The Contemporary Presidency: Communications Operations in the White House of President George W. Bush: Making News on His Terms. (Features)

By Kumar, Martha Joynt | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: Communications Operations in the White House of President George W. Bush: Making News on His Terms. (Features)


Kumar, Martha Joynt, Presidential Studies Quarterly


White House operations reflect the president whom the staff serve. His strengths are theirs and his weaknesses are mirrored in the organization. "Whether it's communications, whether it's campaigning, whether it's domestic policy, no matter what it is," said former chief of staff James A. Baker III. "The staff is always going to reflect the president's strengths and weaknesses because everything is derivative from him. There is no power that is not derivative from him." (1)

To understand the communications operations in the George W. Bush administration, one has to begin with the president's management approach because his style is reflected throughout all White House operations. Reduced to their essence, the Bush management style consists of three points of concentration: (1) set the goals; (2) bring together the staff and provide them with clear direction on how they should accomplish the stated goals, including methods and philosophy; and (3) define limits within which individual staff members may operate.

In the communications area, the direction of the president's goals and results orientation can be summarized in the words of one of those assigned to carry out their plans. At the heart of their communications operation is a management precept that the president "makes news on his terms," an observation made by Jim Wilkinson, the director for planning in the Office of Communications. (2) Making news on the president's terms requires an organization focused on planning and getting ahead

of events. Good communications requires organization supporting the president's own communications abilities. "Communicating is communicating," said Mary Matalin in response to a question about the differences between communications in campaigning and governing. (3) "It has to be clear, it has to be repetitive, it has to be coherent, it can't be internally or intellectually inconsistent." In addition, "you have to have a receptive zone," she said. "You've got to make people want to hear what you're saying. It has to have relevance. So you have different tactics for different places." Hitting all of those zones requires a well-tuned organization. As a result, the president and senior advisers set in place a staff operation with the following core elements, all of which have proved important to his communications operations:

* a presidential management system with three central features: set the goals, establish how to get from point A to point B, and assign specific tasks and responsibilities to staff members;

* a compartmentalized White House operation where each communications unit and staff member has specific responsibilities;

* a three-tier communications operation focused on strategy, operations, and implementation;

* four and later two additional units carrying out tasks associated with publicity operations; and

* White House control over the appointment of departmental public affairs officers and regular coordination with those officers.

A final factor needs to be taken into account when assessing the Bush communications operation:

* Democrats provided little effective opposition to the president and his programs, which allowed the president and his administration to present their viewpoint most often without a united Democratic opposition voice.

Translating the management focus of goals, plans, and assigned staff responsibilities into an effective communications operation has involved creating an organizational structure with three levels of staff and a set of institutions that includes preexisting White House units as well as new offices and titles associated with those at the strategic level. In the combined area of communications offices, there are three levels of operations: strategy, operations, and implementation. It is a system with delineations of people and tasks accompanied by a well-recognized and accepted chain of command starting off with those who develop the plans, then the staff who translate the plans into events and appearances, and finally the people who carry them out. …

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