Last Guys Standing

By John Podesta
Thursday, August 16, 2007

With Karl Rove's departure from the White House, the conventional wisdom says that it's all but over domestically and that the most the Bush administration can do now is manage the fallout from its failed Iraq adventure. It's as if the few remaining fans of the Bush administration are headed to the exits after the seventh-inning stretch.

As Bill Clinton's last White House chief of staff, I know reality can be far different. To be sure, we suffered through our share of "it's all over" stories, and we even found ways to laugh them off. Those of us who worked at the White House in the last years of the Clinton presidency knew something the media never seemed to get -- the American people elected Bill Clinton to do a job for them, and we were determined to help him do it.

That job was made easier by a president whose agenda was robust before, during and after the loss of Democratic control of Congress, the struggle with Ken Starr and the impeachment saga. Initiatives kept coming from the president himself, from the White House policy offices and from a Cabinet that was blessed with some of the longest-serving, most effective members in U.S. history.

So what lessons should the Bush White House take from our administration?

· Keep your agenda positive and robust. The Bush presidency seems bereft following losses on its big initiatives to privatize Social Security and reform immigration, and it is animated only when issuing veto threats against popular Democratic ideas such as the expansion of children's health insurance. That needs to change.

· Find common ground. In his final 18 months, Clinton convinced the Republican-led Congress to let people with disabilities maintain their Medicare or Medicaid coverage when they returned to work; passed a major initiative to repair our crumbling schools; eliminated the retirement earnings test for people older than the normal retirement age; modernized the laws regulating our banking system; enacted tax incentives for entrepreneurial investments in inner cities, poor rural communities and on Indian reservations; and more. The 2000 State of the Union address, our last, is replete with initiatives that became law. Consultation and a search for bipartisanship on national security, particularly on the Kosovo war, were also hallmarks of the Clinton presidency -- a lesson that the Bush administration has yet to learn (see: Iraq).

· Find ways to use appropriations to move the ball forward. We did -- funding a $1 billion after-school program for poor children, beginning a program to put 100,000 qualified teachers in classrooms and even leveraging $90 billion of international debt relief for the world's poorest countries.

· Use executive power wisely. In his final years in office, Clinton used executive power to protect more land in the Lower 48 than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. He also adopted the most far-reaching medical privacy rules in history, enacted the most stringent air pollution regulations ever and declassified more than 1 billion pages of important documents. The Bush team has already signaled that the president intends to exercise executive authority to accomplish his agenda. Given George W. Bush's track record on surveillance, military tribunals and torture, one can only hope his future uses of executive power will be carried out with more wisdom.

Did the edict from White House chief of staff Josh Bolten that anyone still working by Labor Day was expected to stay until the end really influence Rove's decision to leave? That's an edict I did not and would not issue, because I assumed that the people who gave 110 percent every day wanted to be there to make a difference, not because of obligation.

No, it wasn't all hard work. We had a good time -- whether it was taking your family up in a hot air balloon at a carnival on the South Lawn, or, in my case, cutting the ribbon at the restoration of Christopher Columbus's birthplace, which may not sound like much, unless your parents sailed from Genoa, Italy, in steerage, as mine did 100 years earlier.

Of course there were things we were not able to accomplish. In his 2000 State of the Union, Clinton pledged to keep the country on the path to pay off the entire national debt for the first time since 1835. The 2000 election interrupted that journey. And despite Clinton's best efforts at Camp David, we could not produce an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. But to steal a Clinton phrase, at least we got caught trying.

Karl Rove exited the White House saying that he had been a "witness to history." Like most Democrats, I fantasize that Rove is more likely headed to witness protection, but my advice to those left behind at the White House, serving the president and the country, is that there is plenty of history yet to be made.

The writer, president of the Center for American Progress, was White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001.

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