Mitch Daniels, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has drawn the ire of members of Congress from both parties by criticizing the practice of earmarking pork-barrel projects for their home districts in the budgets of federal departments and agencies.
Because of his principled stands against the big spenders, Daniels has earned high marks from conservatives -- including a B-plus, one of the highest marks for administration officials, in a recent informal poll conducted by Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich among activists on the right. "Almost alone now, Daniels is standing in the doorway saying `no' to the Cabinet members on one hand and the members of Congress of both houses and both parties on the other," Weyrich wrote. "Many in the administration and Congress have taken the events of Sept. 11 as the green light to introduce every big-spending measure imaginable cloaked as emergency legislation, and it is Daniels who must play traffic cop by raising the stop sign."
Daniels came to Washington last year after a 14-year absence. In 1987 he left the Reagan administration, where he was political director, returning to his native Indianapolis to serve as president of the conservative Hudson Institute and as a senior vice president at Eli Lilly and Co.
INSIGHT sat down with Daniels at his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.
Insight: What has and hasn't changed about this town and the political culture since you last served in the White House?
Mitch Daniels: If you'd asked me a year ago, I would have given you the answer that the environment was more personal, more poisonous and more petty. But one year into this administration I think the president has succeeded in changing the tone of political Washington. He did this by example. That probably was aided by the events of 9/11 and the coming together that at least temporarily occurred afterward. I think we have an overall political climate that is reasonably healthy.
One thing very different about the earlier administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is the collegiality of this one. The Reagan administration was in corporate terms, one would say, very aligned. The goals were very clear, and everyone was enthusiastically supportive of them. But people fought like crazy about the best way to achieve them, sometimes airing their differences in public.
Frankly, I prefer this administration because it is very disciplined, very team-oriented. People are equally loyal to the president and his goals, but they just have a more collegial way of getting after those goals.
Insight: As a manager yourself, what strikes you about President Bush's management style?
MD: He has a superb executive temperament. He's very disciplined, very good at apportioning his own time. On those top-tier issues about which he needs to be deeply informed, he knows everything he needs to know to make certain that his agenda is advancing. On secondary issues, he makes certain that he knows a lot. And he knows a little about the things that are peripheral.
His style in meetings is typically to ask questions. Many times I've heard him ask an incisive question that no one in run-up meetings thought to ask. I've seen him listen to a room full of "yeses" and say "no." I've seen him listen to a room full of caveats and say, "We're going ahead." He's thoughtful, but he's decisive when the time comes to act. I've been lucky enough to work around some superb executives -- Reagan in his way and Dick Lugar, who was an outstanding mayor before he ever became a senator, a couple of the best in the business -- and I can tell you that President Bush has all the qualities of a superb executive.
Insight: You often hear the phrase, "The government should be run like a business." What do you think about that? …