All the President’s Staff

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Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a convincing, though understated, rebuttal of the presidential “experience” argument that, until recently, was the biggest issue of the campaign. Combing through records of those late-night crisis calls that Hillary Clinton’s “3 AM” ad seeks to highlight, the Post determined that such situations—while certainly not uncommon—rarely require the president to charge, fully dressed, into the Situation Room. The person on the other end of the line is usually a staffer who is already fully aware of the crisis. Therefore, say a number of former presidential advisers, the calls tend to be more of an FYI, after which the president can go back to sleep and deal with the issue in the morning. Kenneth M. Duberstein, Reagan’s last chief of staff, described his own rule of thumb:

I had a very simple formula: If it affected the life of a U.S. citizen, you woke the president. At 3 o’clock in the morning, unless there is a nuclear holocaust coming, there is not much the president has to decide. What you are doing is starting to put into gear the response of the U.S. government on behalf of the president, not necessarily by the president.

After nearly eight years of hearing constantly how we must act “quickly” and “decisively” against ever-encroaching threats, it makes sense that many people—and even the candidates themselves—might see the job of president as similar to that of an ER surgeon. The reality, of course, is that while a president must be aware of, and respond to, hundreds of different issues simultaneously, the decisions he or she makes are for the most part well-thought-out and methodically planned, with considerable outside input. In other words, while the president will certainly be asked to lead in a crisis, and to provide necessary direction, he or she usually doesn’t have to do it right that second—or alone.

I’d argue that a better question for the candidates than, “Are you experienced enough?” might be, “Who are your advisers, what are their qualifications, and can we trust them?” The more information we can get now about what the candidates’ cabinets might look like, the less likely we are to be surprised (or terrified) come January.

—Casey Miner


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