Lessons from Government ServiceConversations with Bill Kristol: Larry Summers
KRISTOL: Any special tips you would have for people? I was at a much lower level position of having been a professor and suddenly being in government and having to do things and take responsibility for things. Any advice anyone gave you that was particularly useful? Any book you read that you would tell some 35-year-old Harvard or anywhere else professor who’s now going into the next administration to think about? Or just your own advice?
SUMMERS: I’d say some lessons I learned, Bill, are people – you should maintain a very strong presumption that people are acting reasonably by their lights. And that if it seems to you that somebody’s taking a position that’s completely stupid or unreasonably, it’s probably not because you’re smart and they’re stupid and you should just explain it to them.
It’s probably because given where they sit, given where they sit as part of the government of Japan or given where they sit as part of the Department of Commerce, or given as where they sit as part of General Electric, or given where they sit as a person with responsibility for getting reelected in six months, and that you will achieve your objectives much more effectively if you try to understand why other people are taking a position different than yours. Rather than just simply tell then they should take your position and take more arguments.
That was probably the most important lesson that was uncongenial to me. That in academics what you do is your persuade people with intellectual argument, and what I realized was people probably were taking positions that corresponded to their interest and you had to figure out how to make it work given their interest. That was probably the most important initial lesson learned.
Second lesson I learned was you really can’t do it yourself. All yourself and you have to do it with a lot of other people. I watched later in the process, Bob Rubin, his time as Secretary, and I realized that he more or less had a rule that he didn’t do anything that somebody else could do. He as a Secretary so there – I was Deputy Secretary – but there were some things. You know, advising the President, signing the dollar bill, appearing and representing the Department, delivering a major declaration on behalf of the Treasury Department, setting a policy that only the Secretary could do.
Whereas my instinct as an academic was you tried to publish as many articles as you could and to have as much influence as you could, his instinct as a leader was the to do the things that he was required to do and then try to empower other people to do all the other things. And he realized that he would have a much more effective department if it was seen as a department with a variety of highly capable people, each of whom were taking on a set of substantial responsibilities in a particular area.
The principle of empowering people was a second principle that I sort of learned through osmosis, through making mistakes, and, of course, a corollary of the principle of empowering people is surrounding yourself with as many good people as you possibly can and surrounding yourself with people who have different strengths than you do. And I was very lucky in those days, the young Tim Geithner was my Special Assistant when I first entered the Department, and of course, he ultimately rose to be the Secretary. A little later, the young Sheryl Sandberg was my Chief of Staff, and there were many other people who were extremely talented, and so the principle that you try to surround yourself with as much talent as you can was another principle that I sort of learned, and then you try to empower people as much as you can.
KRISTOL: The Treasury’s a high-class department, which already probably has considerably better than average senior civil service. Some of the other departments –
SUMMERS: Treasury had a terrific civil service, but we also brought in a set of very talented people, and you know, I also learned – and there are moments when I’ve done this with more success in my life and moments where I’ve done this with less – that you want to establish a culture where people are comfortable telling you that you’re all wrong.
That if you’re not comfortable, if people aren’t comfortable telling you you’re all wrong, then you’re going to make mistakes that you won’t make if you’re forced to confront people who are very critical of your judgments and so we tried – and this was something that Bob Rubin really led and I tried to continue during my time as Secretary, to have a culture where anybody was free to object to anything or question anything, to really keep at it for a long time if they felt strongly.
But that once a decision was made everybody tried to rally round that decision. And so, the whole set of questions around establishing the right culture of decision-making, that was something that during my time as a professor hadn’t really ever occurred to me. I thought – my time as a President, it was a complicated issue. Should we approve the loan at the World Bank, should we not approve the loan at the World Bank? How should we design the debt-management program? These are what the questions were, and when I realized that success in government was, did involve thinking well and carefully about questions like that, but at least as much it involved establishing organizational patterns and cultures and approaches that led to those decisions being made well and that good process would tend to produce good policy and bad process would be much more likely to produce bad policy. And those kinds of questions were not things I had ever thought much about during my time as an economics professor.
In the Obama Administration
SUMMERS: And then of course, President Obama and President Clinton had some things in common, but they also had respects in which they were very different. President Clinton was unlikely to begin a meeting on schedule, but he was even less likely to end it on schedule, so you were likely to get a little more than your allotted time. President Obama, meetings could begin early and so you needed to be in your office and ready to come downstairs in case he wanted to begin a meeting early. You had better be pretty sure that you were able to say what you had to say quickly because when your time was over, your time was over, and he was going to move on.
President Clinton was less than 100 percent certain to have read your memo. But if he hadn’t read it he would read it as you summarized it for him, and he would master it very quickly. President Obama was virtually certain to have read your memo and to have read it extremely thoughtfully.
President Obama brought a focused discipline. He didn’t want to talk about things that the President didn’t need to get involved in. If his economic advisor couldn’t figure out the difference between subordinated debt and preferred stock, he certainly didn’t think it was his job to help. President Clinton was prepared to try to do his job, but was also prepared to offer you a tremendous amount of advice on how to do your job.
