Former White House Chiefs of Staff Encourage Students to Pursue Public Service

Speakers served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama

Former White House Chiefs of Staff Encourage Students to Pursue Public Service
From left, Joshua Bolten, professor Peter Feaver and Denis McDonough discuss the role of a White House chief of staff.

Two former White House chiefs of staff shared insights this week from their experiences and emphasized the need for young people to seek roles in public life.

“I hope that all of the students in the audience understand that Uncle Sam needs you, wants you,” said Denis McDonough, a chief of staff during the President George W. Bush administration. “These are really thorny but fascinating problems to get to work on.  I hope that you look for opportunities to go serve.”

McDonough and Joshua Bolten, who served as the White House chief of staff in President Barack Obama’s administration, also weighed in on news reports that President Trump might not leave office if he loses next year’s election.

Bolten reflected on President Bush’s decision not to challenge the outcome of the Florida recount during the 2000 election. 

“President Bush told us, ‘When the Supreme Court announces its outcome, we accept the judgment; we call upon the country to rally behind the newly elected president and we move on.’” 

Bolten said he knows the Al Gore campaign had reached the same decision in that presidential election. 

“That is a patriotism and a loyalty to the system that goes beyond individual aspiration or tribe or party,” Bolten said. “… One of the things that concerns me about the current political environment is that I’m not sure that that conversation would turn out that way in either political party today.”

In conversation with Peter Feaver, the director of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, both guests recognized that the role of chief of staff depends on the time and the style of the president.  Each beginning their tenure during a presidential second term, Bolten and McDonough entered the role already understanding how quickly four years pass when trying to achieve goals and fulfill promises.

“I viewed my role as making it possible for President Bush to be the best president that he could be. … I wanted him to look back on his presidency and know that he did his best to accomplish what he hoped to while in office,” Bolten said.

McDonough and Bolten agreed that managing the staffing process, policy process and time commitments of the president are key responsibilities of the role.

To facilitate decision-making, McDonough urged his team to recognize disagreement so they could explore all potential options and get to the real perspectives before presenting them in the Oval Office. 

“The big, hard decisions are reserved for the person that sits in the Oval Office,” McDonough said. “The role of the chief of staff is to peel away the other stuff – the personalities, the back-fighting, the opinions. The president should be able to make decisions based on their principles; that is why they were elected and this helped him do that.”

Both men viewed their role as “gatekeeper” to the president. 

“The chief of staff’s office is about 50 feet from the Oval Office,” McDonough said. “Not once during my tenure did I beat good news to the office, however, never once did bad news beat me to the office.  It is the chief of staff’s responsibility to bear that news.”

Bolten and McDonough commented on the potential for a transition between administrations following the 2020 presidential election.

“During campaigns, the opposition is loathed to look like they are measuring the drapes, while the incumbent is focused on re-election making it difficult to step back to recognize the possibility that a transition plan is needed,” McDonough said.

Since 2004 findings from the 9/11 Commission on the vast information-exchange gaps experienced by the newly elected Bush administration, periods of presidential transitions have not only been viewed as a moment of potential political dysfunction but also as a national security challenge.

Bolten and McDonough said there have been many improvements over the past decade to help the transition process run smoothly. This includes advanced security clearance screenings so joint national security briefings can be held and former chiefs of staff can prepare the new individual for their role.

Following the 2016 elections, concerns have moved beyond domestic, internal politics to the escalated threat of international interference in U.S. elections. 

McDonough called on the public to “be eyes wide open about the threat.”

He urged continued investment in local election systems and pressed for trust in the institutions that monitor the system.

Finally, McDonough encouraged members of both parties not to give “open space” for the Russians and others to insert their arguments into our conversation. “Find a place to get to know someone from the other party,” he said, “there are patriots on both sides.”