demand no small amount of the new administration’s bandwidth, time and energy,” Flournoy said.
The Republicans reminisced about former presidents’ successes and failures.
Hal Brands, an associate professor at Duke University, focused on how President Ronald Reagan’s plan to win the Cold War failed because he did not have the right team.
“Reagan spent a great deal of time on the Cold War. The Soviet Union wasn’t as strong as it looked,” Brands said. “Reagan had much insight for the Cold War before he became president.”
Brands said the next president must select strong advisers who are compatible with the president’s management style.
Marc Selverstone, chair of the presidential recordings program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, focused on President John F. Kennedy’s days as president.
“There was no denying that his first year had been filled with foreign policy missteps — the most notable being the failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs,” Selverstone said.
Selverstone said Kennedy’s failure with the Cuban misadventure went further during his time in office.
“The choices Kennedy made during this period on personnel, process and priorities also conditioned his approach to Cuba and shaped the contours of his national security policy-making more broadly,” he said.
Selverstone said Kennedy’s failures stemmed not only from poor advice and bad judgment but also from deficiencies in his national security policy-making. Selverstone said it was not carefully examined.
Despite their differing political views, everyone made similar key points about what the next president should do to be successful in national security and as commander in chief.
“You’ve got to be ready for the unexpected,” Zelikow said. “They will have to create a mental readiness for the unexpected.”
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