President Obama was focused on how, whatever particular issue was being discussed, related to the rest of the issues in his Presidency and the rest of the factors that were present in any political situation. President Clinton was focused on those things, but was likely also focused on things he had read somewhere or conversations he had had at some point in the past. I remember his once telling the Secretary of the Transportation at substantial length about new developments in environmentally friendly concrete and how that needed to be considered. President Obama’s approach was a more sharply focused approach.
And I guess, Bill, what I learned from watching the two of them, they each had their own ways, as I’ve tried to give you a sense. But I learned two things about leadership from watching both of them that I certainly hadn’t appreciated as well before.
One, and I don’t think this is said often enough in discussions of leadership, is you have to do it in a way that’s true to your character. I don’t think President Clinton would have been very good in doing it in the more methodical, disciplined, and focused way that President Obama did it. And I don’t think President Obama would have been as successful if he had tried to be as loose and in many ways open as President Clinton was. You have to be successful as a leader, you have to do it in a way that’s true to your personality and character because things that go against the grain ultimately won’t work and ultimately they’ll be inauthentic, and a sense of genuine authenticity is enormously important to effectiveness as a leader.
Second thing I learned watching them – and something which probably the failure to appreciate it in earlier stage contributed to some of the mistakes that I made as President of Harvard – is that as an effective political leader, goodwill is like capital. You really do need to build it up because there will be times when you need to make decisions that aren’t popular and aren’t appreciated. But, as with capital, there’s really no ultimate point in building it up if you’re never prepared to spend it.
So President Clinton and President Obama would both sometimes do the expedient thing, but they wouldn’t do the expedient thing because they just wanted to be expedient, and they wouldn’t do the expedient thing just because they wanted to be elected, although they surely did. Or they wouldn’t do the expedient thing just because they wanted to have a higher poll rating, though they were not indifferent to their popularity.
They did it because they realized that they had to build up goodwill. In order to be able to do hard but necessary things. Hard but necessary things like bailing out Mexico, in President Clinton’s case, to take the area where he and I intersected. Doing things like supporting the rescue of the banks, which was necessary to maintain financial stability, in President Obama’s case. That idea that politics is not some grubby necessity, that interferes with the making of proper policy, but is actually necessary and integral to successful functioning in a democracy, was something that I learned from watching the two of them and the way in which they led.
KRISTOL: What’s it like day to day being at such a senior level of the White House staff and such a big crisis of ’09? I mean, I was at the White House as the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, which is a cut or two below being the top economic advisor to the President. There were crises obviously, the end of the Cold War and stuff, but I didn’t have direct responsibility for any of them really. I worked hard but it must have been just crazy.
SUMMERS: For the first few months, it was you got in as early as you could, and you left when you felt you needed to go to sleep – you left when you felt you needed to go to sleep, and there was never enough time to do all the things you wanted to do. It was a moment when I was modestly well served by some of the lessons I had learned during my time at Treasury. As about the importance of – importance of delegation.
You know, I tell this story of – there was a meeting that would take place on Saturdays for several hours in the Chief of Staff’s office to talk about the President’s schedule to which every part of the White House was expected to send a representative. There would occasionally be economic issues, but more frequently they would discuss questions that were important but to which I didn’t feel I had a great deal to contribute, like should the President do Jay Leno’s show or David Letterman’s show? Interesting to hear what they had to say but I didn’t feel I had a great deal to contribute.
And I realized at a certain point that if I sent my deputy to the meeting and I didn’t go, everybody would be happier. I would be happier because I’d have a little time to myself to think about economic issues, my deputy would be happier because he would be participating in an inner White House council, and the White House would be happier because when they wanted to do something that was a bit political I would be a kind of heavyweight of conscience questioning it, probably to some excess, and that my deputy would deliver the same positions a little bit less forcefully, and perhaps that was more appropriate.
In terms of navigating the situation, the experiences that I had had at an earlier stage working in the Treasury Department were helpful. I found, and this was probably especially, this is always a tension if you work in the White House, and might have been a little bit more of a tension in my personal situation, there are two functions in some sense you have.
One function is to be an honest broker and to help all the Cabinet members get their views to the President and to pursue their priorities and to represent them accurately and honestly. And the other role was to give the President the benefit of your own wisdom and judgment. And that was something that needed to always be balanced and because I had been Secretary of the Treasury and because my experience was as an economist, I probably had stronger opinions.
And so I would find myself in some tension from time to time with Cabinet agencies where they would want to get their views to the President as quickly as possible. I would say, “I am happy to move your views to the President right away; absolutely, I will never block your access to the President. I happen to think your views are wrong, and I will share that I think your views are wrong, or we can keep talking about it and see if we can find a common view.” That seemed, on the one hand, sort of reasonable to me for me to do. On the other hand, their point of view, they kind of wanted their views transmitted, not evaluated. That was not an entirely unreasonable view for them to have, and I think, for the most part, we worked it all through quite successfully.
But the job in the White House is less to run your own thing, and it is not entirely in a job like the one I had, which wasn’t just economic advisor but was Director of the National Economic Council, was to support processes that led to good decision-making.